The Importance of a Trauma-Informed Approach to Workplace Investigations

The Importance of a Trauma-Informed Approach to Workplace Investigations

By Tova Bar-Dayan, MIR, CHRL

No, Human Resources professionals are not clinicians or physicians, nor are we social workers or in the profession of law enforcement. Then why has the vast and complicated area of “trauma”, typically a topic for those in the medical or emergency services spheres, become so crucial for us to understand? And more than that, what does being “trauma-informed” mean and what does it have to do with workplace investigations?

To answer these questions, we must first begin with our raison d’être as a workplace investigator.

What is our role as a workplace investigator?

Whether our capacity is one of an in-house Human Resources professional tasked with conducting an investigation in one of our assigned client groups, or an external contractor hired specifically for the circumstance as an independent/neutral third-party workplace investigator, we are ultimately “fact-finders”!

Employing procedural fairness, our job/role is to piece together a workplace incident based on multiple perspectives and determine if wrongdoing (and/or a potential breach of the law) has transpired. We meet with the complainant(s), respondent, and witnesses; through our interviewing of all these parties, we seek information, we strive for details, we gather evidence, and we assess credibility, all in a timely manner. We use our people skills to build rapport, we use active listening, and we don’t pre-judge the outcome or give inclination as to the direction of such. We are as transparent as we can be while maintaining confidentiality.

How we conduct ourselves in our interactions with all parties to an investigation has a direct impact on the quality of the information received (i.e. finding all the facts) and thus the ultimate accuracy of the investigation’s outcome and suitability of follow-on recommendations. Moreover, a well (or poorly) conducted investigation can have an impact on organizational trust (i.e. the employees’ trust in supervisors and the organization), which can in turn have favourable (or detrimental) influence on overall organizational performance.

What is trauma and what are its effects?

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), “trauma is the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event.” CAMH continues to state that “Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness and intense fear.”

The U.S. Government-run Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

According to SAMHSA, these long-lasting adverse effects may occur immediately or may have a delayed onset, and in some situations, the individual may not recognize the connection between the traumatic events and the effects.

What is the connection between trauma and workplace investigations?

From the foregoing descriptions, we can see that trauma can have long-lasting and wide-ranging adverse impacts on the individual beyond the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident, and it would be fair to expect that such individuals are not leaving their trauma at home when they come to the workplace. As such, employees who have experienced trauma may be all around us – it might be your coworker, your boss, your direct reports, the mail clerk… or you.

Furthermore, trauma need not only occur in employees’ personal lives, but can also arise at the workplace – for example, sexual assault, workplace violence or bullying, or even significant organizational decisions such as job cuts or reassignments that may significantly impact employees’ lives. We must also be cognizant of what “workplace” means; per the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, “workplace” is defined as “any land, premises, location or thing at, upon, in or near which a worker works.” In today’s and likely future paradigm of remote work, this mean that an employee could experience a workplace trauma from their home office.

With respect to trauma’s relevance vis-à-vis workplace investigations, we must recognize that one of our brain’s primary functions is to protect us from danger. In the aftermath of a traumatic event, neurological changes can occur that impact how one remembers the traumatic event. Such changes in the brain have been shown to impact memory, perception, and the ability to recount details of events.

What is a trauma-informed approach to workplace investigations and why is it important?

Because individuals respond differently to trauma (whether recent or historical), an investigator must be equipped to handle the process accordingly. However, the training, knowledge base, and skill set required to be trauma-informed does not mean that we are now taking on the role of a psychologist or the like in carrying out a workplace investigation. A trauma-informed approach is an enhanced version of the skills and techniques we already employ.

A trauma-informed approach means recognizing trauma, understanding how, what, where and when to ask questions, and importantly, employing techniques and strategies that support a process that mitigates or reduces the possibility of re-traumatization. Trauma-informed training offers skills and tools to help people feel present, grounded, refocused, and safe.

We also know that same traumatic impact may also trigger a range of emotions that can also influence the information sought, as individuals’ emotional experiences/distresses can have significant impact on their response/lack thereof in the context of investigations. For example, an interviewee’s fear, shame, or anger may lead to emotional outbursts which can derail an interview, curtail the individual’s cooperation, and prevent obtaining all the necessary and pertinent facts. Trauma-informed training can help investigators de-escalate a flashback reaction or panic attack, and to keep an open mind when interpreting what some will find to be difficult behaviours; depression, anxiety, burn-out, and trauma can sometimes look like irritability, impatience, agitation, or anger. Even a panic attack can be misinterpreted (e.g. possibly seen as a manifestation of guilt) and create problems when determining their credibility.

It is also about understanding that trauma-induced neurological changes can occur in the brain, the housing unit for information. By asking questions, we are effectively asking – can you please enter your conventional memory storage unit and retrieve this piece of information? But we now know that for some, the impact of trauma may have altered the location of the memory housing unit and thus the conventional (i.e. chronological) line of questioning may not be the best path to seek answers.

If a trauma-informed approach is not employed correctly or at all, detrimental effects could include re-traumatizing the interviewee (which may result in an already distressed party going off on (longer) medical leave), or a lengthier investigation. Consequences could also include incomplete information and thus possibly insufficiently supported (or worse, erroneous) investigation outcomes. Furthermore, if the investigation is perceived by employees as having been “botched” or improperly conducted, there could be broader implications as organizational trust and reputation may suffer, and indirectly, so too could organizational performance.

However, by correctly employing a trauma-informed approach such that the interviewee feels safe in the interview, including exercising empathy, establishing rapport and building trust, as well as giving the interviewee a sense of control (e.g. choice of returning to unanswered or difficult questions later in the interview), it should be expected that the interviewee would be more forthcoming with information and willing to participate in a follow-up interview if necessary. Having obtained all pertinent information due to the “informed” approach, yielding the correct investigational outcome results in employees’ being more trusting of the investigation process, contributing towards organizational trust.

With improved organizational trust, a culture of underreporting incidents might be positively shifted as employees gain faith that procedural fairness will consistently transpire and justice will be done.

The Wrap-Up

If we agree that the goals of the workplace investigator are to (i) arrive at the most informed and accurate findings (and consequently, the most suitable recommendations), and that in order to do so, the investigator must obtain as much information as possible from interviewees, (ii) avoid re-traumatizing interviewees, and (iii) avoid harming, and ideally build, organizational trust, then having the knowledge and awareness to apply a trauma-informed approach is a necessity.

To reiterate, workplace investigators don’t have to become experts in neuro-psychology, they just have to have a basic level of trauma-informed training to create an environment of safety, to help in remaining neutral, to validate the psychological struggles/difficulties interviewees may experience in an interview and to have a comfort level/understanding of same. To quote an expert at SAMHSA, “one does not have to be a therapist to be therapeutic.”

HR Corner – Additional food for thought…

As I put my HR hat on, consider the following couple of quick tips, which should be outlined in company policies that are read, understood, and acknowledged by all employees (as with all HR policies):

  • If you intend to interview an individual who has suffered a potential psychological injury and is on medical leave as a result, it is ideal if the individual can provide a medical letter stating they are OK to attend the investigation interview, along with any limitations.
  • Interviewees may be permitted to have a support person attend the interview, subject to certain restrictions as to who qualifies as a support person and limitations on the support person’s involvement.

Do not hesitate to contact Tova for any of your workplace investigations questions; she can be reached at:

Tova Bar-Dayan, MIR, CHRL
Call 1-416-509-5198