The Problem with Internal Investigations of Workplace Bully Bosses

We encourage HR professionals and Employees to submit topics on which you would like an article written.  This article was inspired by a question from someone who is an internal investigator who asked: “So what is wrong with Internal Investigations?”

Nearly fifteen years ago, I began researching the topic of workplace bullying because of experiences which I encountered in the workplace.  The first time or two I felt it had to be something wrong with me, something I was or was not doing.  But, it was just the opposite. There were things which I was doing too well which became an issue to the targets who were my bosses in several different occupational and organizational settings.  This realization was not immediate but only after years of studying the topic and reading volumes of research and books authored by the experts in the field, including Tim Fields, Stale Einarsen, Pauline Peyton, and many others.

Since that time, having continued to witness and experience first hand the bully boss at his/her worst, I have also authored a book on the topic, entitled, How Organizations Empower the Bully Boss: A criminal in the workplace, June, 2009.  It was my conclusion that bully bosses could not continue to practice their behavior unless it was condoned by the organization itself, either intentionally or by ignoring the behavior thus in either case, empowering the bully.

I also began consulting to organizations so as to bring my knowledge and experience about the plethora of ways bullies have managed to operate in almost a stealth like manner avoiding the attention or suspicion of their leadership.  I also counsel the broken and dispirited individuals called targets who, suffer immeasurably psychologically, financially and spiritually.  Some never regain what they have lost in self esteem, confidence, or emotional stability.  I speak on this topic to organizations who are motivated to change in an effort to decrease the costs associated with this phenomenon called bullying bosses and bullying co-workers. I am what is termed a cultural informant and shadow consultant when called upon and an external investigator.

There is always a conflict of interest when the internal investigation occurs. First, pure and simple there is only six degrees separation between almost anyone we need to use to influence someone; this is a known fact. In the organizational setting where an investigation is to take place anyone associated with doing the investigation who is an employee will be known by someone who knows someone who is being investigated. This is a no win situation for the person complaining and compromises the investigation.  I have seen it in many organizations. The cronyism which exists, favors owed, even enemies who come together to collect on a previous debt or favor.  Who is able to trust anyone internally who is performing the investigation?  None of those individual targets who I have interviewed in recent months.  Not one has said that the organizations’ internal investigation shed any light on the truth nor were any changes made to the bullying culture.

In fact  (Rayner, 2002) data suggest that targets rarely get to know what, if anything, happens as a result of visiting centralized staff such as those in personnel or human resources.  According to Unison (1997, 2000a) more actions occur than such professionals are willing to share with those who have filed complaints. Hoel & Cooper (2000a) also see potential in having occupational health practitioners involved to assess risk of bullying behavior but only if they are able to clarify their relationship with the employer “in order to act more independently.

All (Rayner, 2002) interventions should start at the top, but if bullying is endemic it is likely that the senior managers have survived and participated in a bullying system during their own employment.  This situation may present several problems. Senior mangers or the director may be unwilling to label situations or cultures as bullying. They may be unwilling to devote resources to anti bullying programs, and they may play down the effect that bullying can have and the damage it can cause.  In all instances, hard data can be used to counter these claims. However it is unlikely that senior staff in such a situation will be enthusiastic about running a survey on bullying in order to get local evidence.

Policy and procedures can be ineffective, and one should not underestimate the ability (conscious or otherwise) of senior managers to undermine the process!  One  (Rayner) of the most undermining systems we have observed is what is termed ‘vacuum management’.  This is where decisions fail to be made.  Senior managers may hope that by not giving an answer , the situation will go away, and sometimes does.  Of course many staff will know about their tactics. Unfortunately this lack of action can lead to staff having no confidence in senior managers’ willingness or ability to combat bullying at work and unfortunately in some instances this is very well founded.

Internal investigators are usually the choice of organizations when an employee has a complaint of bullying, harassment, etc.  The obvious reasons for the organization preferring internal investigators are that, first, they are convenient and easily accessible to those who are to be interviewed, they are knowledgeable about the organizational culture, but most importantly they save the organization money.  Another reason is that in some organizations where complaints are frequent due to the organizational culture of bullying, that it allows the organization to have more control over the final analysis of the investigation.  Investigations where the culture promotes the behavior which is being complained about, will be either ignored, neutralized or flipped to make the target the bad guy.

Although it appears that the use of an internal investigation is more convenient, less costly and does what is needed, nothing could be further from the truth.  Internal investigators can end up costing the organization much more than what an external investigation does in the long run.

First, the internal investigation can give rise to someone complaining that the investigator was biased. And, if that is the new complaint then an external investigation will be requested and necessary adding to the costs already expended on the internal investigator (even if this person is not paid someone else has to perform his/her duties while they are investigating).

Secondly, most internal investigations for some reason are in favor of the organization which leads to loss of trust, and less likelihood of people (targets and witnesses) divulging the truth.  People tend to take the course of least resistance and to go  with the winning team.  If workers perceive that the organization always wins in these types of investigations, they will either not be a witness or they (if a target) will back down.

When either of these two instances occur, the pain does not go away it just lies dormant or festers until an eruption occurs causing either: a lawsuit, chaos in working relations, or acts of violence, including sabotage of  items/information valuable to the organization, and loss of productivity due to passive aggressive retaliation on the organization, illnesses, and or worker compensation’s cases filed. But an external investigator offers the following:

Advantages of contracting an external investigator are:

They have nothing to be gained by their conclusions and are not vested in any party or allegiances

  • They are experienced and knowledgeable in the area of organizational conflicts
  • They can be used to guide and counsel internal investigators; thus monitoring whether bias is occurring
  • Adept at intervention referrals for targets who need counseling
  • Are not afraid nor timid regarding full engagement in what often is confrontational territory
  • Attuned to when mediation may be possible early on thus avoiding potential lawsuits

(note: Marilyn is the author of the #1 Bully Boss book on Amazon for the past year since being published in June 2009 found at this link:  She is available for organizations as a consultant, investigator, shadow consultant, speaker, cultural informant. She can be contacted via the following methods):

email: websites: and

cell:      323 594 9014                                        

Twitter:  DoRightAtWork and a.k.a. Dr_Vee, Linked in and Plaxo


Hoel, H., Cooper, C.L. (2000a), Working with victims of workplace bullying, in H. Kemshall and J. Pritchard (eds) ‘Good Practice in Working with Victims of  violence’, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp. 101-108.

Schein, B. (1996) Organizational Culture and Leadership (2nd edn), San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Unison (2000) Police Staff Bullying Report (number 1777), in Rayner, C. ‘Workplace Bullying: What we know, who is to blame and what can we do?’ London: Taylor & Francis.

Rayner, C. (2002). Workplace Bullying: What we know, who is to blame and what can we do?’ London: Taylor & Francis.


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