Employment Investigations: ‘She Said, He Said.” Are we stuck?!

“A simple “he said, she said” might stop some HR professionals in their tracks, but implementing an Awareness Talk allows you to satisfy the need to address alleged behaviors, protect the accuser and protect the company.”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

With No Additional Witnesses? There’s Nothing We Can Do Here, Right? If you haven’t faced this yet, you certainly will in any employee relations role. Susan comes to human resources sharing details of Gary’s dastardly action. The accusations are big enough that HR makes this a priority and immediately starts an internal investigation. The one catch in this situation is that there were no witnesses. Let’s assume Gary’s alleged action was significant enough to warrant immediate termination, if validated.

Where there were no witnesses, the next logical step in the investigation would be to interview Gary and present him with an opportunity to share his story. What if, when presented with the accusation, the Gary says “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t do anything of the sort.

You’re stuck, right? There’s nothing more you can do, is there?


Let’s consider the risk before we simply walk away with a shoulder shrug and assume that we’ll never get to the absolute truth (which may actually be the case).

If Susan is telling the truth, and Gary’s actions were in fact that bad, the company now knows about the alleged activity and has a duty to act to protect Susan. The company also now has a duty to make sure that Susan is not retaliated against, again, assuming that the allegations are valid. The company may also be held accountable for addressing Gary’s inappropriate behavior in a manner that would be enough to prevent it from occurring again.

On the other hand, if Susan made the story up, a false accusation could be extremely damaging to Gary, and no company wants to reinforce the value of a powerful untruth.


Despite the “he said, she said” nature of the ‘complete’ investigation, there is in fact something effective that can be done that respects both parties (Gary and Susan) and protects the company. I call it an AWARENESS TALK.

The Awareness Talk With The Accused

Once you’ve conceded that “she said, he said” represents the complete investigation, the Awareness Talk happens first with Gary (the accused) and might sound something like this: “Gary, we spoke earlier about the allegations we heard about your inappropriate behavior. I also recognize that you are denying that these things occurred. I am not accusing you of these actions, but (since we’re on that topic) let’s at least have an awareness talk about appropriate work behaviors and boundaries.”

The non-confrontational and non-accusatory approach of the Awareness Talk allows you to coach Gary, in detail, and record that this discussion has taken place.

That meeting needs to conclude with a review of a non-retaliation standard, especially if Susan’s name has been shared or is known. This can also be approached in a non-accusatory way like this: “Now Gary, before we finish, I’m sure you’re aware that employees have a right to bring concerns forward without fear of retaliation. I know you pretty well and can’t imagine that you would do anything like this, but just wanted to remind you of this. We’re not going to have any issues with this, are we?”

So, this is what we share with Gary, the accused. What do we share with Susan (the accuser)?

The Awareness Talk With The Accuser

After Susan is told that you were unable to validate the story, you are now in a position to confirm to Susan that “the behavior has been addressed and will not happen again” and that she will “not be retaliated against” in any way.

You should also ask Susan to immediately report any repeat behaviors and any sense of retaliation directly to her manager (or to HR). You can reassure her that these behaviors will not be tolerated in any way.

How does this protect the company? Let’s suppose that Gary was dishonest with HR and his behaviors were reported again in the future. If the company’s actions were scrutinized by an external party, it would be able to show that it actually did a pretty effective job of teaching policy and appropriate behaviors, despite the absence of a validated story-line.

Let’s suppose that Susan was being dishonest and just wanted to get Gary fired. The non-accusatory approach of the Awareness Talk prevents the company from being held liable for repetitional harm that might accompany a false accusation.


If you would prefer to strengthen the nature of the Awareness Talk, I would recommend implementing a tactic that I learned from Jathan Janove, called a ‘Same Day Summary.’ The Same Day Summary is a written document (which could be an email) to the individual that is delivered to the individual to summarize the day’s meeting.

To illustrate how a Same Day Summary works, after HR met with Gary, an email would be sent to Gary on that same day that summarized the nature of the conversation. The tone could continue to be non-accusatory, but would detail the scope of the discussion. “Gary, as you are aware we met today to discuss appropriate behavior in the workplace and more specifically reviewed these six topics . . . Please let me know if this summary does not match your recollection of the meeting or if you have any questions.”


A simple “he said, she said” might stop some HR professionals in their tracks, but implementing an Awareness Talk allows you to satisfy the need to address alleged behaviors, protect the accuser and protect the company.

An Awareness Talk coupled with a Same Day Summary gives you double the teaching opportunities and provides even additional documentation, should the company’s practice ever be brought into question.

