Workplace Investigation Basics

When someone makes a complaint to your department, it’s vital that it be handled swiftly and carefully. After all, no one wants to let a problem fester until it blows up into a costly lawsuit. A workplace investigation is your best chance to sort out what happened and give you the information you need to decide what to do about it. Following the basic 9 steps below can help ensure that the process achieves the intended outcome.


Step 1: To Investigate or Not Investigate. The first thing you have to do is determine whether or not an actual investigation is warranted. There are situations where a formal investigation is not needed. If all the parties can agree on what happened and it is a relatively minor problem, you might be able to suggest a course of action that would not necessitate a full investigation. It’s also important to realize that in these situations, it’s usually best to err on the side of going ahead and doing the investigation – there’s always the chance that what looks at first to be a small problem is actually just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If there is a more serious problem at play, not conducting an investigation can lead to major legal headaches down the road. The investigation offers you a better route for determining the true extent of the problem.

Step 2: If Warranted, Act Immediately. If there is any chance that the situation could quickly escalate or there is substantial potential harm to your company, you need to act swiftly. Situations that call for immediate action include serious sexual harassment complaints, alleged theft of anything from the company, or an employee having a weapon in the workplace. In those cases, the best course of action is to temporarily suspend the employee with pay while you begin an investigation on what happened. No matter what it looks like at first, though, you have to suspend judgment in order to find out the facts. Things aren’t always what they seem, and being accusatory from the outset can once again create serious legal issues down the road.

Step 3: Appoint an Investigator. Hopefully you’ve got someone on staff who knows the ins and outs of conducting a workplace investigation. It needs to be someone who can not only be impartial, but who is also perceived as impartial by the employees involved. This person also needs to realize that they may eventually have to testify in court. If you don’t have someone on staff who fits the bill, you’ll need to hire an outside investigator.

Step 4: Lay Out a Plan. Using whatever information you already have, take the time to plan an investigation thoroughly. You need to determine what steps you will take to find out what actually happened, such as conducting interviews with anyone who might have needed information and examining related documents.

Step 5: Execute the Plan. Leave no stone unturned in your efforts to gather information and facts so that you have what you need to make a decision about what to do. Any interviews you conduct should include plenty of open-ended questions so that interviewees share as much information with you as possible. Gather any documents that might help, such as personnel files, email messages and other correspondence, as well as related company policies. Anything that might count as evidence needs to be at your fingertips.

Step 6: Assess the Evidence. This is probably the trickiest part of the investigation, since you may have conflicting stories or other evidence that makes figuring out the truth of what happened difficult. You have to think through what makes the most sense, who might have the motivation to be deceptive about the situation, and so on. And sometimes you may just not have enough information to definitively say what happened.

Step 7: Act. If you’re convinced that some major wrongdoing has occurred, then you must act quickly to take disciplinary action. Dragging your feet can cause legal problems because you’re failing to do something about a bad situation. Be knowledgeable about how similar problems were handled in the past to help you figure out what course of action to take.

Step 8: Document Everything. Every step of your investigation and every bit of evidence you consider must be thoroughly documented, including a report that details what you did, when you did it and why you did it. This is necessary in order to legally protect the company from lawsuits as well as form a record for potential future misconduct by the same employee.

Step 9: Resolution. It’s important that all the employees involved feel like the problem has been resolved, and that any required actions on the part of the disciplined employee have been taken, such as harassment training.

No one likes dealing with serious complaints of wrongdoing and conducting workplace investigations, but it is a necessary process that when done well can protect your company from costly lawsuits by resolving problems swiftly and fairly.

November 20, 2014   Updated :October 28, 2015   talent management, workplace investigation   

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