By Keith Rohman
Everything was quieter before social media, including workplace investigations. Investigators rarely worried about public attention, except in the rare case when their investigation was picked up by the local newspaper or TV station. Employees who suffered discrimination could report it to HR, get a lawyer, or call a state or federal agency, but drawing media interest to their individual problems was a long shot at best.
Today, anyone with an internet connection can raise their issues with the whole world. In a matter of days, an internal complaint of sexual harassment or discrimination can morph from a confidential personnel matter to a viral event seen all over the world. All of this is relatively new: Facebook and Twitter were launched in 2004 and 2006, respectively, and it took years for them to reach their current saturation levels.
Organizations of all kinds are feeling the impact. At one employer, a discrimination complaint got almost a million views on social media and resulted in hundreds of calls to the organization’s headquarters. At UC Berkeley, a student was publicly accused of sexual assault, resulting in a Change.org petition signed by more than 180,000 people calling for the student’s “immediate expulsion and legal action”; there was no mention of the need to conduct an investigation first. There is even a public relations firm that assists with pushing out the stories of those who feel mistreated in the workplace.
Decisions about who conducts an investigation also draw public comment. In the wake of high-profile discrimination allegations, a CEO announced the selection of a highly qualified investigator to look into the controversy. That was until social media weighed in with criticism about the selected investigator and with specific suggestions of other investigators to be hired instead! The selected investigator eventually stepped aside.
Compare this to an earlier discrimination case: In the 1990s, Denny’s Restaurants was repeatedly accused of discriminating against Black customers, but this drew little notice outside the Black community. Finally, a pair of high-profile cases broke into the media, including one involving allegations that Black Secret Service agents had received discriminatory treatment at a Denny’s in Maryland. Court cases were filed, and the U.S. Department of Justice eventually negotiated a consent decree with Denny’s. Public Interest Investigations, Inc. ended up as one of the principal investigators for the decree’s Civil Rights Monitor.
The Denny’s story would play out very differently today. There would be tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram stories about it. Denny’s customers would post video clips of Black customers interacting with rude servers and experiencing long waits for food and other problems. These incidents would be liked, shared, retweeted, and commented upon. Celebrities would weigh in. Within days, the story would go viral.
Social media is not the problem. Discrimination has been a scourge in society for generations. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have raised awareness of persistent racism and sexism. At the same time, employees have protected rights to express themselves about discrimination, including on social media.
In this new environment, workplace investigators will be subjected to more public scrutiny. Our qualifications may be discussed critically; witnesses, parties, or their friends and allies may comment in real time about what is going on in the investigation. Previously unidentified witnesses may surface on social media.
Social media has changed the landscape around what were, in the not-so-distant past, confidential investigations, and investigators need to prepare for this. Investigators are already collecting texts and emails about events they are looking into, but they also need to monitor what is being said on social media as the investigation unfolds, particularly in high-profile matters. If there is any online reporting about the case or if the organization has its own website, watch the comments section. Local activists may also post about your case on community-based websites. Utilize alerts on search engines; many social media networks also allow you to follow specific hashtags or trending topics.
All of this will help you stay on top of relevant online conversations. Our goal is to know what is going on in the background during the investigation and avoid being blindsided by public controversy.
Keith Rohman is president of Public Interest Investigations, Inc.