Brent, in your hypothetical, Tom and Sally reached out and made allegations to the mission leader. It seems fairly obvious this should have triggered an investigation. But we probably want to spend more time thinking about how investigations get started. When should you investigate?
A number of situations may call for an investigation. Obviously, someone might file a formal complaint or grievance about a topic that would call for an investigation (sexual harassment, discrimination, illegal behavior). You might also hear an informal or casual report or comment—someone at a party says that someone made an inappropriate sexual comment or engaged in inappropriate physical behavior. A third possibility is that someone observes inappropriate conduct. A supervisor may note significant changes in behavior or morale that bear looking into, and may uncover something that needs to be investigated. Finally—and one that may leave you wishing you had been more proactive sooner—you may get a complaint from an attorney or have a lawsuit filed against you.
When a problem is at the level of an observation or an informal discussion, that is a chance to get it resolved, not to ignore it and let it build up. If someone in a responsible position in an organization sees or hears something, they are responsible to do something, and if they do not, the organization can be at fault for their behavior. At least, they should pass along the information to the designated persons in HR who deal with that kind of thing. Unless it is a very low-level employee, knowledge can be imputed to the organization.
Timing is important. Investigations should generally take place within days, not weeks or months. Geography may make this a bit more difficult, and also how long ago the event occurred, so there will be a case-by-case analysis. But even with offenses that happened a very long time ago, the complaining witness will feel slighted and ignored if weeks or months go by and the organization seems to be doing nothing. If it is going to take awhile, for legitimate reasons, it’s a good idea to be communicating with the complaining witness about that.
In our hypothetical Tom and Sally felt they could complain to our mission leader about Bill. But apparently, they had no designated person to whom they could take their complaint about Bill himself. There should always be at least two designated persons to receive a report, in case one of them is personally involved, or is just unavailable for some reason. In your hypothetical, that would have given Tom and Sally a chance to solve the problem without taking it to an attorney.
Having more than one route to make the complaint also makes people feel there is a fair and impartial process, and that top management is committed to resolving these problems. Here, mission leader was the bottleneck—especially since he decided to solve his problem by letting Tom and Sally go. We should probably talk a bit more about retaliation next time.
Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion