Workplace Investigations: From HR Pro to Office Investigator – Unearth Facts, Solve Problems—and Avoid Lawsuits

Workplace Investigations

Capitalize on your interview skills to get to the bottom of any workplace incident

Conducting a workplace investigation should not be taken lightly—no matter the underlying incident. Investigations are certainly called for in the event of a harassment complaint, but you can also use investigations to discover, prevent, and address a range of problems from theft and vandalism to retaliation, substance abuse, social media violations, and safety issues.

Whatever the issue, the job of managing the company’s liability exposure often falls to the Human Resources professional. That’s why polishing your skills as an investigator—and learning to document and report what you find, are so critical, according to HR consultant Dr. Susan Strauss. There is an art and science to conducting a sound workplace investigation, especially in handling victims, witnesses, and accused workers who don’t want to talk.

When to Investigate: Look for Credible Evidence

While you might open an investigation for myriad reasons, the baseline for starting one is always the same, says the Society of Corporate and Compliance Ethics (SCCE): There should be credible evidence pointing to a significant wrongdoing, misconduct, or ethical lapses.

Good reasons to launch an investigation, says employment lawyer Janette Levey Frisch, include concerns over:

  • Employment discrimination
  • Employee health and safety
  • Retaliation claims
  • Evidence of harassment, discrimination, theft, violence, substance abuse, breach of trust, or conflict of interest
  • Offsite or after-hours conduct that affects job performance, breaks the law, or violates company policy
  • An individual employee’s sudden decline in morale, behavior, or performance

Why Investigate: Detect Wrongdoing, Demonstrate Fairness

Before beginning, consider the purpose of your investigation.

The goal should not be to affirm a pre-judgment but to instead prevent wrongdoing and uncover areas for improvement, SCCE states: “An effective investigation process protects the interests of the Company and its shareholders by (i) preventing and detecting misconduct and violations; (ii) ensuring that corporate activities comply with applicable laws and regulations; and (iii) identifying areas of improvement for internal business operations. Therefore, an investigation is not conducted simply to uncover sufficient facts to justify a result or to just record somewhere that the incident occurred.”

Bonus: In addition to the primarily goal of uncovering facts, there are other, ancillary benefits to an investigation, adds Frisch. You may use an investigation:

  • As a self-monitor tool to ensure that employees comply with laws, policies, and guidelines
  • To minimize the risk of improper termination or discipline
  • As a way to temper a hostile employee and fend off a lawsuit
  • To show that staff are committed to objective and fair treatment of workers
  • To uncover previously-unknown problems which, if allowed to continue, could form the basis of a lawsuit or complaint to a government agency

How to Investigate: Ask Prompt, Thorough Questions

Good investigations should be built on a foundation of fairness and neutrality, and you’ll best demonstrate those principles in in your interviews with the involved parties.

These interviews “are often the most crucial stage of the investigation because the investigator typically obtains most of their information here, and has the opportunity to assess the witnesses’ credibility,” explain Canadian legal consultants from McInnes Cooper.

Critical components of the investigation interview include:

  • Promptness: Conduct interviews as soon as possible, while memories are fresh.
  • Thoroughness: Ask who, what, where, when, why, and how.
  • Multiple points of view: Where possible, use two interviewers.
  • Documentation: Taking excellent notes.
  • The full story: Determine if there are additional witnesses.
  • Confidentiality, where possible.

When Not to Investigate

If everyone already agrees on what happened, says attorney Lisa Guerin, then an investigation might technically not be needed.

Smart: “Usually, however, it’s best to err on the side of conducting an investigation,” Guerin writes. “If the problem is more serious than it seemed, failing to investigate can lead to legal trouble—and continuing workplace problems. And sometimes, you just can’t tell how widespread or substantial a problem is until you do a little poking around.”

Workplace investigations are intricate, adds Strauss, and a lot is at stake—employers, managers, and Human Resource pros need to get it right the first time.

(This post first appeared in an AudioSolutionz blog)

By Jeff S on 24th September 2018