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Psychological Trauma and Workplace Investigations
Six steps for the best practice method for HR professionals
People who have experienced psychological trauma are present in every workplace. Some people have experienced developmental trauma in their childhood, some (such as first responders) have experienced it daily as a part of their work, and some have experienced it as part of a work-related accident or assault.
Conducting effective trauma-informed workplace investigations involves recognizing the signs of trauma and responding effectively so that the investigation can proceed successfully and efficiently. Those involved, including both HR professionals and investigators, need to know how trauma can affect complainants, respondents, and witnesses. Effectively integrating trauma into an investigation means not only recognizing it but anticipating it and building a trauma-informed best practice policy and procedure.
This brief article outlines the various aspects of psychological trauma and its interface with workplace misconduct allegations and makes suggestions for HR professionals about the factors they need to take into account when building their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).
What is Trauma?
The American Psychological Association defines "trauma" as a person's emotional response to an extremely adverse or disturbing event. This trauma definition can refer to a person’s emotional reaction to a very upsetting event, such as being involved in an accident or repeatedly witnessing horrifying experiences, or to something more extreme such as sexual assault. Essentially, it is when a person experiences an event that leaves them feeling emotionally overwhelmed.
All encounters are experienced subjectively, and all humans process a disturbing event differently because we interpret them through our individual life experiences. As such, people will react quite differently to the same event, depending on their experiences. For example, one person who was repeatedly bullied in school may respond differently to an aggressive interaction in the workplace than a person who did not experience schoolyard bullying. Thus, trauma may be best thought of as the specific experience of the person in question, not the details of the event itself.
Trauma can be experienced by all concerned including the complainant, the respondent and witnesses. Trauma will not always be experienced by individuals who are placed in similar situations. One person will experience an event or series of events differently from another. Science has created a better understanding of how trauma occurs and what places a person at risk, but more work needs to be done to understand the risks involved in trauma. Its existence is far from automatic.
Trauma reactions fall across a broad spectrum, and health professionals have developed different categories to differentiate between different types of trauma. While the guidelines have changed over time, and there still is some debate, science has increased our knowledge of psychological trauma. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are many possible trauma-related diagnoses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). While these are some of the current official diagnoses of the American Psychiatric Association related to trauma, others have suggested additional, unofficial frameworks to help understand this multifaceted problem including Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Developmental Trauma.
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
ASD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. It's natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation, and the "fight-or-flight" stress response is a typical, adaptive reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after a potentially traumatizing event, although most people recover naturally from initial symptoms. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with ASD. People who have PTSD experience longer-term symptoms that last over one month.
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be experienced by those who experience multiple traumatic events that go on for extended periods of time, such as soldiers, paramedics, police officers, or firefighters who are repeatedly exposed to continuous disturbing events such as death, bloodshed or viewing of disturbing images such as child pornography in their work. As such, they accumulate stress in the workplace.
Developmental Trauma is a result of a child experiencing adverse childhood events (ACE) such as abuse and neglect. These experiences interfere with the child’s neurological and psychological development and result in adult health difficulties including physical health problems and mental health problems including depression and anxiety. Recent findings emphasize the role of childhood adversity on interpersonal functioning in adulthood and indicate that emotional regulation and dysregulation (i.e., the initiation, inhibition or modulation of one’s emotional state and behaviour) play a critical role in adult behaviour.
Understanding how trauma shows up in the workplace is vital because trauma, regardless of the type, affects how people live their lives, interact with others, and cope with stress. Symptoms of trauma show up in the workplace but may manifest more severely during an investigation. Acute stress, which is often experienced in an inquiry, can trigger the emergence of trauma symptoms.
When Does Trauma Show Up during an investigation?
Before an event occurs: Trauma may show up in the normal behaviour of an employee. Trauma may affect a person’s regular behaviour at work and may or may not be involved in the alleged misconduct.
During an event: Trauma may show up when the behaviour of others or a situation triggers a traumatic experience in the complainant. Trauma may show up when a person experiences an extremely negative or disturbing event. A respondent’s behaviour may be trauma-related to the alleged actions involved in a complaint. Finally, a witness may be traumatized or have old trauma triggered when witnessing an event.
After an event: The stress of an investigation can be so significant for an individual that they can become “re-traumatized." Re-traumatization is a conscious or unconscious reminder of past trauma that results in a re-experiencing of the initial trauma event. It can be triggered by a situation, an attitude or expression, or by certain environments that replicate the dynamics (loss of power/control/safety) of the original trauma.
How does trauma affect an investigation?
There are two ways that trauma can affect an investigation.
