What is a Workplace Investigation?
A workplace investigation is an objective, independent, and systematic process of uncovering facts about a particular incident that occurred at work. It involves carefully discussing a complaint or grievance for specific misconduct, policy violation, or unethical behavior to reach a final decision and determine the appropriate course of action. The success of this process lies in strict confidentiality, extensive documentation, and an impartial lens during the investigation period.
A workplace investigation involves the following parties:
- Complainant – the person who submitted the grievance or complaint
- Respondent – the person accused of the violation or misdeed
- Witness – the person having knowledge of the events either from observation or personal experience
- Investigator – the person or body in charge of determining the facts of the case; usually involves a Human Resources (HR) professional, legal team, unit or department head, or an independent third-party investigator
Companies hold workplace investigations for various reasons. At its core, it aims to ascertain what truly happened in a specific incident through an intensive fact-finding process. For this to work, investigators (typically from human resources) gather information from all parties through interviews, documents, and other sources and collate them for further probing and analysis.
Through workplace investigations, companies can achieve the following goals:
- Detect violations and misbehaviors in the organization
- Determine the roots of misconduct
- Ensure compliance with existing policies and regulations
- Reveal areas for improvement in business operations
- Protect the organization and its reputation from unjust claims
- Improve current policies and practices for a healthier working environment
Workplace investigations typically take place for grave offenses and violations that can impact an organization’s operations, legal compliance, and reputation. The list below shows the most common types of issues that warrant a formal investigation:
- Company policy violations – repeated and/or serious offenses
- Safety and hazard issues – workplace injuries and fatalities
- Discrimination – based on age, gender, color, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, religion, personal beliefs, and more
- Harassment – name-calling, bullying, physical assault, intimidation, threats of violence, and more
- Workplace violence – criminal intent, customer, worker-on-worker, interpersonal
- Criminal offenses – theft, misappropriation of funds, money laundering, extortion, fraudulent practices, and more
When an employer receives a written or verbal complaint from an employee, here are the steps they should take:
1. Review the case details with the complainant.
The first step in the investigation process is to verify the complainant’s submitted report. The employer peruses the submission and takes note of the purpose, scope, actions, and timeline, along with the evidence provided. Doing so allows them to judge accurately if the situation requires formal intervention.
2. Check if an investigation is necessary.
Before launching a formal investigation, it’s best to determine if it’s necessary in the first place. For example, the employer can seek informal means to resolve the issue without needing to escalate it into a full-scale intervention.
To decide if an investigation is worth pursuing, see if the issue breaches labor and criminal laws, such as the following:
- Workplace discrimination
- Workplace safety
- Fair labor practices
- Employee benefits
- Corporate and white-collar crimes
3. Prepare for the investigation.
After establishing the need for a formal investigation, they must begin laying the groundwork as soon as possible.
A smooth-sailing investigation process begins with a proper plan. It sets clear expectations about the case and ensures that the investigation is fair and just. A solid investigation plan should address the following questions:
- What must be investigated?
- Who will lead the investigation process?
- Who are the witnesses to the case?
- What sources of evidence should be looked into in the process?
- How long will the investigation take?
- What company guidelines and policies should be followed?
- How will the investigator present the findings?
- To whom will the results be reported?
- Should the investigator provide recommendations for the findings?
4. Notify the respondent of the case.
Once the preparations are complete, it’s time to proceed with the investigation process. Typically, it begins by explaining to the respondent the complaint filed against them. In this step, the investigator should inform them about the following matters:
- The reason for the investigation
- The person in charge of carrying out the process
- The procedure of the investigation process
- Their rights, including having witnesses on their end
- The length and duration of the investigation
- The next steps in the following days (e.g., meeting)
The investigator must always emphasize that everything will remain strictly confidential to secure the cooperation of the respondent.
5. Collect information from all parties.
For a fair and objective conclusion, it’s important to gather information from all involved parties. Start by reviewing the investigation plan and its details about the types of evidence necessary for the case.
During their data gathering, the investigator can look into two things: tangible evidence and eyewitness testimonies.
