When the HR department receives a complaint, or something seems suspicious, one of the first steps is to determine whether an internal investigation is warranted or not. Usually, the answer is yes. An investigation is required after an employee files a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, defamation or retaliation. A workplace investigation is also advisable when there could be violations of company policy, criminal behavior, theft of property or regulatory compliance issues.

Sometimes an investigation is not necessary, especially if the complainant and the respondent agree on what happened. For example, if the situation appears to be mainly a personality conflict or rudeness, rather than serious wrongdoing, then you might decide you don’t need to formally investigate. An informal approach could be best if it’s a matter of miscommunication or misunderstanding of company policy.

When you are not sure, err on the side of caution. It’s better to conduct a formal investigation immediately. If the problem turns out to be more severe than anticipated, failing to investigate can cause legal problems and continued workplace problems that interfere with productivity. Often, you can’t recognize how widespread or substantial a problem is until you ask enough questions and dive in. So let’s do that!

This guide is intended to assist managers with conducting a fair and thorough investigation in the workplace, particularly those related to claims of harassment or discrimination.

Tips for Effective Workplace Investigations

  • Respond quickly when you receive an employee complaint. Notify the necessary managers or company officials of the situation and your plan to investigate it. Seek legal guidance when needed.
  • Conduct a thorough interview of the accuser or initial witness. Ask who, what, when, where, how and why (see sample questions below). Reiterate the need for employee cooperation in maintaining discretion and ensuring that no one experiences retaliation.
  • Put out the fire first and stabilize the workplace. No decision has to be made now on discipline. The more severe the claim or emotions, the more care may be needed to keep employees separate and/or safe from any further threats, retaliation or harassment while you investigate.
  • Make a case-by-case decision whether or not to place the accused on non-disciplinary leave or allow voluntary leave for the accuser during the investigation. Reinforce the company’s no retaliation policy.
  • Assess what additional help you need. Consult with your manager and possibly legal counsel in allegations of discrimination, harassment and/or violence.
  • Define who you need to speak with and what questions you will ask.
  • Do not be unduly swayed by your knowledge of those involved. Be objective, and do not pick sides.
  • Make decisions on the action(s) to take with due consideration of past history. Don’t debate with the disciplined/discharged employee (the investigation was complete and is over). Close the investigation with those who need to know.
  • Follow up as needed on the effectiveness of the corrective action. Be alert to retaliation claims and follow up on them.
  • If you find there is no probable cause due to one employee’s word versus another, you may consider advising the accused that if a similar issue is raised again, the first incident will be taken into consideration during the new investigation.
  • At the conclusion of an investigation, a thorough report should be compiled. These reports can be individual documents pooled together into one file or a large summary report. Either way, the report should include the following:
    • The incident being investigated, with dates.
    • The individuals involved.
    • Key factual findings and credibility determinations.
    • Applicable employer policies or guidelines.
    • Summaries of witness statements.
    • Specific conclusions.
    • The name of the person making a final decision.
    • Issues that couldn’t be resolved.
    • Employer actions taken.

Don’t take a long time to decide whether a formal investigation is necessary or not. In many cases, juries have awarded huge sums to plaintiffs because the employer’s response to a complaint was delayed, inadequate or inappropriate. Don’t be the one to blame!

Be on the lookout for Part 2 of this blog series with several investigative interview tips and sample questions!