First, trauma may affect a person’s behaviour or how they react to and deal with all the issues surrounding a complaint and an investigation. A person experiencing trauma may experience a myriad of reactions including emotional reactions of fear, anxiety, and anger, physical reactions such as stomach upsets, headaches, and sleeping problems, psychological reactions such as being vigilant to danger or focusing on seemingly incidental details of events, and behavioural reactions such as withdrawing both mentally and physically. They may be quite emotional and react to situations in ways that may surprise an HR professional, as the response may be different than what the HR professional expects.
Second, trauma affects memory and can affect the accuracy of investigative data, which typically comes from a person’s memory. As a traumatized person may only have fragmented memories or may have memory gaps and inconsistencies in what they do remember, their recall of events may be affected.
During the investigative process, HR professionals are often focused on gathering the facts, but they need to consider that trauma may impact both the behaviours surrounding the incident and the individual recall of events. The astute HR professional recognizes that the reactions and responses they may expect in others may be entirely different than what traumatized people involved in the investigation consider essential.
6 steps to a good trauma-informed HR practice regarding complaints and investigations
Always use a trauma-informed approach. A trauma-informed approach to the investigation process involves the:
- Realization about the widespread impact of trauma and understanding of its potential impact in the workplace,
- Recognition of the signs and symptoms of trauma in complainants, clients, families, staff, and others involved,
- Response by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices,
- Resistance of re-traumatization
- Acknowledgement that you may not know if a person has trauma and you always need to respect their privacy.
A trauma-informed approach reflects adherence to six fundamental principles rather than a prescribed set of practices or procedures all done in the context of a complaint and an investigation.
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice and choice
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues
When you first learn of a problem. Consider that acute stress or trauma may be critical and be sure to use a combination of the following:
- Use approaches that make all parties feel safe and supported. Respect all concerned and communicate your respect for them.
- Ensure that your processes are transparent and that your policies and procedures build trust.
- Give people choices in the process (e.g., where to meet, where to sit) as options will work against retraumatizing the person.
- Ensure that you work collaboratively with the individuals while you are following your standard operating procedures. Allow individuals to maintain their own power. Working together will allow others to reduce stress and improve memory.
Conducting a preliminary examination of the complaint. At this early stage, the HR professional needs to gather information to determine if a formal investigation is required. At this stage, you are likely thinking about whether an investigation should take place, its scope, and the best process for the investigation. You aren’t formally investigating at this point.
- Be careful you don’t retraumatize the person or shame them accidentally. For example, asking them why they didn’t act during an assault may cause the person to feel blamed for the incident. Instead of asking questions that way, ask information-gathering questions such as “What was your thought process?” or “How did you react?”
- Instead of saying “Start at the beginning.” recognize that a traumatized person may struggle with sequential, linear memory and say “Tell me what you remember.”
- Resist asking, "What happened next?" and try to use a question like "What were your thoughts during the event?” Alternatively, "What was the hardest part of the experience for you?"
Choosing How to Do an Investigation. After meeting with the person (using a trauma-informed approach) and then meeting with an internal HR team, the HR professional needs to determine if an internal or external investigation is required. Consider if the allegations are serious and whether your team has the necessary resources and expertise to conduct the investigation. Are your staff able to perform a trauma-informed, unbiased investigation?
If you choose an external investigator, ensure that they have the necessary training and expertise to conduct a trauma-informed investigation.
Closing Your Initial Conversation. Just talking about traumatic experiences can trigger emotional reactions in all parties concerned, including nightmares or intrusive thoughts. During the final parts of your discussion with the person, make sure to advise them that they may have an emotional reaction after the conversation. Demonstrate your empathy and provide the person with resources to help them, if needed, such as your EAP program or local mental health resources such as a crisis line.
Conducting an Investigation. While the entire process of conducting a full trauma-informed investigation is beyond the scope of this article, it is important for investigators to be trained and experienced in appropriate interview methods.
Methods such as Cognitive Interviewing or Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) to help acquire accurate data to establish the facts of the situation and to protect the people involved are recommended. Studies show that using effective interviewing methods such as these significantly increases the amount of information an investigator can gather. The book Investigative Interviewing by Eric Shepherd and Andy Griffiths is a comprehensive resource.
When addressing a complaint in the workplace and before beginning an investigation, HR professionals should develop policies and procedures that involve a trauma-informed approach in order to both enhance the psychological health and safety of the workplace and to gather accurate information in the context of the complaint. Improving the knowledge and skills of HR professionals will go a long way to create effective and efficient methods to investigate workplace complaints.
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