Conducting workplace investigations involves gathering a lot of firsthand information from employees who are involved or are witnesses to the subject of the investigation. I’d love to tell you that a standard set of questions exists that must be asked in every single internal investigation, but that simply isn’t true. Every investigation has individual needs and so must be conducted as such. However, here is a list of five questions you’ll probably ask some variation of during many investigatory interviews.
- In your own words, what happened? This question takes into account both what was witnessed and what was perceived. An overview of the incident from the mind of the person interviewed can be helpful to understanding future answers.
- Where and when did this take place? Pinpointing timing and location is important to constructing a timeline. This can also lead to other sources for gathering information.
- What did you personally witness? This drills down from the first question and tries to separate perception from reality. Depending upon the answer, varying degrees of follow-up questions should be asked to construct an A-Z picture of the occurrence.
- Who else was present? Any lawyer or police officer will gladly tell you that witness testimony that can be corroborated by multiple parties is much more reliable to base a case on than the recollections of a single witness. The same thought can apply to employee investigations with a caveat: while legal cases hinge on what did or did not happen, employee discrimination and workplace harassment cases can hinge on implied or perceived intent. The entire weight of evidence and documentation must be evaluated to come to an equitable conclusion.
- What was your response or what actions have you taken since the incident? It is human nature to react spontaneously when offended or in a place where a defense feels necessary. While responses or reactions may or may not exacerbate a situation already being investigated, any occurrence must be documented. This can mean the difference between termination and other disciplinary actions.
A key principle you’ll want to maintain during investigations is consistency. Ask each witness the same questions. If a follow-up with one witness leads you down an unexpected trail, it’s absolutely okay to go back to other witnesses to ask those same types of follow-up questions. To protect the integrity of the investigation, ask open-ended instead of leading questions. And always consider the dignity of all involved – this can never be overstated for its importance to maintaining healthy employee relations.
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.