What Happens During an Employee Investigation? A Basic Guide

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Posted by: David Garcia

Topics: Human Resources

Every good manager and HR professional seeks to foster a harmonious workplace.

A happier team tends to be more productive and employees are less likely to leave a job where they feel supported by their coworkers and by management.

Nonetheless, conflict or misconduct in the workplace is almost inevitable.

Despite a manager’s best efforts, coworkers don’t always get along, toxic employees do exist, and people do break the rules — and sometimes the law.

When one of your reports comes to you with allegations about a fellow employee or you see evidence of misconduct yourself, it’s crucial to take the matter seriously. It’s also essential not to panic.

Conducting an employee investigation isn’t a duty that anyone enjoys, but doing so quickly and fairly is part of being an effective manager. Having a set process in place for issues that require investigation helps remove fear and uncertainty from the equation for both you and the employees involved — and helps ensure an equitable resolution.

When Should You Conduct an Employee Investigation?

There’s no absolute rule dictating when an employee investigation needs to happen and when it doesn’t. The decision comes down to the expectations of your team and any policies the company may have in place.First and foremost, you need to listen to what your employees tell you about what’s transpired — and their desired outcomes. Typically, employees will indicate what they need to feel assured of their safety and support at work.

You must proceed with an investigation right away, especially if your employees or the situation indicates that the allegations raise — or may potentially raise — legal issues. Once someone from management or any higher position becomes privy to legally sensitive information, the whole company becomes potentially liable for the outcome.

When the situation isn’t necessarily a legal one but still provokes a complaint from an employee to HR, the decision to conduct a formal employee investigation is more of a grey area. However, if interpersonal issues have deteriorated to the point where an employee or employees lodges a complaint with HR, an investigation is likely warranted.

For reasons of liability, as well as the goal of team building, you should investigate employee complaints whenever feasible. At the very least, do your due diligence to look into all interpersonal complaints before deciding whether or not to go forward with a formal investigation.

When interpersonal issues go unaddressed by management, employees may be left with the impression that their workplace concerns do not matter unless there is legal culpability. This belief can ruin any sense of trust in the employee-employer relationship.

You always want to reassure your employees that you care about their concerns, both big and small. Taking action on their complaints or concerns helps communicate this.

What Happens During an Employee Investigation?

No two investigations are exactly alike. The steps involved to get to the bottom of a dispute largely depend on what transpired, the number of people involved, the seriousness of the allegation, and other circumstantial factors.

The best way to begin an investigation is by gathering information from any parties relevant to the dispute or misconduct allegations.. Interviewing the employees involved will give you a good sense of the contours of the issue and what steps need to be taken or evidence needs to be looked at next.

There is an advisable order to stick to when it comes to conducting interviews. First, have a thorough conversation with the complainant to get a sense of who else might be involved and the potential severity of the complaint.

Based on that discussion, the next interview should likely be with the person or people the complaint is being made against. Talking to them from the outset of the investigation can minimize the number of other employees who might find out sensitive information.

If talking to the subject of the complaint and the complainant separately doesn’t resolve the dispute, you should contact witnesses next in an effort to get their unbiased perspectives. Again, keeping employee interviews to the minimum necessary to get the full story is usually best.

Based on the outcome of your interviews, your HR and legal team might decide to pursue further evidence. This could include watching security camera footage, reading work emails, checking computer hard drives, or reviewing other relevant material.

It’s crucial to document every step of the process for your protection, the company’s protection, and the protection of the parties relevant to the investigation.

With the interviews and evidentiary materials in hand, you will likely then compile a report. Reports of employee investigations typically walk the reader through all angles of the dispute before producing a formal conclusion or finding.

Who Should Conduct the Investigation?

Depending on the severity of the complaint — and the size of your organization — it may be advisable to hand the investigation over to a third party who doesn't have regular contact with the complainant or the subject of the complaint. If the person conducting the investigation also works closely with those involved, allegations of bias or retaliation could arise.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be involved at all. Indeed, showing that you are part of the resolution is essential as a manager if you wish to gain or maintain the trust of your team.

However, facilitating the investigation and taking an active part in directing it are two very different things. If your employee comes to you with a serious complaint that warrants further probing, handing the matter over to an objective third-party may be the best way to achieve an equitable outcome and guard against accusations of unfair bias..If the dispute involves potentially litigious or criminal misconduct, hiring an outside legal firm to investigate may be advisable. Your HR department might also have legal counsel at their disposal who can step in and help.

No matter who you choose to conduct an investigation, make sure they are trustworthy, experienced, and aware of any potential legal repercussions.

Are Employee Investigations Confidential?

Whether or not the findings or outcome of the report are shared is up to you and HR. Before you make your decision, though, you should seriously consider the ramifications.

Depending on the sensitivity of the dispute and how many people are already aware of it, it might be in the best interest to keep sharing the results to a minimum. Either party to the dispute may feel ashamed or fearful of retaliation should the report be made public.

Victims of workplace harassment and other types of disputes are often hesitant to come forward for precisely these reasons. If you feel the complainant’s well-being would be placed in jeopardy by sharing, it might be best to keep it silent.

On the other hand, employees might feel distrustful if they know an investigation has transpired and the results are not made transparent. The last thing you want is to create an office environment of secrecy and suspicion.

Ultimately, you should weigh these factors before coming to your decision. Consulting with the complainant, any witnesses involved, and potentially the subject of the complaint might also be helpful when determining how to do best by your team.

Just make sure you never share anything that has been explicitly marked confidential throughout the investigation, such as any victim testimony or information given in confidence.

Conclusion

Conducting thorough background checks before making a hire is one of the best ways to ensure that a potentially problematic individual doesn’t get hired in the first place.

If you find yourself investigating a complaint where an individual’s conduct prior to your employment may be relevant, then check out ScoutLogic.

ScoutLogic’s screening and background check services could help give you additional insight before deciding what your next steps should be. No matter how you conduct your investigation, you always want to have the most complete and accurate information at hand.

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