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The Nature of A Workplace Investigation

By its very nature, a workplace investigation is an inquiry; a search for the truth behind complaints or concerns received. Recognizing the need for such an inquiry is sometimes straightforward. In a typical circumstance, an employee may file a complaint with the human resources department. It then becomes the organization’s responsibility to evaluate the legitimacy of that complaint through investigation. Often times, the organization even has a legal responsibility to investigate the response. In other situations, symptoms of a larger problem may arise more subtly: through turnover, diminished performance, increased absenteeism, etc. In the day-to-day hustle and bustle of meeting deadlines and managing crises, these symptoms sometimes go overlooked. A “head in the sand” approach is not advisable; do not make the mistake of assuming all is well so long as no one is making formal complaints. The organization interested in minimizing its legal exposure maintains a responsibility for assuring symptoms are recognized and properly investigated and resolutions are implemented.

Fundamentally, a workplace investigation is also a process, a process that involves careful planning, deployment of proper fact-gathering techniques, and consistent application of corrective or disciplinary action. [1] Exposure-creating mistakes are often made when this process is short-circuited, particularly in the planning phase. Avoid the tendency to jump immediately to solutions and invest the time needed to verify the complaint and identify its underlying causes.

Here are some basic principles for properly conducting a workplace investigation:

  • Be prompt. Begin planning your investigative effort as quickly as possible after the concerns are raised. Furthermore, ensure the investigation itself unfolds in a timely manner. Allowing the investigation to languish may inadvertently create perceptions that the behavior(s) in question are condoned by the organization or are not taken seriously. In addition, critical evidence and witness statements can become compromised if the investigative effort is delayed.

  • Be consistent. This principle applies throughout the entire investigative process. Clearly define the parameters that dictate what gets investigated and adhere to those parameters consistently. Treat all parties participating in the investigation fairly. Apply company policies consistently in dispensing corrective/disciplinary action.

  • Be objective. There is no place for personal opinion in a workplace investigation. Your goal should be to maintain impartiality at all times. Best practices indicate that the primary investigator should have no stake in the outcome of the investigation and should be properly trained. Consider the use of witnesses on both “sides” of a matter.

  • Document everything. Explicitly outline procedures for documentation and ensure they are followed consistently. In addition to the facts gathered and the sources of those facts, the full investigative process should be carefully documented. Create a written report to summarize the findings.

Ultimately, early intervention not only saves the organization in litigation costs but also indirectly impacts the organization’s bottom line by creating a positive organizational culture where employee concerns are heard. The power of employee “voice” has been well-documented and is related to a variety of positive organizational outcomes such as individual job performance, creativity, and team performance.

Always be mindful that workplace investigations are fraught with legal risk; however, the failure to investigate (or conducting an unethical/illegal investigation) can create even bigger problems for the organization. Operate with these principles in mind and your effort can help mitigate the risk.

Contact Natalie Lynch for more information regarding how the properly conducting investigations in your workplace can reduce legal exposure and improve organizational effectiveness.

[1] Ferraro, E. F. (2006). Investigations in the workplace. Boca Raton, FL: Auerbach Publications.