When the HR department receives a complaint, or something seems suspicious, one of the first steps is to determine whether an internal investigation is warranted or not. Usually, the answer is yes. An investigation is required after an employee files a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, defamation or retaliation. A workplace investigation is also advisable when there could be violations of company policy, criminal behavior, theft of property or regulatory compliance issues.
Sometimes an investigation is not necessary, especially if the complainant and the respondent agree on what happened. For example, if the situation appears to be mainly a personality conflict or rudeness, rather than serious wrongdoing, then you might decide you don’t need to formally investigate. An informal approach could be best if it’s a matter of miscommunication or misunderstanding of company policy. Do you need to gather more facts from other employees or relevant documents?
When you are not sure, it’s better to conduct a formal investigation immediately. If the problem turns out to be more severe than anticipated, failing to investigate can cause legal problems and continued workplace problems that interfere with productivity. Often, you can’t recognize how widespread or substantial a problem is until you ask enough questions.
Don’t take a long time to decide whether a formal investigation is necessary or not. In many cases, juries have awarded huge sums to plaintiffs because the employer’s response to a complaint was delayed, inadequate or inappropriate.
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To comply with federal law, an employer should establish protocol for a prompt, thorough and fair investigation into alleged harassment. Employers must investigate safety problems and allegations of harassment or discrimination based on a person’s race, religion, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation. Sometimes drug testing, background checks and credit checks are required by federal or state law.
Other common reasons for investigations include:
- Substance abuse
- Violence or threats against others
- Vandalism and other sabotage
- Violations of workplace rules
- Workplace theft
- Breach of trust
- Conflict of interest
- Excessive absenteeism
- Abuse of sick leave
- Falsification of time cards
- Money seems to be missing
- Data seems to be altered
Sometimes complainants and whistle-blowers want to reveal a problem anonymously because they fear retaliation could happen. HR managers and investigators should not assume that a complaint is not valid just because it is anonymous. To defend against a lawsuit, an employer needs to show that it undertook reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassment, according to EEOC guidelines.
It’s not always necessary to have an internal staff member conduct the investigation. In some situations, it’s better to bring in an investigator from an outside firm.
A proper investigation takes time and money, but it can have many beneficial effects for the employer and employees. For example, it could identify additional instances of wrongdoing, guide employment decisions regarding the wrongdoing, avoid or minimize the employer’s liability, reduce legal costs, protect potential complainants from discrimination and prevent an injunction, which is a court order forcing the company to stop a particular action or behavior.
Investigating can also be good for employee relations and the company’s public reputation in the future. If an employee feels he or she has been heard after an internal complaint was taken seriously, then he or she is much less likely to file a lawsuit or a claim with the EEOC. Lastly, an investigation may lead you to dismiss a person who has been dishonest or abusive at work. With this dismissal, you’re likely to see a boost in company-wide productivity and employee morale over time.
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.