Best Practices to Execute Workplace Investigations

HR professionals have a challenging job. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects is dealing with employee misconduct in the workplace. In order to avoid allegations of potential unfair treatment, businesses need a defined process for workplace investigations.

Without a structured approach to investigating conflicts or misconduct in the workplace, you run the risk of making a bad situation that much worse. This blog will help you understand how to create a workplace investigation protocol that works well for all parties involved.

Creating a Functional Workplace Investigation Process

The investigation interview is a huge part of the process. The approach to investigating occurrences in the workplace should have a focus on uncovering crucial facts to arrive at a fair and equitable outcome. A poorly performed investigation can have massive implications for a company, including damages, back pay, and even reinstating employees fired as a result of the investigation.

A properly conducted workplace investigation, by contrast, brings essential information to light. This empowers HR managers to make the right decision, based on all available facts. A correctly executed investigation goes a long way to build trust between employees and management, as well as weeding out unsavory characters from your workforce.

Of course, that’s not to say it can’t be a difficult, even uncomfortable, ordeal for all parties involved. Even so, with a focus on collecting pertinent facts, you can create a process that works for the benefit of both the individual employee and the workplace as a whole. Here are a few practices that seem to work well with most modern businesses:

  1. Create a Standardized Timeline for Investigation
  2. Be Transparent About the Reasons for an Investigation
  3. Don’t Step Outside Company Investigation Protocols
  4. Avoid Delaying the Investigation
  5. Be Sure To Pose the Right Questions
  6. Document Every Step of the Process

Read on to find out more.

Create a Standardized Timeline for Investigation

Whenever there is a conflict or alleged misconduct, the investigation process will likely take several days, or even weeks, to be properly executed. As such, it is best to develop a standard timeline for certain types of investigations, such as harassment, embezzlement, lies on a resume, or even workplace bullying. Your timeline should take into account the number of interviews you need to conduct.

This will usually include the complainant, the employee accused of misconduct, any witnesses to the event, and in some cases, the managers of both employees. All of this takes time, especially when your approach is to uncover and ascertain as many relevant facts as possible. In order to streamline your investigation, you need to create standardized timelines and adhere to them to make sure there are no unnecessary delays in the process.

Be Transparent About the Reasons for an Investigation

Interviewing a worker accused of misconduct can be a tricky situation. On one hand, for obvious reasons, you may need to protect the identity of the complainant. This is especially true if the employee against whom the allegations have been made is in a senior position or management role. Confidentiality protects the complainant from possible blowback in case of the investigation rules in the other party’s favour.

Best Practices to Execute Workplace Investigations

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to create elaborate conversations to extract information. While certain information should always remain confidential, it is only fair to tell the other party what they are being investigated for. In such cases, the reasons for the HR investigation must be made clear, even if the specifics surrounding the complainant are not disclosed.

Don’t Step Outside Company Investigation Protocols

Even smaller companies have some form of procedures for investigation; usually, this process is outlined in the employee handbook. If your company doesn’t have a structure in place, we suggest you work on developing one immediately. The structure defined by your company policies is sacred, which means that when conducting an investigation, the investigator must be careful not to exceed it.

Doing so can possibly violate both company policy and workplace investigations employee rights. In these cases, the aggrieved parties involved can create pain points for the organization, regardless of whether they were guilty of misconduct or not. Ensure that fair treatment is practiced universally across the board, and equally within the parameters of company policy.

Avoid Delaying the Investigation

Unnecessarily delaying a serious workplace investigation is one of the worst things HR professionals can do. It reflects poorly on your HR function as a whole. If you’re not careful, such delays will have a negative impact on your employer brand.

You may earn the unwanted image of being a company that protects employees involved in misconduct. This will seriously impair your chances of attracting future talent, especially in competitive fields like IT staffing, as well as harming your reputation in the industry, both as an employer as well as a brand.

Be Sure To Pose the Right Questions

The investigation process needs to be unbiased, treating both parties with equal respect and seriousness. That means you need to carefully plan out the questions being asked, ensuring they appear fair and objective. Remember: employees can easily gain the impression that the investigation is moving towards a pre-determined outcome. This will seriously undermine the trust they have with the HR function and will impact employee morale.

By comparison, a consistent process that is fair, objective, and gives an unbiased employee evaluation will be better received. Remember, it is not just the process that matters, but how it is perceived by workers as well. Work with HR professionals or even your local staffing agency to develop a standardized list of questions to remove any perceptions of bias.

Document Every Step of the Process

Given the possibility that a disgruntled employee who feels they were treated unfairly can sue your business, covering all bases is a prudent approach. One of the best ways to do this is to ensure you carefully document each stage of the investigation process.

Documenting the process means including crucial dates, interview summaries, and key findings that helped HR arrive at a decision. You should also document the processes through which you acquired the relevant facts, ensuring they are transparent and free from any bias or preconceived opinions. It also wouldn’t hurt to add ancillary information, such as past performance appraisals that can attest to an employee’s work history at your company.

