Investigators often encounter descriptions of events that are totally at odds with each other in the course of their interviews.  In many cases, it can be chalked up to different perspectives; in some cases, it’s an attempted cover-up.  But in cases of staff abuse, it may be something else entirely.

Dr. Jennifer Freyd has researched trauma and its effects on memory extensively.  It is common knowledge in the trauma therapy community that traumatic memories are often repressed as a defense mechanism, especially if they are sexual in nature.  Freyd’s research has centered on ‘Betrayal trauma’ – trauma caused when someone is betrayed by a major support system.  The greater the feeling of betrayal, the more that is forgotten about the traumatic experience.

While Freyd’s initial research was based on interpersonal betrayal, her recent research has been focused on institutional betrayal.  Freyd discussed institutional betrayal at the most recent Association of Workplace Investigators conference.

Institutional betrayal is exactly what it sounds like, and there’s a good chance you will encounter it during a workplace investigation.  An employee has been mistreated by someone in the agency that they trusted.  Upon bringing the issue up to a supervisor, they are ignored or not supported, and left feeling betrayed by their employer.

In response to the trauma, the victim’s mind makes the event seem less bad than it was, or the event is forgotten entirely.  The mind employs this defense mechanism because, if the person felt they were betrayed in a major way, it would make it difficult to ever trust people (or institutions) again.

If you find yourself investigating a person who is reported to have a history of staff abuse, you may interview people who experienced abuse years ago.  These people may not remember key details of the alleged event, or remember it at all. In these cases, their lack of memory may not be because the events never happened – it may instead be because the institution they trusted to support them let them down in their time of need.  Unlocking the missing details in these cases will take extra work, but validating a complaint of this magnitude may prevent trauma to future agency employees.

To learn more about how CMTS:HR can help you streamline your workplace investigation process and reduce your risk, call us at 855-636-5361 or email us at