The importance of investigator neutrality

When a workplace investigator is engaged to look into a complaint such as discrimination or harassment, it is absolutely critical that the investigator be — and appear to be — a neutral party.  Sometimes an employee is the appropriate person to investigate (e.g., someone in HR), and sometimes an external investigator should be brought in (e.g., if the allegations concern someone very high level).  Whatever the approach, though, an entire investigation can be undermined if the investigator is seen to have a bias in favor of one side or another.

Take the currently-on-trial case of Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins, dubbed by some as the Silicon Valley trial of the year.  Ms. Pao sued the big-time venture capital firm for sex discrimination and retaliation, claiming she had was pressured into having an affair with a married partner.  When she broke it off, accruing to Ms. Pao, she was retaliated against and passed over for a lucrative promotion.

When Ms. Pao’s allegations first came to light, Kleiner Perkins brought in an outside attorney to investigate, Stephen Hirschfield.  Mr. Hirschfield interviewed witnesses, reviewed available evidence, and concluded there was no discrimination against Ms. Pao.  It just came out in the trial, though, that during the investigation Mr. Hirschfield told Kleiner Perkins’ CFO that once the investigation was over, he would like to work for the company.  As a result, the integrity of the entire investigation is in question.

Lessons learned: If you investigate workplace concerns, you must be, and appear to be, a neutral with no skin in the game.  This should be an obvious point.  If Mr. Hirschfield was hoping for a job, he had a vested interest in finding for the employer in the investigation.  Surprise surprise, that is exactly what happened.  It may well be that Mr. Hirschfield did a stellar A++ investigation.  But his lack of neutrality, whether perceived or actual, really casts a large shadow of doubt over the entire investigation.