How to Handle a Scandal in the Workplace

Here are a few broad strategies for handling a workplace scandal that can get you pointed in the right direction.

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How to Handle a Scandal in the Workplace

Here's what you need to know:

  • It’s mission-critical to stick to the facts when confronted with a workplace scandal
  • Within the boundaries of ethics and the law, uncover the facts that you can
  • Consult with your company’s legal advisors and document every step of the process
  • Do what you can to control the internal (and external) narrative
  • Consider getting help from a PR professional

A workplace scandal is up near the top of every business owner’s worst nightmare. A workplace scandal is usually less of a worry for employees.

But should a workplace scandal crop up, employees will certainly have concerns about their ties to the organization and what that means for their careers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to handling workplace scandals, the devil is often in the details. Each situation is unique and has to be treated and handled as such. Yet, there are still some overarching strategies that HR professionals and company leadership can turn to in a time of need.

Here are a few broad strategies for handling a scandal in the workplace that can get you pointed in the right direction.

Focus on the facts when a workplace scandal happens

Workplace scandals are, well, scandalous. And where there’s scandal, there’s almost certainly going to be a healthy portion of gossip to go along with it. That’s why it’s mission-critical to stick to the facts when confronted with a workplace scandal.

Often, the first step in sticking to the facts is uncovering the facts. Learn as much as you can about what did (and didn’t) happen as quickly as possible.

Within the boundaries of ethics and the law, uncover what you can. Look through email and messaging communications. Look at calendar events to corroborate events. Additionally, look at security camera footage if that’s available.

Learn as much as you can about what did (and didn’t) happen as quickly as possible.

Of course, you’ll likely want to interview the parties involved and witnesses to the event should there be any. It’s important to not come to any conclusions before you have all the facts.

Don’t ask leading questions. In the earliest stages, your job isn’t to get to the bottom of things. Your job is to gather as much information and documentation as possible.

It’s important to remember that some of the conversations you have might have to remain confidential. If that’s the case, you have to honor it.

Then, information and facts in hand, consult with others on the best path forward. Work hand in hand with your manager if you feel like you’re out of your league doing this on your own. Work alongside other managers of the involved parties and your company’s leadership.

You’ll also want to get in touch with your company’s legal advisors. Depending on the situation, you might want to speak to local, state, or even federal government agencies, too, should that be relevant.

The goal of meeting with and involving all of these people is to figure out the best path forward. Was there a crime involved? Did the event take place on company property or during a company event? Was the scandal between a manager and their employee or among peers?

Then, depending on where these meetings lead you, you might have to do follow-up investigations and interviews to uncover more information. Remember: document every step of the process. If there ever comes a point where you feel like you’re in over your head, ask for help.

There are professional resources that can take over investigating workplace scandals. Don’t hesitate to get any professional assistance that you might need.

Do what you can to control the internal (and external) narrative

When a workplace scandal happens, the rumor mill starts churning. If your company is in the public eye, chances are that you’ll have external rumors and maybe even media coverage to contend with, too.

One of the best things you can do is work to get control of the narrative before the narrative creates itself. Of course, honesty is crucial and lying or covering up any wrongdoing is not only unethical, but a potential legal issue as well.

The goal is to lead with the facts and stop rumors and falsehoods from spreading and impacting any investigations or outcomes.

Internally, get company-wide communications ready. Whether that’s company-wide emails, an all-hands meeting, or Q&A sessions with individual teams or employees, the goal is open and honest communication.

You’ll want to cover as much as you can share about what did (or didn’t) happen and what the company is doing about it. Be clear about what the process will entail and how long you expect it to last.

Should the workplace scandal be triggering for anyone, be sure to offer or at least connect them with mental health resources.

Consider getting help from a PR professional

If you have an external narrative crisis, this is the time to hand things over to PR pros. If the media is involved, remind your company of your media policy if you have one.

And if you don’t, this is probably a good time to put one in place. Many companies opt to have one point of contact for press inquiries. It’s important that this person doesn’t function as a choke on information, though.

Journalists are tasked with informing the public and if they can’t get truthful and factual information from you, they’ll have to resort to getting it elsewhere. This could include your employees who can be anonymous sources should they have legitimate fears about retaliation and the like. Honesty is the best policy.

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Workplace scandals from the employee perspective

A workplace scandal doesn’t just impact the involved parties and leadership. Employees can be impacted by workplace scandals, too.

As the Harvard Business Review explains, “having your employer get caught in a public scandal is an agonizing professional experience. Even if your company comes out okay financially, it’s likely to have a tarnished reputation.”

It can be hard to know whether you should stay or leave the company. How much will this scandal impact your professional reputation? And what does all of this have to do with your future career prospects?

Ultimately, many of these answers can only be answered by you. First, recognize that this is a challenging time even for those who were completely uninvolved in the scandal.

So, above all else, take it easy on yourself. Rest as much as you need to and don’t worry about making any of these decisions right away. Take the time you need to gather the information you need to make informed decisions.

This can mean waiting for the result of an ongoing investigation or having a 1-on-1 sit-down with your manager or company leadership to get more insight. Don’t make a decision until you feel like you have everything you need to make an informed choice.

Then, it’s entirely up to you. Perhaps the scandal was the result of one individual or an isolated incident that’s been properly dealt with. In that case, the pros of staying will likely outweigh the cons of leaving.

But, if the scandal itself or the way it was dealt with don’t sit right with you, it might be time to take a stand. Taking a stand can be particularly important if you’re a member of the leadership team.

Every workplace scandal is different

Whatever you decide, one thing the HBR professionals caution against is doing too much networking before the scandalous dust settles. Especially if the scandal is public, conversation is likely to drift to that, muddying your journey towards other offers.

In the end, on both the employee and employer sides, there’s no single best way to handle a workplace scandal. It all depends on the details and the facts. It’s about making the best, most ethical decisions you can with the factual information available to you.

In general, it’s best to not rush into action unless it’s necessary. Take as much time as you can to make the best decisions possible. It’s all a process.

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