HR Leads Business

May 31, 2018 | Tim Lemke, HRCI Staff Writer

When Leaders Do Wrong: Investigating High-Level Execs

It’s clear that at every workplace, people don’t always do the right thing.

But when misdeeds are carried out by people in the C-Suite, HR professionals can find themselves doing their most complex and sensitive work.

When a top executive is accused of wrongdoing, HR pros are often expected to investigate. They must respond with confidence, understand their own expertise and — perhaps most importantly -- know when to call in outside help.

“Really, what it always comes down to when investigation executives is power. They are just an entirely different kind of investigation,” says Allison West, SPHR, an attorney who has been conducting investigations of this nature for 18 years. “That power differential is key.”

West, the founder of Employment Practices Specialists, will speak at the SHRM 2018 Conference and Exposition on June 18. She will present The Top Ten Things You Need to Know When Investigating High-Level Executives.

Complexity and Conflict

High-profile cases of executives accused of sexual harassment have recently brought the issue of leadership investigations to the forefront. West admits that there is increased demand for her harassment training programs. But, she stressed that her investigations have always involved a variety of issues from workplace disputes to accounting fraud and abuse of information technology.

“These are the ones where there’s potential fraud, potential violation of federal law, state law,” West says. “At this high level, it isn’t just the sexual harassment, these are other types of misconduct. These are very strategic types of investigations. There are going to be many layers of conflict of interest.”

West says that as an outside investigator, she is usually contacted by an organization’s in-house legal counsel. But that doesn’t mean an HR professional isn’t involved along the way. In fact, it’s the HR department that is often first contacted and completes initial investigative steps. Thus, HR pros should have some understanding of how to investigate and be current on an organization’s policies regarding employee conduct.

“[These policies] are the law within the four walls of your company,” West says. “If you don’t know the answers to some of these questions, you should not be doing investigations.”

An experienced investigator will be able to navigate the complexities of knowing where interviews should take place, the role (if any) of public relations staffs, and when it’s necessary to call outside experts such as forensic accountants or cybersecurity experts.

It also requires some thick skin to confront executives who may not be accustomed to being questioned.

“If you’re investigating the VP of Marketing, you have to be able to go in there and have them say ‘who do you think you are?’” West says.

Know Your Limitations

For every HR professional, there is a point at which it may be best to hand over an investigation to an outside expert. Knowing where your expertise begins and ends is key to ensuring things are handled correctly.

“You have to know your own skill set as soon as you get hit with something,” West says.

It could be helpful for HR pros to have a personal set of criteria for when an outside investigator is called.

Suzanne Lewis, a former HR manager writes in Inc. Magazine that potential triggers include an accusation against someone who is a vice president or above, is a fellow HR employee, or involves multiple incidents.

“Investigating your own boss, or someone else who yields a tremendous amount of power over you and the company, puts undue pressure on the HR manager,” Lewis writes. “In such cases, you need an outside firm that will be paid no matter how the investigation goes.”

It also comes down to comfort level and awareness of your own potential biases. As an HR professional, are you comfortable investigating someone when you may be the person tasked with carrying out their termination? Are you comfortable being called into a courtroom?

“The investigation is filled with risk…don’t forget, if something goes sideways, that HR professional has to be prepared to testify at trial,” West says. “And there you are testifying against your colleague.”

Things get especially tough when HR is part of the executive structure of an organization. HR professionals are now commonly part of corporate leadership teams--a trend that’s good for HR, but one that creates challenges when a top executive is accused of wrongdoing. Imagine, for example, the Chief Human Resource Officer investigating a Chief Financial Officer who has an adjacent office and is also a close friend.

 “In my mind, it makes it trickier,” West says. “HR wants a seat at the table, they want to be strategic, but then they are off investigating one of their colleagues. You may have to be part of the decision-making into what happens to that person, do you really want to be involved in that investigation?”

Allison West is one of many HRCI-certified professionals headlining the SHRM conference, June 17-20 in Chicago. Also, be sure to visit HRCI at Booth #1340.