A seasoned employee relations person recognizes that there are always two sides to every story, and that rarely do all of the facts line-up. Having an Awareness Talk in your bag of tools will be a helpful practice for any HR professional, especially when we’re stuck with very different stories.

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

Amplify HR Department Service Levels – Go “Boundaryless”!

“HR leaders, I am encouraging you to open the gates and tear down the walls.”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in Berlin at the Brandenberg Gate and issued a challenge to the Soviets:

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

I want to introduce “one sign the” HR leader in an organization “can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the” service level of the HR department in the organization. HR leaders, I am encouraging you to open the gates and tear down the walls.

What I am referring to is what I call Boundaryless Service. If a human resource team can embrace operating in a boundaryless way, service levels will reach a new high and organizational support and confidence in the HR team will greatly increase.


Simply stated, Boundaryless is a commitment within the HR team that they will serve immediately, and at any level in the organization. Boundarless doesn’t change accountabilities, but it does dismantle territorialism.

There are three key commitments that must be in place for Boundaryless Service to work within an organization.

  • First, is a commitment to developing the HR team.
  • Second, is an understanding that there is an open door and even encouragement to serve wherever possible.
  • Third, there is a solid commitment to provide timely updates to individuals who have related accountabilities. 

Develop. Serve. Inform.

A simple example I use to teach this is the following scenario:

The HR team has been educated on accountabilities, not just within the department, but around the organization.


An employee comes to the HR department and says “I would like Cherry Coke in the soda machine downstairs.” The Boundaryless response from any member of the HR team would be something like, “I think that’s a great suggestion. I will see what I can do.” (This boundaryless HR team member then owns this assignment until it is appropriately handed-off or resolved)


The HR team member would then follow-up with the team responsible for the soda machine (say the cafeteria) and see if this is a viable option. Upon learning the answer, the HR person could either relay the information back to the employee directly, or get the cafeteria manager to commit to relay this information to the employee.

Bingo! The employee was immediately served, his request considered, and accountabilities were respected!

Tear Down The Walls

Human resource professionals committed to Boundaryless service will check their egos at the door and recognize that the whole HR team is working towards the same objectives, and that multiple resources are always greater than just one. Territorialism, internal competitiveness and department segmentation mentalities have got to take a back seat to the customer service commitment.

For example, a good HR leader will celebrate when a business partner is seen meeting with the CEO or one of her peers. A good HR team member will react only positively when one of their assigned internal customers is seen meeting with another member of the HR team.

Gone are the days of “Don’t speak with my boss without coming to me first.”
Let’s be done with “Why is she always meeting with members of ‘my’ department?”

How does this improve service levels? With everyone in the department committed to immediately satisfying organizational needs, developed cross-functionally, and throwing all available resources at any need, chances are that issues will be resolved quicker, in a less bureaucratic way.

Say goodbye to statements like “Judy is over benefits. I will let her know you stopped by.”

Instead, every employee in the department is prepared and trained to handle these basic questions. Thus, service is expedited, the employee experience is improved and the organization is better served.

Development Is Key

Ongoing HR team development is an important component of Boundaryless Service.

I made it a practice, for example, for each member of my HR teams, regardless of their area of speciality, to present at one of the benefit Open Enrollment meetings annually. Accountability for benefit responsibilities didn’t change, but this enabled and empowered the entire HR team to answer basic benefit questions that would regularly come to the department. Technical questions could still be routed to the benefits person, but most questions could be adequately answered immediately. The loop would then be closed with the individual offering the service to inform the benefits person who had the question and what was shared. (Develop. Serve. Inform.)

Staff meetings are a perfect opportunity for the team to share insights about their specific assignments and answers to common employee questions. Team members are also taught that if they don’t know the answer, they shouldn’t guess. It is still okay to refer people directly to the expert!

Exceptions to this standard do exist, however. If someone approaches a member of the HR team to seek support in a more sensitive area, such as compensation or a potential harassment or discrimination complaint, those should be immediately referred to the individual both trained and accountable for those issues.

To bring the service levels of your HR team to the next level, let’s tear down some walls! Let’s open doors and truly work together as a team. Let our commitments be to promptly resolving concerns and solving problems with all of our resources. Let’s be clear and respect accountabilities, but embrace each other’s help in achieving our organization’s goals and raising the service level (and reputation) of our HR department.

Let’s serve the organization better than ever before. Let’s serve Boundaryless!