The way you carry out investigations into misconduct within your workplace is a direct reflection of your company culture. Workers have very little patience for workplace harassment, bullying, coercion, or even biased treatment. That means there will most likely be conflicts that require immediate attention.

The transparency and objectiveness of how you conduct an investigation will have a huge impact on employee morale, as well as your employer brand. Nobody wants to work at a business that sweeps problems under the carpet. However, a fair employer who takes allegations seriously will always be a safer and more attractive career option to potential candidates.

Additional Points to Pay Attention To

Workplace investigations tend to be a very sensitive matter. As such, the investigators need to exercise both discretion and diligence. This can often be a tricky balance to maintain. Even an unfounded accusation, if mishandled, can irreparably damage an employee’s relationship with their peers, superiors, and the firm as a whole.

While conducting HR investigations into critical matters, HR personnel should respect employee rights (both those accorded by federal, state, and locals laws as well as those under the company’s employee handbook), including keeping the proceedings confidential until the investigation is completed. Remaining fair and impartial is, of course, a given when conducting investigations of any nature. With the points in the earlier sections, you should be able to create an investigation process that is efficient, transparent, and adds to your value as an employer.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to conduct an investigation in the workplace?

Create a structured investigation process to apply to every case, define timelines for each stage of the investigation, conduct the investigative process in a transparent manner, and remain within the outlined process. You should also avoid delaying any investigation and be sure to ask the correct questions relevant to the matter at hand.

Finally, you need to document every stage of the process, which can prove invaluable in the event of a wrongful termination lawsuit by a disgruntled employee.

What happens after a workplace investigation?

The outcome of an investigation depends on the nature of the accusation and the way the investigation is conducted. An investigation may result in a formal warning, termination, or even a lawsuit. On the other hand, an investigation may often prove inconclusive without sufficient evidence to support an accusation. However, in cases like sexual harassment or assault, the punishment imposed by the employer remains separate from those imposed by the legal system holding jurisdiction over the workplace.

How to conduct an investigation into workplace bullying?

A rough map to follow would begin with acquiring all pertinent information. Investigators may conduct interviews with the accused, as well as people who work in the same team or have frequent interaction with the accused, such as their supervisor or line manager. Investigators may also examine the worker’s HR file for signs of any previous accusations, as well as camera footage or digital communication over business devices under legal workplace surveillance.

The investigators may also do a more intensive background check with previous employers to determine if there is a history of bullying or if this was an isolated behavioral event. In certain cases, investigators may be able to outline a deeper underlying problem, such as chronic stress or family problems that could be causing the worker to act irrationaly and even arrange for counseling and help programs.

How to investigate discrimination in the workplace?

Given the nature of discrimination and the shrinking space for it in the modern world, investigators will take discrimination charges very seriously. Everything from the HR recruiting process to a team’s worker diversity to a worker’s social media accounts can come under scrutiny. Investigators will typically look for signs of bigotry or even unconscious bias that could substantiate the claim.

How to investigate a theft in the workplace?

Theft in the workplace is typically a criminal matter. Tangible items like computers, devices, equipment, or stationary can be easy enough to pick up on your office security cameras. However, digital theft can be much harder to detect, especially without the right IT infrastructure. Investigators may need to bring on information security specialists to detect data or information theft.

While this will usually result in worker termination, it is still a criminal offence and can be pursued in a court of law, provided the evidence backs up the claim.

How long do workplace investigations take?

Workplace investigations can often take days or even weeks to conclude. However, considering the specifics of each individual business, you may take more time (or less time) to conclude your investigation. However, defining and standardizing timelines for various investigation stages is usually a good idea.

How to conduct a workplace accident investigation?

Workplace accidents are a serious problem, and each accident (or even a near-miss) should be followed by an intensive investigation. Generally speaking, workplace investigations into accidents will focus on the workplace safety measures in use. The investigators should examine both whether workers follow safety guidelines at all times, as well as whether the safety guidelines are adequate.

How to conduct a workplace harassment investigation?

A workplace harassment allegation can be one of the most sensitive things to investigate in a workplace, but it is also something that warrants an immediate investigation. Each and every claim of sexual harassment should be examined carefully, including both the accuser and the accused (separately) as well as any corroborating witnesses.

Investigators should also reach out to the accused’s previous employers for any past history of sexual misconduct in the workplace. However, investigators must do their best to remain impartial as to the question of the conclusion, and let evidence (not sentiment) decide the outcome. Of course, until the outcome is reached, discretion should be exercised.

How to investigate a complaint in the workplace?

The article above is a fairly versatile blueprint that you can modify and adapt to any business or complaint. However, each complaint is unique, so while the process remains the same, investigators need to approach each new investigation as if for the first time.

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