By: Sophie Poost
Grievances and Investigations
Every non-profit organization hopes that their employees, constituents, and the general public will feel well supported by and think highly of the organization. However human error indicates that inevitably at some point an issue will arise that results in a complaint that escalates to the board of directors. When this does happen, board leadership must be prepared to handle such grievances in a fair, balanced, and timely manner to ensure the success of its members and to prevent further escalation.
Types of Grievances
Depending on the organization, a myriad of issues may come to light as a formalized grievance. Some grievances that may reach and need to be addressed by an organization’s board and leadership include complaints regarding financial mishandling, unfair employee treatment by the organization’s leadership, improperly handled grievance investigation process, or serious harassment concerns. If there is a grievance that brings concern that the organization’s leadership is doing something illegal, unethical, or violating policy, the board should ensure an investigation takes place. For example, if a manager at an organization is trying to fill open positions and is having issues with getting the Director of HR or the CEO to sign off on paperwork for BIPOC applicants but not for White applicants, it may be in the best interest of the organization for the board of directors to handle the grievance and forthcoming investigation into the practices.
The board should not immediately intervene if they hear of a more easily resolvable grievance, particularly if it has not gone through an initial complaint process first. Complaints such as a consumer’s dissatisfaction or lower-level staff complaints may reach the board, but should, at least initially, be addressed by HR or upper level management. If a consumer expresses to a board member of a disability rights non-profit that they feel an advocate is not assisting them properly with a discrimination complaint, it is not in the best interest of the organization for the board member to start investigating the situation. Instead they should encourage the consumer to bring the complai3qnt to one of those individuals and they may gently follow up on the complaint with the director. There may be a clear answer as to why the advocate isn’t doing what the consumer wants– perhaps they have no legal standing or the employee was on vacation and the consumer was not happy with the delay in results. In redirecting the complaint to the correct channels and following up, the board member can help the individual feel heard while not overstepping. The board and the CEO may wish to discuss the handling of these complaints in order to ensure that protocol is followed properly in handling the matter.
It is paramount that any complaint is heard and addressed by someone in the organization. In order to maintain order within the organization as well as build mutual trust between the board and the organization, it is important that board members not over insert themselves into investigation proceedings of a small scale complaint as it can undercut the authority of its leaders. Strong leadership is built on open and clear communication between the board and management that maintains trust that the executive is capable of carrying out an appropriate response to grievances or bringing them to the attention of the board when necessary and appropriate. However, allowing a complaint to go ignored, particularly one that may initially seem innocuous, could lead to ill-feelings at best and a lawsuit and collapse of the organization at worst. The board has a duty of care to follow up on any information that indicates potential risk to the company or harm to its members, thus it is not enough to passively listen to grievances that arise but there must be effort by the board to ensure there are protocols in place regarding investigations and that these procedures are being followed.
An investigation into a complaint can take several different forms and depend on the existing policy as well as the organizational structure. In minor matters, a verbal complaint made to HR or the employee’s supervisor can be addressed and resolved quickly with open communication about the concern and preferred remedy, discussions with involved parties, and some minor documentation. However, if this more informal process does not come to a satisfactory resolution, the employee may choose to escalate the issue. In those cases a formalized investigation will help prevent any animosity and protect the company. With that said there are several components to a good investigation including: a neutral investigator, a timely process, documentation, communication, collection of interviews, statements, and evidence, a report with findings and recommendations, and a definitive outcome with options of appeal.
Grievance investigations can be fraught with feelings of unfairness so in order to help combat such concerns effort should be made to ensure a neutral investigator carries out the proceedings. If possible introducing an outside third-party individual to investigate is ideal, however, in smaller organizations without the bandwidth for this, a fair investigation can still be conducted by an HR officer, a manager from a different department, or in some cases, a committee made up of employees and board members. Those doing this work must be objective and detail-driven with the ability to maintain confidentiality.
