Psychological research has shown that humans are blind to their own blindness—we don’t know what we don’t know. In conducting high-stakes investigations concerning allegations of sexual misconduct, this can lead to disastrous consequences for the complainant, the accused, the workforce, the company, and the brand. 

Investigating allegations of sexual misconduct requires specialized knowledge, training, and experience. It demands an understanding of the societal and psychological forces at play and the precise information upon which the allegation is based. This can only be achieved by possessing knowledge of the biases and misconceptions that fuel and excuse this conduct, trauma, sexual offending behavior, and trauma-informed and behavioral-based interviewing practices.

Indeed, without a foundation of knowledge about these topics, you don’t know what you need to know

Culture is a powerful force: cultural and societal phenomena left unchecked result in biases and misconceptions that perpetuate gender-based violence. Beliefs, attitudes, and language serve to promote, justify, and reinforce sexual misconduct. They contribute to an overestimation of the prevalence of false reports; inaccurate assumptions about how a complainant should behave before, during, or after an incident of misconduct; the misperception that the complainant provoked what happened to them; and the mistaken belief that perpetrators are monsters who are unknown to us.

Trauma is a subjective emotional experience of an event. It is defined by the brain and the nervous system of the subject. When a threat is detected or stress is high, the brain’s defense circuitry can rapidly dominate the brain by impairing its rational part – the prefrontal cortex. In turn, the ability to think things through logically and make good, rational decisions can become impaired. In addition, the manner in which information is stored and remembered is changed. 

Knowing the implications of trauma is essential to understanding why a complainant might not tell the accused to stop, not report the alleged incident to law enforcement, delay disclosing the incident to others, share more information upon interview than they did at the time of their initial disclosure, display no apparent signs of distress immediately after the alleged incident, describe feeling frozen or as if they witnessed what occurred to them from afar, or remember questioning whether they may have done something to cause the accused’s actions. 

Sexual misconduct does not “just happen”; nor is it a random, senseless act committed by only sexual predators or individuals who are all bad. Instead, it is purposeful conduct driven by beliefs, thoughts, and actions that falls along a pathway of intentional behavior. There are warning signs that are often undetected, unreported, and hiding within silos of information. The ultimate act is a product of the interaction between the accused, the complainant, and their environment.

Understanding sexual offending behavior ensures the right questions are asked and the relevant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are detected. It allows for the identification of cognitive distortions (i.e., distorted interpretations of the complainant’s conduct that were fueled by the accused’s internal processes and led to the infusion of sexuality into otherwise benign behavior), seemingly unimportant behavior that may have served to test the complainant’s response to limit and boundary violations, and unique dynamics associated with the situation.

Finally, gathering the precise information about what is alleged to have occurred from both the complainant and the accused requires the use of trauma-informed and behavioral-based interviewing techniques. These approaches create a safe, empathic environment that maximizes the chances of obtaining reliable and relevant information. It is not enough for the interviewer to tell the interviewee, “We take these complaints very seriously,” and then simply listen to what they are saying. The interviewer must do something for the interviewee to feel heard. Indeed, to induce the experience of feeling heard, action is required.

Similarly, simply obtaining a written statement from the individuals involved is not sufficient. In line with the requisite knowledge to conduct these investigations, the complainant and the accused do not know all of the information from their experience that is relevant to include in their statement so that decision-makers understand the totality of circumstances surrounding the alleged misconduct. Accounts are often filled with implicit interpretations and conclusions that require a thorough exploration of the behavior that underlie them.

In short, not knowing what you don’t know has consequences. You may fail to believe a credible complainant, rely on incomplete and inaccurate information to determine an outcome, or wrongfully await law enforcement proceedings to run their course without appreciating the different standards they employ and, at times, the equal lack of knowledge they possess. All of this allows misconduct to continue within the workplace, employees to lose faith in the preventative measures an organization has in place, and companies to face greater legal exposure and public scrutiny. Retain someone who knows!