Workplace investigations, as we have discussed previously, are one of the most challenging aspects of your job. Having to explore a scenario, determine who is telling the truth and how to handle the outcomes is not an easy task. Complainants in an investigation need to know that you not only have their best interests in mind, but that you plan to do what you can to see that their complaint is handled in a timely, impartial manner.
From the perspective of the complainant, they have been wronged. Something is out of place, and it’s up to you to make things right. There is a wide variety of reasons why someone would come to you for help. For example, maybe someone has been stealing or misappropriating resources or maybe an employee has been harassed in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Whatever the case, you’re on hand to make sure that the situation is handled appropriately.
BEST PRACTICES FOR QUESTIONING
Of the various parties you may question during an investigation, such as the accused or any witnesses, it’s common to question the complainant first to understand the depth and breadth of the claim’s impact. Consider the following tips to make this time worthwhile:
- Questioning should take place in a private area
- Explain to the complainant that you need to take notes
- Provide copies of applicable policies
- Take the report seriously, but be careful not to promise a specific outcome at this stage
- Keep any opinions to yourself, regardless of whether they apply to the complainant, the accused, the situation, the claims, etc.
Above all else, make sure you do not promise any measure of confidentiality, because it’s often necessary to bring in additional parties to resolve issues. While you can explain that privacy will be protected at every opportunity, it’s also important to note that it’s very rare to have an investigation where nobody outside the complainant and the investigator know the details and parties involved.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE COMPLAINANT
The questions you ask can make or break your investigation. Making sure that you don’t ask leading questions or put words in the employee’s mouth can be challenging, but these practices can taint the investigation from the very beginning. With that in mind, here are 10 key questions that can help start your investigation:
- Who committed the alleged behavior?
- What happened?
- When did this occur? Is it ongoing?
- Where did this happen?
- Did you let the accused know that you were upset by this?
- Who else may have seen or heard this as a witness?
- Have you reported or discussed this with anyone? If so, who did you tell, when did you tell them and why?
- How has this affected you?
- Is there any electronic or physical evidence to document this occurrence?
- Do you have any other information that might be helpful to this investigation?
One other area to briefly explore is the possibility of retaliation. Review your policy on anti-retaliation and review with the complainant how they can report incidents involving retaliation against them. In 2013, nearly half of claims to the EEOC were related to retaliation, so this is a very real issue. No company wants to attempt to investigate an issue and do the right thing only to have the complainant become the victim of retaliation after the fact.
While investigations are admittedly challenging, having a good plan and a core set of questions on hand can help investigators methodically approach a thorny issue and resolve it as quickly as possible.
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.