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Dealing with False Accusations in a Workplace Investigation

By June 21, 2024July 15th, 2024No Comments
an investigation in an article about employee investigations and false accusations

The growing public awareness of matters of harassment, abuse, and other issues in the workplace has led many organizations to adopt stricter codes of conduct, processes, and staff training. It has also led to an increased usage of either internal or third-party investigations of issues, which are undertaken to impartially gather information, make an assessment, and potentially levy punishment. These investigations also exist to rectify these sorts of issues, instill a sense of accountability in team members, and to shield the organization from legal liability. However, even the most carefully thought-out policies and the most experienced investigators may run into challenges, as interpersonal issues can be highly complex and rarely fit into “neat” categories.

One such challenge occurs when an internal or third-party investigator uncovers evidence that an accuser has either fabricated or embellished their accusations. This sort of evidence can make an already delicate and potentially traumatic experience highly volatile, and it needs to be treated with the utmost care. There is no single effective approach to dealing with a suspected false accusation, as the circumstances will vary widely. In some cases, it may be a fairly clear case of an interpersonal dispute gone too far, while in others, it may be an embellished story that doesn’t necessarily vindicate the accused but puts the details of the accuser’s accusation in doubt. Here are some of the ways you should approach this difficult situation.

Discuss this issue in your policy

Although it can be a fine line to walk, it is a good idea to include some information in your internal code of conduct policy about the misuse of these investigation procedures, and that such activity can actually be considered abusive, harmful, and could lead to potential legal issues. You need to be very careful not to craft the wording in a way that can be construed as something meant to discourage people from reporting on issues of abuse or other harm in the workplace. Instead, you should make it clear that this process is there for accountability and to uphold behavioral standards and workplace safety, and that intentionally misusing it for other reasons undermines the process and workplace trust.

Treat all accusations seriously, even if you find evidence of falsehood

Unless you have clear-cut evidence that someone knowingly fabricated a story, you should understand that a false accusation can have a range of motivations and may not necessarily mean the whole accusation can be dismissed. For example, some accusers may embellish or exaggerate details, or in other ways make the reported behavior sound worse than it is, because they feel this is more likely to draw the attention it deserves. This does not mean the core of the accusations is wrong — they may be exaggerating in order to draw attention to legitimate abuse.

In cases of extreme physical, mental, or emotional trauma, a victim may have trouble remembering details, describing things exactly as they happened, or they may amplify certain details. Contradictory stories, differences from what other witnesses remember, and other details may undermine an accuser’s credibility to an investigator, but this does not necessarily point to a complete falsehood or fabrication. This is one of the reasons many organizations choose to utilize third-party experts for investigations, as they will often be better trained to make these sorts of assessments.

documentation in an article about employee investigations and false accusationsDocumentation is key

In cases where there is no clear-cut evidence but a false accusation is strongly suspected, it’s critical that investigators gather all relevant evidence together along with an analysis of how the evidence supports their conclusion. Particular attention should be paid to establishing a motivation outside of the desire to report a violation of conduct, whether it be an interpersonal dispute, something the accuser could gain, or another viable reason. It is safe to assume that no one makes a false accusation simply for the sake of doing it, so having a clear idea of an alternate motivation is an important detail for investigators to pursue.

Documentation is critical because of the legal implications, but also because it allows the investigators, managers, and HR professionals to make a determination that suits the strength of the evidence. Often, even with solid evidence pointing to a false accusation, the inability to establish intent means the best course of action is not necessarily to punish the false accuser, as this can contribute to further discord in the organization, discourage others from reporting legitimate violations, and other undesirable outcomes.

Be careful with punishments

In cases where a false accusation has clearly been leveled, following standards and precedents is key to maintaining credibility. Often, organizations or investigators feel pushed to “make an example” of a false accuser, punishing them harshly for flaunting a process that is meant to protect them and others. However, going outside the established policy, treating someone especially harshly for a rash decision, or otherwise defying precedents can be counterproductive.

For example, if the accused has had interpersonal issues with many team members, the false accusation could have been used as a tool to oust them and get rid of the discord afflicting the team. Although this is a clear violation of the policy, it could nonetheless be viewed sympathetically by other team members. This makes any excessive punishment of the false accuser more likely to create conflict, rather than squelch it.

These scenarios are complex and should be treated with the respect and care they deserve. Ultimately, the goal is a safe and productive environment, and any punishment should be considered in terms of whether it helps achieve this goal. Suspensions, firings, and other severe punishments may feel ‘just’ in one sense, but may not be the best way to create a safe and harmonious workplace.


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The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.

 

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