How To Conduct an HR Investigation
Investigating and adjudicating workplace misbehavior is an inevitable aspect of operating a business. Addressing allegations of misconduct is an essential task if you want your workplace to run smoothly and create a safe, inclusive workplace culture.
HR investigations are complex processes that have to abide by various legal requirements. Various laws protect the rights of the complainant and the accused, in addition to broader employee rights.
This step-by-step guide gives you the tools to conduct investigations with the appropriate responsive measures.
What Is an HR Investigation?
Human Resources departments represent all employees, helping them address workplace issues and find ways of resolving them.
Whenever an employee makes a complaint about one of their coworkers or superiors, the HR department has a duty to open an investigation. That investigation operates as a law enforcement investigation might. HR will have to call witnesses, take testimonies, gather evidence, and eventually make recommendations to the authorities responsible for making judgments.
There are two ways of looking at HR investigations to understand their broader importance:
- Taking complaints seriously is the most important form of care you can show to your employees. People deserve to feel safe and respected at work. When complaints go ignored, mistrust and resentment abound.
- Unanswered or improperly handled HR complaints are lawsuits waiting to happen. Responding promptly and comprehensively to employee complaints protects the company from legal backlash.
HR Investigation Protocol
HR investigations require conduct that meets the highest ethical standards. They should conform to a uniform set of steps that factor in company policies and national labor laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy status, national origin, and gender identity.
Here are some standards that should be part of all investigation protocols:
- Follow a Standard Timeline and Process: Each complaint should receive equal treatment and consideration. Developing a standard timeline and procedures for handling complaints is crucial to the investigation process. Holding to that protocol is even more critical.
- Communicate to the Involved Parties Being Interviewed: Communication is vital. Research shows that employees who feel that workplace communication is open, timely, and accurate tend to stay longer with their companies and show them more loyalty. Be transparent with every party in the investigation process about what the interview concerns and their role in the proceedings.
- Document Every Step of the Process: The importance of documenting HR processes is hard to overstate. It helps establish a pattern of behavior, creates a record in case questions arise post-investigation, and creates a broad view of complaints, making ultimate decisions fairer.
- Practice Rigorous Fairness and Continually Check In: Demonstrating fairness and equality creates trust in the workforce. Install an oversight committee to check in at every stage of the process. They will help the investigation resume a fair course and prevent unfair assessments based on bias.
Reasons for an HR Investigation
Companies must abide by their internal policies. But they’re also subject to far-reaching labor laws at the state and national levels.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established workers’ rights to self-organize, form unions, bargain collectively, and provide mutual aid. The Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 prohibits discrimination and hiring refusals of workers over 40.
Laws like these enshrine the rights of candidates and employees to seek jobs fairly and work without fear of discrimination or retaliation. Nevertheless, issues do arise in all workplaces that warrant complaints. Those complaints then launch HR investigations and can come from any of the following causes.
- Violence against others, property, or threats
- Ethics violations
- Health & safety violations
- Falsification of documentation
- Money mishandling
- Abuse of sick leave or other benefits
- Breach of contract
Employee Rights in an HR Investigation
The Miranda Rights —which stipulate you have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney—extend to all U.S. citizens and residents, but they don’t apply inside the workplace.
The Miranda Rights apply to law enforcement and government rather than employees of a private company.
However, it is not uncommon to issue corporate Miranda warnings. These advisory statements inform employees of their rights to representation.
However, companies also have the right to respond. Non-compliance with an investigation is just grounds for disciplinary action and even termination. Employees are entitled to certain protections, such as having a colleague or lawyer present during questioning. Investigators should familiarize themselves with these rights before conducting interviews.
HR Investigation Process
1. Promptly Respond to Any Reports or Complaints Received
The HR department must take every claim seriously. No matter how big or small, HR should launch an investigation promptly.
There is a timeline that investigations should hold to. However, in the initial discovery stages of an investigation, it may come to light that the investigation doesn’t need to go further. The parties can come to some kind of reconciliation, or evidence can come out that squashes the complaint.
Regardless, HR should inform all parties of each unfolding step of the process.
Another critical step in this early process is determining whether the company should place the accused on leave. Keeping them in the daily mix can impede the honesty of some witnesses, so it may be better to remove them until the investigation concludes.
