Considerations for Conducting Workplace Investigations. Responding to a Workplace Allegation?
Keeping a safe and productive workplace is essential for any organization. If an employee’s conduct is inconsistent with organizational values, company policies, or applicable laws, it is important to investigate the matter and take any necessary corrective action as soon as possible to limit potential risks and avoid further complications.
An investigation should be one of many tools organizations have at their disposal when dealing with potentially disruptive employee behavior. Whether the concern involves an employee’s performance, conduct, or competence in completing assigned tasks, an investigation provides the details necessary to determine whether corrective action is necessary and what that action should be.
In some cases, an investigation may not be required. For example, if there are clear and convincing facts that demonstrate a termination is warranted without needing to know why or how that came about; however, in most every other situation it is advisable to proceed with a formal review because of the numerous benefits it affords as detailed below…
The Importance of Conducting an Investigation
Although an investigation may seem like a simple fact-finding mission, it is actually a process that is laden with due process considerations. The employee being investigated is entitled to have an opportunity to respond to the concerns raised.
The investigation process itself can provide valuable insights into the situation and improve the odds that the correct decision is reached. However, an investigation is not a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing workplace issues. Determining when a formal investigation should be conducted, who should conduct it, and how it should be concluded can be challenging. In some cases, the best option may be to use a less formal process such as a discussion or a request for information (RFQ) letter.
Why is a workplace investigation important?
When conducting an investigation, the investigator must consider the issues from two distinct perspectives: the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator.
The alleged victim needs to know that the issue is being taken seriously, that they have been given an opportunity to tell their story, and that the investigation will most likely result in corrective action being taken against the alleged perpetrator.
This is also the opportunity for the alleged perpetrator to tell his or her side of the story and rebut the allegations being made against them. To do this, investigators will typically follow a structured process that includes planning, conducting interviews, compiling a report, and making a recommendation. Although the specifics of this process vary depending on the situation, the basic approach is consistent.
Determining Who Conducts the Investigation?
One of the first things an employer should consider is who will conduct the investigation. If the concern is a simple performance issue, a manager may be the best choice. However, if a serious allegation has been made or the issue is clearly interrelated with other issues in the workplace, appointing a neutral third party to handle the investigation is advisable.
For example, if an investigation is needed to determine whether an employee’s absence is legitimate, there may be a risk that a manager who is also responsible for approving absences is perceived as having a conflict of interest.
In these cases, it is advisable to appoint a neutral third party, such as a member of Human Resources (HR) or a private investigations firm to handle the investigation.
Confirming That an Investigation Should Be Conducted
There are two questions that need to be answered.
The first question is whether the alleged action is serious enough to warrant initiating such a process. The second is whether the investigation is the best way to address the issue.
The first question may be straightforward in some cases, such as when a complaint has been filed and the allegations are clearly serious. However, there are other situations in which it is less clear when an investigation is warranted.
Answering this question is not always easy. In some cases, a simple discussion between the parties involved may be sufficient to resolve the issue. For example, if a manager and an employee disagree on the terms of a promotion, a simple conversation between the two parties may be able to resolve the issue.
Identifying and Defining the Problem
Once it has been confirmed that an investigation is needed, the next step is to identify and define the problem. This may seem like an obvious first step, but it is important to get the facts correct.
The information collected during this phase will form the basis for all other actions taken throughout the investigation process, so it is important to be thorough and accurate. For example, when an employee is not meeting expectations, the problem may be as simple as a lack of training or skills. On the other hand, the employee may be doing their work but in a way that is problematic for the organization.
In some cases, the problem may be due to a clash of values where one person’s ideas about what is important are not consistent with organizational values.
Having a Confident Basis for Taking Action
Most investigations are conducted with the intent of taking some sort of action. While the decision is often straightforward in terms of termination, there are other situations where managers grapple with the best course of action. Because there are more than 100 factors that may be considered in determining whether and how to take action, it can be difficult to pinpoint the right response.
To ensure that the appropriate action is taken, the investigator should consider the following questions:
Does the employee admit to the problem?
What is the employee’s knowledge about the problem?
Does the employee understand the impact of the problem?
What does the employee plan to do about the problem?
Does the employee have the ability to correct the problem?
What is the cost of allowing the problem to continue?
What is the cost of correcting the problem?
What is the organization’s tolerance for risk?
What is the organization’s tolerance for uncertainty?
What is the organization’s tolerance for change?
What is the organization’s tolerance for imperfection?
The answers to these questions can help managers make informed decisions about the appropriate action and approach to take.
Conducting a workplace investigation can be challenging, and in some cases, the process can stir up lots of emotions. To ensure that the process is productive and the outcome is positive, it is important to use a structured approach to guide the investigation. Doing so will help ensure that everyone involved is treated fairly and that the investigation is completed in a timely manner. And to make it easier for you to remember the key points discussed above.
Here are a few key takeaways.
The importance of conducting an investigation lies in its ability to identify the issue at hand and provide a confident basis for taking action.
When deciding whether an investigation is needed, it’s important to confirm that the alleged action is serious enough to warrant initiating such a process.
With all of the potential issues facing the modern workplace, it is important that organizations have a strategy in place for dealing with potential problems related to employee conduct and performance. The best strategy is to proactively identify issues and take any necessary steps to address them as quickly as possible.
When an organization has a solid investigatory process in place, it can use that process to address workplace issues before they escalate into bigger problems. Conducting workplace investigations is essential for any organization that wants to protect itself from costly litigation, reputational harm, and other negative consequences that can result from an employee’s problematic behavior.
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