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Why Protocols Are Essential in Workplace Investigations

Jan 25, 2022
Deb Muller

Investigation protocols are a set of standard statements that publicly explain the process and expectations that guide the process.

Once they’re put in place, they exert tremendous power in making sure that the outcome of your investigation will be valid, transparent and legally defensible.

Protocols offer the assurance of consistency to every stakeholder in an internal investigation, and they demonstrate that your company is committed to a fair and credible process.

Each interview you conduct should begin by reviewing your organization’s protocols with the involved party to ensure expectations are clear and provide an opportunity to answer any questions.

How Your Company Benefits from Standardized Guidelines

Guidelines and structure do not exist solely as reminders to the interviewer; even if you are expert enough to produce the very same set of information and questions for each interviewee, reviewing your protocols is a way of setting the stage.

It clarifies the fact that you all operate in an environment in which there are transparent, understandable rules of conduct. The interviewee will recognize that they are not in an improvisational situation, and they will be reassured to know that everyone’s interests are protected by a formal structure.

Having a clear set of engagement rules in place also results in greater acceptance of the outcome by all stakeholders. Even if they don’t agree with that outcome, they will understand how it was developed, and they will know it didn’t happen behind a curtain of favoritism.

Protocols Should be Tailored to Your Organization

There aren’t any one-size-fits-all templates for investigation protocols, although there are some common elements. Typically, a set of protocols will touch on the following issues:

  • The nature of your process, including what types of documentation will be created, how evidence will be handled and how the interviewee will be expected to comply. An approximate timeline for the process may be included as well.
  • Guidelines for confidentiality, covering what the interviewee is free to share with others and how you will be handling the information you gather in the course of the investigation.
  • The safety of your interviewee is also emphasized, including the fact that they will receive fair treatment and will not be retaliated against by any person as a result of what they disclose.

This set of protocols published by the University of Connecticut is just one example of what such guidelines can look like in practice.

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Protocols Ensure Compliance with Outside Entities

When you draft protocols, you are doing more than creating a set of procedures that fits with your organizational structure. You’re also ensuring that your process fits within the guidelines of any outside rules and regulations that have a bearing on your company.

For example, the National Labor Relations Board came out with a ruling in 2015 that governs the extent to which you can require interviewees to maintain confidentiality regarding their role in an investigation.

Carrying out the requirements of this ruling is not always completely straightforward: The level of confidentiality that you seek will require you to balance your justification for requesting confidentiality against your employees’ right to know what’s happening.

You will also need to consult the terms of your company’s EAP, as well as any applicable local, state and federal regulations. If your organization does business in other nations, you’ll want to take into account any regulations applied by those countries.

It’s essential to consult with your company’s legal team as you draft your own specific protocols.

360-Degree Accountability

The entire process of an internal investigation is focused on accountability—by those conducting the investigation as well as by those employees involved in the situation.

Holding people accountable for their behavior is a sensitive matter and you can carry it off with credibility if your entire organization agrees, through a clear set of protocols, of which you and they are willing to be held accountable.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.