Responsiveness is a key component in carrying out a successful investigation. A timely investigation ensures that any conflict is quickly resolved and the best and most correct information is provided as memory can fade with time. Additionally, a clearly communicated timeline provides transparency to all parties (including the investigator and the decision makers) and helps to avoid ill-feelings from festering.
Whether the original complaint was verbal or written, it is important that a detailed record is created from the beginning to the end of the investigation process. Documentation ensures that everyone understands the details of the complaint (what happened, how it impacted those involved, why people responded, who was involved, etc.). It prevents information from being misconstrued or misrepresented from one speaker to the next and ensures a clear and concise account of the incident and its handling exists for the future. This also helps if the issue escalates or if there is a pattern of complaints.
Transparency and communication to the involved parties helps keep an investigation running smoothly. A complainant and their accused should get notice that a formal investigation is being opened, that they are invited to share their experience, what the other party has stated, that the investigation is over and a decision has been made, and the appeals process. There may be other necessary communications that must take place depending on the investigation. The addition of witnesses will add a layer of complexity to investigations and their associated communications.
The investigator or investigating party must interview all parties involved in the complaint to hear and understand all perspectives. All parties must be given ample opportunity to share their side of the story, whether through an interview or statement. As investigations unfold, it may become clear that there were witnesses to the incident or individuals with related knowledge to the complaint. In order to build a complete picture, investigators should include these individuals in their process. Evidence such as emails, texts, pictures, or videos should also be collected to help corroborate with the stories being provided.
Once information is gathered and interviews are completed, the investigator should create a written report with their findings and recommendations. The report should offer a summary of the issue and the facts and include the documented evidence. The investigator can make suggestions for further action (if necessary) but not determinations.
With this report, an informed decision can be made as to further actions by the director, executive officers, the board, or in many cases an amalgamation of those individuals. These may be formal actions (disciplinary steps, policy changes, further investigations, etc.) or informal actions (training, mediation, counseling, etc.). In some cases, there may be no reason for action to be taken (not enough evidence of foul play or evidence that suggests there was none). Even in this last outcome, measures should be considered to ensure that the workplace can return to normal functioning. No matter the outcome this should also be documented and provided to all parties in writing.
When the outcome is relayed to the involved parties it is important that they are told about and given the opportunity to appeal if they feel the investigation was not carried out appropriately. If an individual chooses to appeal the process, it should be handled by a different investigator or investigative body who must evaluate how the initial process was handled.
Wrapping Up the Process
When an outcome and any resulting actions has been determined, the resolution should be communicated to the involved parties by the person or persons who made the final decision, in some cases this will be HR or the CEO and in more serious cases it will be the board president. For the sake of confidentiality, the results of small scale investigations should only be communicated to the accuser and the accused. With that said, it may be necessary to communicate some information throughout the organization to squash any rumors that may lead to further issues or if there is a change in the policy or workplace. For example, if a new mother complains about the environment not being conducive to her needs and an investigation finds there is a need for a lactation room, it should not be communicated to all employees that the new mother has lodged a complaint. However, it may be necessary to communicate that due to the differing needs of employees one of the spare conference rooms will no longer be open for general use. Oversharing details could lead to negative speculation so it is best to err on the side of caution.
There are some instances where the severity of the incident may necessitate a public statement from the company. These instances are usually the result of unethical or illegal behavior on the part of upper-level management or the board which has spilled out to the general public. A response from the board president or senior leadership uninvolved in the grievance, on behalf of the board will likely be just the start of a long road to repairing the organization’s image and trust in the community and as such is key to starting anew. To avoid further error or confusion on the company’s stance on this large scale grievances the board and leadership must present as a united front on the issue to that end one or two representatives should be picked to speak on behalf of the organization.
Non-profit boards play many roles, but one that is ever important when faced with a grievance is to hold the organization and those at fault accountable to the organization’s stakeholders. An organization who is not or will not be accountable to those it serves is built on a weak foundation and will quickly lose its credibility internally as well as publicly. When this happens, the mission and intent of the company is lost.
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