5 Steps for Handling Workplace Investigations

Joe Weinlick
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A workplace investigation is a time-consuming process for an employer, but the long-term benefits are worth the extra diligence and effort. The way you conduct an investigation can have far-reaching impacts on employee satisfaction, turnover and legal standing. With a fair, thorough process, you can resolve problems and protect your company if an employee decides to file a lawsuit.

1. Act Quickly

When an employee complaint triggers a workplace investigation, it's important to act quickly. Fast action prevents the situation from escalating; it also demonstrates that you take complaints seriously, which can help reduce the chance of a lawsuit by an angry employee. Don't sacrifice thoroughness for speed — a poorly conducted investigation can be worse than no action at all. As a best practice, use your company's human resources investigation policy to keep the process on track.

2. Manage Interviews Carefully

Interviews are the most important part of a workplace investigation. In general, it's a good idea to question the person who filed the complaint, the person who is accused and any witnesses. The interviewer matters — choose someone who's unbiased and professional, yet personable enough to make interviewees feel comfortable opening up. To ensure objectivity, use the same set of base questions for each interview. When follow-up questions are necessary, make sure they are also asked of the opposing party.

3. Document Each Step

In the case that an employee decides to bring a lawsuit against your company or another employee, a paper trail is invaluable. Stay safe by documenting each step of your workplace investigation carefully. Include dates, names, notes, location and questions asked. If photos are necessary, record as much contextual information as possible.

4. Ensure Confidentiality

Employees who are afraid of retaliation are unlikely to be forthcoming during a workplace investigation, so confidentiality is important. Don't disclose who made the complaint, even during interviews. In delicate situations, such as sexual harassment, you may opt to conduct interviews off-site. Keep evidence and interview notes in a safe, locked place.

5. Stay in Communication

As an investigation proceeds, it's important to stay in communication with the employee who made the complaint. Let him know how the investigation is proceeding, and encourage him to ask questions about confusing legal situations. When you reach a conclusion, tell the employee and, if necessary, explain how you plan to avoid similar problems in the future. This is particularly important for an employee complaint relating to workplace safety and other employer-controlled situations. Regular communication can reassure the employee and help prevent further legal action.

There's no question — a workplace investigation can require a significant amount of company time and resources. By investing in a thorough, objective process, however, you can avoid costly legal fees and employee turnover costs down the road.


Image courtesy of contemporary psychology at Flickr.com

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