Workplace investigations are some of the most challenging tasks that human resource professionals must address. Oftentimes, these investigations involve sensitive subjects or complex scenarios that can be difficult to handle without causing negative publicity. If an investigation is not approached in the right manner, the consequences can be extreme and companies may experience backlash and permanent damage to their reputation. Knowing how to conduct effective workplace investigations is key to prevent the many possible repercussions associated with poor investigative techniques at work.
HR professionals may be forced to open a workplace investigation for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Improper employee behavior
- Workplace theft
- Suspected substance abuse
- Workplace policy violations
- Harassment, threats, or discrimination
No matter the circumstances, it is important for employers to always take employee concerns seriously to maintain a supportive work environment. Employers that fail to conduct proper investigations following an employee complaint risk having legal action taken against them. Settlements for these types of lawsuits can land in the six-figure ballpark or beyond, depending on the circumstances.
Follow a Framework for Approaching Employee Complaints
To ensure that your investigations are consistent and thorough, establish a framework that can be used to address all types of incidents. When creating your framework, consider the following essential components:
- Objectives – Remember that the primary goal of any workplace investigation is to reach a fair resolution. Be sure that all HR professionals and the organization as a whole are aware of all established investigation objectives so that they can be resolved in a timely manner.
- Scope – Ideally, you want to determine the scope of a workplace investigation early on so that you can better focus on your investigative procedures. With a solid scope, investigators are better able to collect relevant information and proceed with implementing corrective actions.
- Timing – Workplace investigations should be completed in a timely manner, but not so expedious that it affects the thoroughness of the investigator’s work. To avoid legal action, companies should begin investigation proceedings soon after receiving a concern or complaint from an employee.
When an employee comes to you with a concern or a complaint, be sure to get as much information as possible, such as who was involved, when it happened, and what company policies were broken. If the situation is severe, employers should take the time to consider whether paid leave should be provided until the situation can be resolved.
Embrace Essential Principles to Ensure Fairness
When conducting workplace investigations, it is important for employers to always demonstrate fairness in all proceedings. Before an employer takes any action, the case should be well-documented for verification. Workplace investigations should also support several essential principals, including:
- Thoroughness – Never rush an investigation. Take the time to get as much information from the parties involved and possible witnesses to the incident. Do not be afraid to ask plenty of questions.
- Neutrality – HR and employers should remain detached from the incident and the parties involved throughout the investigation process. This ensures that the investigation remains fair and impartial, allowing the truth to come out by taking each party’s version of the incident.
- Timeliness – Workplace investigations should be implemented soon after an employee makes a complaint. By waiting, you risk future acts of wrongdoing which could potentially interfere with your ability to conduct a fair investigation.
When it comes to workplace investigations, companies have the option to use in-house investigators or hire out. Having internal investigators take on the investigation can result in a quicker resolution, however, outsourcing can help all parties maintain a neutral stance.
Provide All Parties Involved with the Privacy They Deserve
Oftentimes, employers are hesitant to get involved in an investigation due to privacy reasons. It is crucial for employers to always respect the privacy of all parties involved in the incident. As these types of incidents often involve sensitive information, employers must maintain a sense of confidentiality for both privacy and safety reasons. When conducting an investigation, keep information limited to only a few select people, including:
- Respondents – This includes the alleged bully or harasser. Always alert this person that a claim has been brought against them and provide any essential details of the case.
- Witnesses – By talking to witnesses, investigators can gather more information from a third-party perspective. However, details should be kept to a minimum to maintain the privacy of those involved.
Conduct Interviews and Ask a Lot of Questions
When conducting workplace interviews, you want to gather as many details as possible. This can be accomplished by asking a lot of questions to the right people. You also want to interview people in the right order. Ideally, you should interview the complainant first, followed by any witnesses. Finally, interview the respondent. If follow-up interviews are needed, schedule them promptly while the information is still fresh in their minds.
During an interview, have written questions readily available. Questions should include both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions, as well as some open-ended questions. Examples of good questions to ask during a workplace interview include:
- What exactly happened during the incident?
- What occurred prior to the incident?
- Where and when did the incident occur?
- Who was present during the incident?
- What parties said or did what?
- Why do you think the incident occurred?
- Do you have any evidence to act as proof?
To prevent you from forgetting any relevant details, record all responses to interview questions. Also take detailed notes about any thoughts or ideas that may help you with the investigative process.
Taking Action Following the Interview Process
Once the investigator finishes his or her investigation, the results should be released. If the investigator comes to the conclusion that the alleged harasser or bully is responsible for the incident, swift action should be taken. The employer should:
- Create strategies to prevent the same type of misconduct from occurring in the future. This can be achieved through proper training and the release of educational resources.
- Ensure that all employees feel safe in their work environment.
- Engage in disciplinary action based on the severity of the incident. If there is no clear evidence against the alleged harasser, no action should be taken against the employee.
Following the investigation, all parties should be notified of the results. Finally, all findings should be compiled and put into a final report.
For more information or assistance conducting an effective and professional workplace investigation at your organization, contact the brokers at The Business Benefits Group today!