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

Human Resources: Before You Aspire To A ‘Seat At The Table’

Before you aspire to sit at the executive table, please confirm that you like what’s on the menu!”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

I was involved in an acquisition of an organization in southern Switzerland. Stories from the executives first exploring the purchase described the lakeside city of Lugano, on the border of Italy. Not only did the location sound beautiful (palm trees?!) but they also described these incredible multi-course feasts that lasted for hours!

When it was finally my turn to visit Lugano and meet my HR team there, I was excited to experience first-hand the amazing feasts that had been discussed. There’s no doubt that my first and second night meals lived up to the descriptions! The food was a blend of Switzerland and Italy, and the courses just kept coming . . .

It would have been a foodie’s dream, but it was a nightmare for me. For someone like me, who is lactose intolerant, the never-ending cheeses and cream sauces destroyed my stomach and ultimately ruined my trip to the beautiful city of Lugano.

Before I aspired to a seat at that table, it would have been important to confirm that I liked what was on the menu.


Every human resource conference I’ve attended, and countless webinars and other presentations,

have preached that HR professionals should aspire to a “seat at the table.” Now, I firmly believe that “people” deserve a full-power, equal seat at the table, however that isn’t necessarily the only seat in the organization worth considering. Before you aspire to sit at the executive table, please confirm that you like what’s on the menu!

I’ve had a few different executive “seats at the table” in my career and have thoroughly enjoyed my affiliation with the senior leadership teams and the focus on company strategy. Compensation at that level is of course great and the prestige of the role looks good on a resume. What I didn’t realize as I gained that seat is just how much my menu would change.


An effective executive in any organization is an accomplished delegator. For the HR executive with a “seat” to succeed in this new role requires delegation of most of the duties that earned her that illustrious step in her career.

  • If she found success in talent acquisition and found recruiting most rewarding, she now has to delegate those duties to her team.
  • If payroll and HR databases were a passion, she now needs to have others build those systems and run his reports for her.
  • She, who was once the resident expert on benefits, now becomes reliant on her team to keep her updated on trends and changes.


While still expected to be an expert on everything HR, the ‘people’ executive with a seat at the table will become significantly more reliant on her team for information that she once would have pulled together herself. She will also generally spend more time in meetings than before. In fact, those increased meetings will likely have little to do with ‘human resources’, but rather focus on sales, profits, strategy and operations.

There is a high need and incredible opportunity for the right human resource professional to contribute meaningfully at ‘the table.’ To succeed at this new level requires not just effective delegation but also a new focus on the business itself. The customers you now focus on become the external customers. Your employees will not be forgotten, but your daily focus will be required to shift to a significantly different set of critical, business driving factors.

In essence, you’ve worked your way up the HR ladder, building expertise and gaining incredible experience in hopes of attaining the coveted seat at the table – only to learn that very little of your time will be spent using those finely-tuned HR skills. The hat you wear at that level is significantly different than even the most recent seat you might have occupied, which was still very much HR focused.

Gary Lear, President & CEO of Resource Development Systems, shared “If HR wants to get a seat at the table, then many of those working in HR will need to change their perspectives about their profession.”


There are lots of ‘seats’ in the organization and all arrows seem to point to ‘the seat at the table.’ We hear that goal and expectation from every seminar we attend and most articles we read.

A focus on ‘people’ in an organization has been an incredibly rewarding career choice for me and countless others. I think we recognize that there are many incredible seats in that career path. If you love your current seat or have an opportunity to grow in that track, maybe that’s best for you. Happiness in your role goes a long, long ways.

If your aspirations are higher, the business world needs driven, strategy-minded HR professionals to sit next to the CMO, CIO, CFO and the rest, playing an equal role. However, before you aspire to a seat at that table, please be sure that you will like what’s on the menu.

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

Can A Kick In The Gut Propel You Forward?

“. . . these low-points provide us with a fairly significant choice – do we double-over and let the kick take us out of the fight, or do we use that kick to propel us forward toward something greater?”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

Before the title of this article gets you caught-up in the laws of physics, let me clarify that I’m referring to a ‘professional’ kick-in-the-gut. You know the time when you’ve had that unfortunate event at work that hit you so hard that it hurt. Maybe it was a layoff. Maybe it was an unwanted transfer, demotion or role change. It may have even been that dreaded meeting where your manager brought you in and did his best to sound compassionate as he fired you. Whatever it was, that’s the kick-in-the-gut I’m referring to. Deserved or undeserved is not the issue. Fair or unfair also doesn’t matter in this equation. That. Just. Happened.

