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February 22, 2021 Articles

An Argument for Empathy in Workplace Investigations

The importance of empathy in investigations to both employees and employers, and how your investigations develop company culture.

By Faisal Akhter

During grade school, I loved watching nature documentaries. I grew up in a city, so these escapes to the Arctic, for example, fascinated me. I recall quite vividly a documentary depicting the life of the ringed seal. I watched as the seals lived their lives, hunted for fish, and birthed pups. Part of the documentary showed ringed seals hiding in the snow, trying to survive the harsh, snowy climate by building snow lairs. In these snow lairs, they would rest, give birth to their young, and feed them, as well. These snow lairs would also serve as refuges from predators, such as the polar bear. I remember the anticipation I felt when seeing polar bears stomping on the snow in search of a snow lair protecting a baby seal. I hoped for the seal’s survival and that it would go undetected by these ferocious, heartless polar bears.

To this day, I still love watching nature documentaries. Recently, I watched another Arctic documentary that told the story of a polar bear and her cub. The filmmakers did an excellent job of following a mother and her cub, struggling to find food for a lengthy period. Only a few days remained before their situation would become dire in the difficult climate with unforgiving conditions and a lack of food. At one point, the mother bear came across snow lairs often occupied by ringed seals. She pounced on each one, checking to see whether a seal occupied it. I animatedly rooted for the mother polar bear, hoping she would be able to find a meal so she and her cub could live to survive another winter.

I remain fascinated by how each documentary influenced my perspective. The situation remained unchanged. It was a harsh Arctic winter in which animals struggled to ensure their survival. But the animal whose story I interpreted greatly affected how I understood each situation. I feared for the ringed seal while I rooted for the polar bear.

Workplace investigations, the process of examining, analyzing, and responding to a complaint or issue in the work setting that may have legal or policy implications, similarly can be greatly affected by whose perspective you employ. Fortunately, it is possible to recognize both the ringed seal’s and the polar bear’s perspective. You just need to be intentional about it. When conducting these investigations, the higher the quality and quantity of information made available, the better one can effectively address current concerns, identify trends, and influence future behavior. As the area of workplace investigations evolves, companies have quickly discovered the importance of empathy during the process. This article seeks to discuss the importance of empathy in investigations to both employees and employers, and how your investigations develop company culture.

Empathy Results in Thorough Investigations That Achieve Just Outcomes

First, employing empathy allows for a more thorough investigation. All stakeholders have an interest in a thorough investigation. When you conduct interviews with the parties, empathy empowers your listening skills by placing you in the witnesses’ frame of reference. People’s lived experiences color their perceptions, along with different businesses and teams having different work cultures and expectations. For example, when conducting the complainant interview—a direct exchange with the individual submitting a complaint—it is critical to place yourself in his or her position, understand context and nuance, and actively listen. In doing so, you can appreciate the shared experience from the complainant’s perspective, which significantly increases your ability to conduct a thorough investigation. When you place empathy at the forefront of conducting an investigation, you can map out how best to investigate the situation from each involved stakeholder’s perspective and experience, ultimately resulting in a more thorough and well-considered investigation.

When I served on active duty in the U.S. Army, I received an assignment as a military prosecutor. As a prosecutor, I had the responsibility of thoroughly investigating cases and working toward justice. One of my cases involved prosecuting a homicide. Here, the defendant pushed the victim into the road, resulting in a taxi driver immediately running over the victim. This case was particularly difficult as the victim, now deceased, was very close friends with the defendant. In fact, the victim’s mother used her now deceased son’s life insurance to pay for the defendant’s attorney. Complicating matters, the taxi driver was a citizen of our host nation country, resulting in immediate international implications. By employing empathy for all involved parties—the victim, the defendant, the taxi driver, their families and communities, the Army, and our host nation—we worked toward what became a just result.

Empathy Results in Respected Investigations That Gain Client Trust

Next, empathy builds trust in the process. Every investigation you conduct, every person to whom you speak, and every finding you share continually builds trust in the process. When there is trust in the process, people are more likely to voice their concerns. Complainants are less likely to feel their concerns will be ignored or left unanswered if you employ empathy and demonstrate active listening during your investigation. Respondents are more likely to believe that you are taking a neutral stance, focusing on the truth, and operating without a predetermined outcome. Witnesses are more willing to cooperate rather than fear involvement. Empathy empowers the entire process, allowing you to deliver the results of your investigation more efficiently and effectively.

In my work as a defense counsel in the U.S. Army Reserves, building trust with my clients is of paramount importance. In the representation of other clients, that trust is equally important. With access to your client, unlike in prosecution, you have a far more complete understanding of the situation. But to be able to explore every possibility and develop such knowledge, you first need your client’s trust. Understandably, clients are not always immediately forthcoming. They may distrust you, worry about whether you will keep things in confidence, and feel you might judge them. By being empathetic and demonstrating compassion, you can build trust. Such trust will ultimately result in a better understanding of the surrounding facts through a recognition of perspectives and shared understandings from your client’s point of view. As any criminal defense counsel knows, if you understand the facts better than the prosecution, your client stands an exponentially better chance of succeeding.

Empathy Results in Effective Investigations That Improve Organizational Culture

Finally, the empathy you employ during your investigations has an exponential effect on organizational culture. Culture is what drives organizations. These are the values that guide people in their actions and expectations. Large organizations, in particular, are heavily driven by culture. Culture influences and empowers people to make decisions aligned with organizational values. Through your investigations, you will meet with people going through a wide array of emotional states. People can be nervous, defensive, anxious, or even relieved. When investigating all participants in the process, you represent the organization and its values. Demonstrating an ability to be empathetic has tremendous value. During such trying times for the parties, empathy establishes a sense of understanding and consideration. It may reinforce your organization’s culture existing not just in word but in action.

As an attorney at a large technology company, I feel that culture is paramount. Senior leadership continually asks the company to innovate, take risks, demonstrate initiative, and empower others to do more. Without a strong sense of organizational culture and values, there would be no consistency or guidance for thousands of people who are asked to navigate the unknown. However, with clear and consistent values, members of a large organization are empowered to make decisions, traversing unknown areas by using the organizational culture as a compass. When conducting internal investigations, contrast employee actions with company values. Use empathy throughout the process by recognizing everyone’s position and perspective. With consistent and thorough investigations, leaders can be confident when making decisions and everyone can be assured in knowing that the company will uphold its values. Despite the process being confidential in nature, the news of an investigation spreads fast within the workplace. Therefore, investigations have a tremendous impact on the morale of an organization, as consistent accountability builds a trusted, reliable process in which everyone is held to the same, high standards. It is a common, understandable sentiment for employees to think investigations seek to protect the company’s interests. However, by demonstrating empathy throughout the process and thereby illustrating how employee interests and company interests are aligned in upholding a positive culture and strong values, you can turn a contentious process into a collaborative one.

Final Thoughts

Put simply, empathy is a force multiplier in workplace investigations. It allows you to develop a more thorough investigation, build trust in the process, and ultimately cultivate an organizational culture of collaboration. As shown in the real-world examples given above, empathy is vital in successful investigations. Likewise, in addition to recognizing that empathy benefits stakeholders and organizations, recognize that it can foster your own individual growth, too. By shifting your perspective to see things from both the ringed seal’s perspective and the polar bear’s understanding, you will learn to appreciate different perspectives and identify many ways to interpret the same facts. In a profession where facts and relationships matter, you will be better situated to develop your own career. Each investigation builds on the last, with every interaction you have leaving a lasting impression dispersed throughout the entire organization.

Faisal Akhter is an attorney at a large technology company. He also continues serving in the reserve component of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

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