In establishing a solid case, an investigator must, first and foremost, obtain tangible sources (both physical and digital) as proof that the issue occurred. Some common examples of this type of evidence include the following:
- Email correspondence
- Digital records
- Attendance records
- Phone logs
- CCTV recordings
Witness accounts are also an excellent way of getting information, as they can uncover things that are critical to the case. After all, some records may not be able to capture fully what the witness has observed on the issue.
After identifying potential witnesses, investigators can obtain their statements in written and verbal forms. Whichever method they choose, always assure that the information they provide will be strictly confidential and will not be used against them in any way or form.
Then, proceed by explaining what the case is about and what information is needed from them. The following guide questions can help investigators navigate the conversation better:
- When and where did the issue occur?
- What are the things you saw, heard, or knew about the issue?
- What was your reason for being present in that situation?
6. Evaluate the evidence at hand.
Once the information is sufficient, the investigator can now review the materials presented to them. They will cross-examine the testimonies from the involved parties (complainant, respondent, and witnesses), find a common link or pattern among their statements, and identify and rule out inconsistencies. Ultimately, this rigorous process allows them to form an accurate, structured narrative of what truly happened in the incident.
In this step, it’s critical to set aside any biases and focus on the facts to reach an objective and credible conclusion.
7. Communicate the findings and next steps.
Lastly, once the investigator finishes examining the evidence, they will report the results to the people or parties specified in the investigation plan. In this step, they will draft and hand over a written investigation report, a document outlining the details of the case.
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Investigators will also often create a work environment survey to understand the overall climate of the workplace.
Moreover, if required, the investigator can also provide recommendations for the appropriate course of action given their findings. It could be either of the following types of action:
- No further action
- Formal action – policy changes, corrective measures, or further investigation
- Informal action – mediation, counseling, training, or warning for disciplinary action if committed again
A fruitful workplace investigation becomes possible with the right practices and procedures. Here are four things to keep in mind while holding an investigation in the workplace.
1. Keep matters strictly confidential.
Workplace investigations might involve personal information and sensitive data that can endanger a person if wrongfully disclosed. Moreover, this breach can jeopardize the integrity of the process, violate privacy laws, and put the person’s name and reputation at risk.
For this reason, it’s critical to keep all matters related to the investigation confidential until a final verdict is reached. Make sure to explain the importance of confidentiality to all staff members, regardless of their involvement in the case.
2. Treat all parties fairly.
An investigator serves as a middle ground between disputing parties. To uphold their credibility and integrity, they should provide fair treatment to all involved persons in the investigation. It entails treating both complainant and respondent with dignity and respect by:
- Giving a reasonable notice of the allegation or complaint
- Opening opportunities to gather evidence and present their case
- Allowing sufficient time to let each side to be heard and understood
3. Ensure objectivity during investigations.
Humans, including investigators, are bound to have biases and preconceived notions in their heads. However, these personal leanings can cloud an investigator’s judgment, diminishing their credibility and forging mistrust in an organization.
For this reason, an investigator must set aside their personal opinions and put on an impartial lens during the investigation process. Before reaching a conclusion, they should gather sufficient data based on reliable sources.
4. Follow company policies and legislation.
Lastly, investigators must always adhere to company policies and legal guidelines when carrying out workplace investigations. When gathering evidence, for instance, it’s important to align their approach with data privacy and protection laws in their jurisdiction.
After all, these laws and protocols are in place to protect the integrity of the investigation and to carry it out in a fair, objective, and timely manner.
FAQs about Workplace Investigations
A workplace investigation is expected to be completed as quickly as possible, ideally around 1-2 weeks. In practice, however, this timeframe might vary depending on the complexity of the case and the time an investigator can commit to the case.
Confidentiality is a cornerstone of successful workplace investigations, as data breaches can compromise their integrity and impartiality. Thus, all information acquired during an investigation should not be disclosed to unauthorized individuals until a conclusive decision is reached.
A workplace investigator performs an independent, objective, and impartial study about a breach, violation, or unethical conduct through a rigorous fact-finding procedure. They take a fair, unbiased, and neutral approach to make sense of the issue and formulate credible and acceptable decisions based on the facts of the case.
An incident report captures essential details about workplace accidents, injuries, near misses, equipment and property damages, security breaches, and so forth.
Meanwhile, an investigation report documents the probing process, summarizing how the investigation went for cases of misconduct, policy or legal violation, or unethical behavior.