A Trauma-informed Approach to Workplace Investigations

KristaWhen employers need to investigate

Under the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of all persons at or near the workplace. This means that if it is known or suspected that harassment, discrimination, or other abusive behaviour is occurring in the workplace, management is                                           required to take action.

What does “trauma-informed” mean?

The process of going through an investigation can be stressful and emotionally-charged for participants.  If handled poorly, participating in an investigation can even cause further harm. Participants – especially Complainants – may have experienced trauma as a result of the incidents under investigation, or they may have a history of trauma which makes participation challenging. In order to run a competent, fair and effective investigation, it is important to consider the possibility of known and unknown trauma which may affect the Complainant, the Respondent, and any other witnesses. In other words, employers should take a trauma-informed approach when responding to potential situations of harassment or discrimination in their workplaces. 

How workplace investigations can re-traumatize participants

Certain procedural aspects of investigations are non-negotiable to ensure fairness for all. For example, allegations cannot be made anonymously, and participants can’t be promised confidentiality. However, we know that a mandatory, rigid process can re-traumatize participants, and in particular the Complainant, by making them feel that:

  • they have no choice or sense of control over their participation;
  • they are unsafe; and
  • the process is more focused on complying with the procedural or policy requirements (either according to the organization’s policies or the Collective Agreement) than the individual.

The challenge is to balance the requirements of procedural fairness and contractual and policy obligations against the needs of participants. Employers must be mindful that the procedural tail is not wagging the dog, so to speak. In other words, investigations must be run in a purpose-driven, human way, not according to an inflexible checklist. 

What a trauma-informed approach looks like in practice

The goal of a trauma-informed investigation is to prevent re-traumatization wherever possible. There are several ways to design the investigation process that can help:

  • offer choice and control;
  • treat every participant with respect and dignity;
  • consider how to make the choice of location and the set-up of the room as comfortable as possible;
  • be sure that every participant knows that they may bring a support person or a union representative to the interview;
  • aim to reduce formality – being overly formal simply increases the tension; and
  • explain the process and  anticipated timelines so that participants are not left wondering.

Key takeaways for trauma-informed investigations

It is important to address workplace misconduct, including bullying and violence. Employers are obligated to ensure a proper investigation is done and can require that employees participate in the investigation process. In some instances, employees may even be disciplined for refusing to participate, but before taking that step, it’s important to keep trauma-informed principles in mind and consider what else may be going on that is making someone uncomfortable about the process. A process that is respectful, safe, clear, and offers participants choices about their comfort and support is key to an effective investigation and a fair outcome.


Do you have questions about handling reports of workplace discrimination and harassment? For more information, refer to Krista’s previous blog posts on this topic, or contact Krista directly.

Krista Smith is a partner at Barteaux Durnford and regularly assists employers with day-to-day advice on managing the issue of bullying, harassment and violence in the workplace, including drafting workplace policies and conducting workplace investigations and assessments for employers. To learn more, contact our firm today.