2. Appoint the Investigator(s)
HR departments can appoint one of their own to lead investigations or hire a third-party investigator. Someone hired outside the company may ensure full fairness. In either case, the lead investigator or investigators should have these qualities:
- Adequate training
3. Make an Investigation Plan
Before launching any investigation or receiving any complaint, the HR department should have a basic protocol for how investigations will proceed.
Still, each complaint is unique, so each investigation takes its own form. Before any action transpires, a plan needs to be in place. Detail which witnesses the investigators will call on, set a time frame, and discuss possible concluding actions.
4. Develop the Proper Questions
Like the investigation plan, the questions you ask witnesses and involved parties will be unique and part of the standard set. Before specific investigations, you can collect stock investigation questions that have been proven to yield valuable information, like this set outlined by the Society for Human Resource Management.
But once the investigation launches in earnest, the particulars of the complaint will shape stock questions.
5. Collect and Evaluate Evidence
There are two types of evidence in any HR investigation:
- Documentation of events relating to the incident, such as emails, memos, and paraphernalia.
- Testimonies from employees who experienced the event, witnessed it first-hand, or heard about it second-hand.
Both types are invaluable to rendering a fair verdict at the termination of the investigation. Refer to the witness list you created in Step 3, tweak the questions you collected in Step 4 to the particulars of this investigation, and conduct your interviews.
Remember that these investigations are intimidating and exhausting to individuals, so don’t overburden them with questions.
Collecting hard evidence is the job of the lead investigator. Keep records as orderly as possible, cross-referenced by time, type, and severity.
6. Draft a Summary of Findings for the Decision Makers
Once you’ve collected all the evidence, it’s time to analyze it. Sometimes the evidence-gathering stage takes more time than analyzing the evidence, and sometimes the reverse is true.
Pouring through all the documents, revisiting interviews, and having lengthy conversations about the implications of both takes time. Remember that the involved parties will be eagerly awaiting the investigation results, so don’t take too long. Always have the pre-determined timeline in mind when sorting through evidence.
Once you’ve reviewed all the materials, create a summary report for the decision-makers. More often than not, the party conducting the investigation is not the same party that metes out responsive measures based on the investigation results. The separation is to ensure maximal fairness.
Some things to keep in mind when creating the report:
- Corroboration: Which statements and actions were corroborated by multiple individuals?
- Motive: What reason would the accused party have to act in the way they allegedly did, and what motive might the accuser have to lie?
- Past record: Do the accused or the accused parties have past records with the company? Do those records bear on the material under review?
7. Document the Investigation
Documentation may seem like an afterthought, but it’s the most critical part of this process. Documentation includes every piece of evidence produced by the investigation and counseling, discipline, and termination measures taken as a result of the investigation.
It can also include sensitivity training provided before or after the incident, relevant promotions or demotions, and more.
Documentation ensures fairness and protects the company moving forward.
8. Terminate the Investigation and Conduct Internal Evaluations
The investigation is free to conclude once the investigators have handed over the summary report. The responsible party will now consider all the evidence, review the summary report, reference them against company policies, and determine appropriate disciplinary action.
On the investigation side, it is a good idea to conduct exit interviews for all those involved internally in executing the investigation. You can use their feedback to fine-tune future investigations.
What Questions Should I Ask in an HR Investigation?
When asking questions to the accused party, the accuser, and witnesses, some questions yield better answers than others. These include:
- What happened, to the best of your recollection?
- Is the incident ongoing, or did it happen once?
- How did you react? Do you have documentation of your reaction?
- Is there any other documentation about the incident we should be aware of?
- Did you discuss the incident with anyone at the time?
- Do you know anyone else who witnessed or was told about the incident?
- How has the incident impacted your work performance and the performances of your peers?
- Have you heard of any other incidents like this happening prior?
- What action do you want the company to take?
- Do you have any other relevant information or questions for us?
Frequently Asked Questions
What Triggers an HR Investigation
Issues in the workplace may trigger an HR investigation, including incidents related to harassment, discrimination, health or safety violations, breach of contract, financial mismanagement, and more. Complaints related to workplace conduct and employment law are under the purview of the human resources department and may require investigation.
Does HR Have To Investigate a Complaint?
National labor laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act require an investigation of certain complaints. That includes discrimination claims and claims of workplace safety violations. But not every single complaint requires an investigation.
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