Most of us have, or will have one of these devastating meetings, and it sucks. Simply stated these are the low-points in our careers. However, these low-points provide us with a fairly significant choice – do we double-over and let the kick take us out of the fight, or do we use that kick to propel us forward toward something greater?

Let’s focus on the moments, days, weeks and months following the kick-in-the-gut and identify how we can use this kick in our favor. It is ultimately a choice we make, and the most exciting thing is that it is fully within our control.

Let me share a quick first-hand experience that illustrates how this works. This will be illustrated by two individuals selected for a layoff, whom we will nickname Rick and Deborah.

With my background in human resources I’ve had the tough ‘layoff’ discussion on far too many occasions. If you’ve been on the receiving end of this meeting at any point in your career, I’m sorry. Please let me assure you that it is not something that a good manager looks forward to.

When Rick was notified of his layoff, there was the standard reaction – shock, frustration, anger and ultimately a hasty exit from the facility. Rick struggled with the decision to the point that he wrote multiple negative online company reviews and wrote lengthy letters to company leadership in an attempt to tarnish the reputations of his now-former coworkers. Attempts from the company to positively communicate and assist him in finding a next opportunity were met with nothing but rage. Every struggle Rick faced as he sought his next opportunity was blamed on his prior company, which only added to his anger.

When kicked-in-the-gut, Rick was knocked down and embraced the pain and frustration,

allowing the cancerous nature of the frustration to consume him. Rick ultimately had choices to make after the kick to the gut, and chose the path of negativity and revenge. These choices unquestionably impacted his attitude, burned a bridge with his former employer and ultimately slowed his professional recovery.

Mandy Hale once said “A bad attitude can literally block love, blessings, and destiny from finding you. Don’t be the reason you don’t succeed.”

Let’s contrast Rick’s choices with how Deborah handled an almost identical situation. Deborah was called-in and given the same layoff notification. Deborah was of course shocked, but quickly moved to a position of support, asking what she could do to support her successor. Because of Deborah’s positive approach, she was allowed to stay on as an active employee for three weeks after the layoff notice (which I do not recommend as a practice) to assist in transition. During that three-week transition, only positive statements were made, even to those who approached Deborah and asked about how she felt about the decision to eliminate her position. Deborah seemed to embrace an attitude of “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” (Charles R. Swindoll)

Deborah took the same kick as Rick, but instead decided to let the kick propel her forward. Instead of posting negative company reviews, Deborah started to receive positive recommendations on social media. She had coworkers and her network immediately step-up and start to refer her to new opportunities. Deborah’s positive attitude and fortitude created an even stronger fan base anxious to help.

Wade Boggs once said “A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events and outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results.

On the other hand, Rick’s actions earned him an unfortunate “do not rehire” mark permanently attached to his employee file. Albert Einstein observed, “Weak people revenge. Strong people forgive. Intelligent people ignore.

How did Deborah really feel? She was hurt by the decision and had anxiety about her future, but when I spoke to her, she held her head high and expressed excitement about what the future might hold. She didn’t know why she was selected for a layoff, but her only mention of revenge against the company was actually a positive one. Believe it or not, Deborah’s ‘revenge’ path would ultimately be a win-win for both her and the company. Deborah planned on making the company question this decision – not through negativity or bad company reviews online, but by her future achievements. “The best revenge is massive success,” said Frank Sinatra.

The choices we make, especially after facing a challenge, can have a significant impact on our recovery. When the kick-in-the-gut comes, recognize that you have TOTAL CONTROL over whether you let that knock you down, or propel you forward. I will always lean towards the latter!

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!

The Effective Leader – Accountability Flows Uphill

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

When things go wrong in an organization, people see very quickly what the leader is made of. Leaders are generally given the benefit of the doubt when things are going well and the assumption is that the leader created those successes.

There’s an interesting change in mindset of the organization when things are going poorly. The organization often doesn’t immediately fault the leader, but looks to the leader to proclaim what the source of the problem might be.

How a leader responds when results are poor is a great test of her character. A good leader will remember that accountability flows uphill, while credit flows downhill.

Judge Smails, from the classic golf movie Caddyshack shared a witty poem about this leadership attitude:

“It’s easy to grin

When your ship comes in

And you’ve got the stock market beat.

But the man worthwhile,

Is the man who can smile,

When his shorts are too tight in the seat.”


Here’s a few stories that illustrate this concept rather well.


