The concept of “trauma informed” has been around a while now and many HR practitioners are now using this approach when dealing with investigations of misconduct, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

 

In a previous blog, I wrote about some of the aspects of trauma informed investigations.

 

In today’s environment – post #metoo, the federal government’s Respect at Work report and now, legislative obligation regarding psychosocial health – the importance of a trauma-informed approach to conducting investigations has never been more critical. But it’s not just about adhering to legal frameworks but about nurturing an environment where every participant feels safe, heard, and respected.

 

That means all parties, including the respondents and witnesses. It may even extend to the wider team who weren’t involved. Each case will be different.

 

So, what does “trauma in the workplace” involve?

 

Before we delve into the intricacies of trauma-informed investigations, it’s pivotal to comprehend what trauma entails. Trauma can be the result of various incidents within or outside the workplace, including but not limited to harassment, bullying, or any form of violence. It can also be a one-off incident. It impacts not just the emotional but also the physical well-being of individuals, influencing their work performance and interpersonal relationships.

 

The essence of being trauma-informed lies in recognising the prevalence of trauma and understanding its profound effects on individuals. It’s about shifting the paradigm from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?” This perspective fosters a supportive environment where individuals feel validated and understood, rather than judged or dismissed.

 

In Australia, workplace investigations must adhere to the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness, ensuring that any process is conducted impartially, thoroughly, and competently. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) and various state-based legislation provide frameworks and guidelines to protect the rights of workers, including those impacted by trauma. Failure to consider the impact of trauma not only risks the well-being of employees but could also lead to legal repercussions for organisations, including claims of unfair dismissal or workplace discrimination.

 

Australian law increasingly recognises the necessity of mental health considerations in the workplace, underscoring the importance of trauma-informed practices in legal procedures and investigations. This legal backdrop encourages organisations to approach investigations with a delicate balance of compliance and compassion.

 

There’s much written, academically and from a practical perspective, about approaches to being trauma informed. From a HR investigator’s perspective, being trauma-informed will hold you in good stead throughout the investigation, and also long after it’s finalised. As most know, the lasting effects of a workplace investigation can be disastrous, and sometimes worse than the initiating incident itself.

 

Some of the key objectives in a trauma informed investigation approach include:

 

  • Safe and private settings: The physical environment of the investigation should promote a sense of safety and confidentiality. This includes choosing a neutral location, free from interruptions, ensuring the participant feels secure throughout the process.

 

  • Exercise empathy with neutral language: Empathy is the bedrock of a trauma-informed approach, but it must be exercised with care. Avoid claiming to understand exactly how someone feels, as this can feel dismissive of their unique experience. Instead, use neutral language that validates their feelings without imposing your own interpretations.

 

  • Structured flexibility in questioning: While it’s important to plan questions ahead, flexibility is key. Starting with less challenging questions and gradually moving to more complex ones can help prevent re-traumatisation. The language used should be open-ended and non-suggestive, allowing the interviewee to share their truth without feeling led or judged.

 

  • Providing control to the interviewee: Allowing interviewees some degree of control over the process can significantly impact their comfort level. This might include agreeing to return to difficult questions at a later time or seeking permission before displaying potentially triggering evidence.

 

  • Support person involvement: The presence of a support person can offer emotional security to the interviewee. Clear guidelines regarding the support person’s involvement ensure their presence aids rather than hinders the investigation process.

 

For professionals conducting workplace/HR investigations, a foundational understanding of trauma and its impacts is indispensable. This doesn’t require expertise in clinical psychology but necessitates a level of awareness that shapes how investigations are approached. Australian workplaces are increasingly recognizing the value of this training, not only for HR and legal professionals but for all employees, to create a more supportive and resilient work culture.

 

Adopting a trauma-informed approach transcends legal compliance; it cultivates a culture of empathy, respect, and understanding. Benefits include:

 

  • Enhanced accuracy: A supportive environment encourages participants to share more openly, leading to more accurate and comprehensive investigation outcomes.

 

  • Reduced risks of re-traumatisation: By acknowledging and mitigating potential triggers, the investigation process can avoid exacerbating the trauma.

 

  • Strengthened trust in the organisation: Demonstrating commitment to employees’ well-being fosters organizational trust, contributing to a healthier workplace climate.

 

  • Decreased incident underreporting: When employees feel safe and supported, they are more likely to report incidents, allowing for timely and appropriate responses.

 

In essence, integrating a trauma-informed perspective into workplace investigations is not merely about compliance with Australian law or following best practices. It’s about affirming the dignity and worth of every individual, ensuring they are met with empathy and understanding in their most vulnerable moments. This approach does not diminish the investigative rigor; rather, it enhances the process by ensuring it is conducted with equity and compassion at its core.

 

At the Professional Investigators College of Australasia (PICA), we’re the specialists in human source, whistleblowing and disclosure/informant management training.

 

We have one of the Australia’s leading authorities on trauma and our team of experts have extensive investigative, management and training experience. And, we can design (contexualise) the training to suit your particular agency, or organisation.

 

With a range of course delivery options, we can meet your needs and build the investigative capability of your investigation and compliance staff.

 

For a no obligation chat on how we can help you, please get in touch anytime at training@pica.edu.au or 1300 649 967. Read all about us and our courses at www.pica.edu.au.