My sophomore year of high school I wrestled in the lightest weight class on my varsity team. Although the matches were one-on-one, when we wrestled against another school, there was also a team score. As the light-weight, my score was set early and the pressure was off as the team scores added-up. Those in the heavier weights, in a close match, didn’t just have the pressure of their own one-on-one results, but also the team’s results.

On a tightly contested match against our cross-town rival, one of our heavier wrestlers got himself into a tough position and ended-up losing a match that he should have won. Even though other wrestlers had lost, much of the team’s ultimate loss to our rivals seemed to rest on his shoulders. His loss sealed our fate, where the one match that followed mattered little toward the team result.

In the local paper interview following that devastating loss, our coach, Dick Fleischman, told everyone “That was my fault we lost that match. (The wrestler) did exactly what I told him to do.” Mr. Fleischman taught me an incredible lesson about accountability that night. When the world would have made it easy to point a finger at any of the wrestlers that lost, or a poor decision that got a wrestler in trouble, Mr. Fleischman took full accountability for his team’s result.


One day a HR Director showed up at work and noticed that all of the trees in front of the corporate office had been aggressively trimmed. In fact, these large trees looked awful! Where the HR Director was responsible for the facilities, he reached out to the Facilities Manager to learn more about how this happened. To his surprise, he learned that a well-intending, but inexperienced facilities employee had decided to trim the trees himself, to save the company money.

A furious CEO stormed into the HR Director’s office, having heard that the tree destruction was the work of one of our employees. He insisted on knowing the name of the employee who trimmed the trees because he was going to ‘have his head.’ The HR Director replied “I trimmed the trees.”

The CEO, now furious, pushed again for information and the HR Director again accepted the accountability for the failure, not naming the facilities employee. The HR Director went further to explain that this happened under his watch and was therefore his responsibility, and that if termination was in order, it should be him.

A bold move? Yes. A crazily bold illustration of accountability. Yes, as well.


A Vice President restructured his department and empowered his new department leadership to make all staffing decisions. The VP was involved in discussions, but only to provide insights, not to influence the direction of the team.

The team reached what many might have deemed to be an aggressive department change, which included laying-off two longer-term managers, but the VP embraced the decision as his own. After all, he had empowered the team to make this decision.

When the CEO and others ultimately disagreed with the decision, the VP explained the rationale (over-and-over) without ever disclosing that the ultimate details were not his decision. Whether he would have made the same or a different decision is irrelevant, because the VP understood that accountability flows uphill.


A good leader understands that she should ‘give credit where credit is due.’ When results are good, congratulations may flow, and a weak leader may be tempted to take the some of the credit for the successes. After all, she is expected to take accountability for the challenges, right?!

Faydra D. Fields once said “People who lack integrity will refuse to give credit where credit is due and will steal your credit and pretend to be you.”

The insecure manager may not hesitate to take credit for work that might not be his own. Sometimes fear of being replaced, or having his team ‘eclipse’ him in popularity. The manager truly interested in the organization and his team will give credit for successes to those who actually carried the load.

The impact of sharing credit with the team is captured by Brian Tracy’s quote “The more credit you give away, the more will come back to you. The more you help others, the more they will want to help you.”


The first human resource award I ever won was very early in my career, while I still worked for Idaho State University. The university had an extremely slow and cumbersome search process to fill vacant positions, and I built a simple technological fix that both quantified results and cut the time required to fill positions by over 30%. My boss took the idea to a national conference of the College and University Personnel Association (CUPA), where it won an award!

I excitedly awaited the return of my boss from this conference, with my plaque, but to my dismay, guess whose name was on the trophy? My boss’ name was on the trophy. He didn’t ask for it to be engraved that way, but my work was a reflection of his department and his leadership. The recognition committee didn’t ask for contributor names – they just awarded the department leader.

Credit flows inadvertently uphill on occasion, deserved or not. This is one of the biggest reasons that a good leader can afford to give as much credit as possible to contributors at all levels. I’ve been on stage and in other forums where my name has been listed in a ‘thank you’ from corporate leadership, where my team actually did most of the work. (If someone hands me a microphone, I’ll give credit where it is due, but that isn’t always a guarantee.)


When results are good, the leader is generally the first one to receive credit. When results are poor, the world looks for the leader to point a finger. The good leader can hold people accountable in private, but recognizes that accountability lies with her.

Remembering the two, simple, directional arrows is a great way to remember what flows up versus down. Share credit downward as often as you can, and remember that accountability flows upward. For what it’s worth, some of the most amazing leaders I’ve worked with have exemplified exactly this understanding of credit and accountability.

To learn more about Rod Lacey or SunstoneHR, please click here.