Many managers are ultimately faced with the question: How to conduct a workplace investigation that is fair and effective? The process has many steps that need to be followed and companies need to prepare for an investigation before one is even happening. There are many laws that need to be considered and employers are obliged to take every complaint seriously. Knowing how to conduct an effective investigation means that the organisation will be able to solve problems and resolve conflict promptly. In Australia, it took 72 days on average to resolve a complaint.
It is important to remember that there are many things that are going on during an investigation. There may be many parties affected, numerous witnesses, a lot of evidence to be collected or very vague statements. The parties involved may feel unfairly treated or that their rights were violated.
During an investigation, our clients reach out to us because Polonious provides a secure space for investigations to take place. We give automatic case updates and help managers focus on their core business responsibilities while our software handles the process. We offer our customers faster turnaround times and give them the opportunity to access the information from anywhere anytime. If you want to learn how we can help you with your case, request a demo!
How to conduct an effective investigation
A checklist for how to conduct a workplace investigation can be helpful as it can act as a guide. Managers will be able to keep track of their activities and know what the next steps are. The checklist should include the following:
-Analyse the issue
-Choose the investigator
For an investigation to take place, a company needs to develop policies before a complaint is lodged. The policies should discourage unethical behaviour and warn employees of the consequences that could follow if those policies are breached. They can specify the training employees are to receive to discourage such behaviour and what actions should be taken if employees observe noncompliance. It is advisable that managers focus on creating a work culture that promotes ethical compliance and that employees feel comfortable sharing any worries and problems they may have.
The organisation also has to develop procedures that explain how employees can report an issue and encourage them to come forward if they are struggling with something. The company can consider a wide range of options for reporting, including anonymous complaint forms such as those offered by Polonious or talking directly with a supervisor. The person making the complaint should be instructed to provide as much information as possible about the situation. Initially, they can give a summary of the issue in chronological order if possible. They should describe who the parties involved are and should try to include as much factual information as possible.
The policies the business has established should explain how to conduct an investigation. They should describe how fast the company must act and how they should handle each complaint they receive. It should also define possible issues where an investigation may be needed and what the requirements are if an external investigator is hired. It should discourage staff from retaliating and outline how confidentiality will be maintained during the process. The policies can also outline the tasks investigators will have and how findings will be stored. Aside from policies about investigations themselves, if there are other policies about employee behaviour and misconduct, these will provide context to the investigation as they will describe the behaviours that might result in sanctions or termination, providing a basis for the analysis below.
Policies and procedures should be available to staff during the induction process and should be accessible in their handbooks. Relevant laws and regulations should be included in the handbook along with the rights employees have.
Analyse the issue
Knowing how to conduct an investigation requires managers to know what the problem is. Many types of situations may arise in the workplace. Some common issues include:
Each situation is different and the HR team should be trained to respond to complaints seriously and consistently. They need to determine how serious the issue is and what are the risks associated with it. For example, it could be a financial risk or a health and safety risk. Managers need to establish the what, when, where, who, why and how of the situation. This will help them proceed and understand which policies apply to this specific case. By knowing more details, the employer will be able to determine if more workers are involved in the incident and if they need to contact various teams.
In some cases, the problem can be resolved without an investigation. Supervisors should talk with the complainant and determine whether other options are available, such as setting up a meeting with the two parties and discussing the issue. Upon looking at the complaint, the managers may decide that immediate action should be taken so they might choose to take disciplinary action. Another scenario could be that the event that took place does not meet the criteria required for an investigation to be conducted.
Once an initial analysis has been conducted, the managers can decide what documents they will need to gather and who will be responsible for the investigation. The team may reach out to the employee for more details and clarification if the data is lacking. During this stage, the employer may ask the employee if they need support before the investigation commences and could provide them with a person to contact.
The respondent should be notified that someone has complained about them. They should be told that they will give both sides a chance to explain the situation and that an investigation will be conducted to reach an outcome.
Choosing an investigator
The investigator is one of the most important roles in the process so they need to be chosen very carefully. The company could choose an internal or an external investigator, depending on the problem they are facing. There are a few things to consider before making a decision on who is to conduct the investigation:
Neutrality is crucial in an investigation. The person responsible should know how to conduct the process while staying unbiased and avoiding assumptions. The company should choose someone that will decrease the possibility of bias which is why a lot of the time an external investigator is preferred. The individual should know how to focus on facts and avoid focusing on the emotions displayed. They should be making observations based on the evidence and finding strategies that will encourage the employees to open up. Employees are more likely to open up to someone who seems neutral rather than someone who seems judgemental.
Another thing that may need to be considered is whether the parties involved will feel comfortable talking to someone they are familiar with. Using a neutral investigator, but allowing interviewees to have a support person present, may provide the best of both worlds. It could be worth discussing with the parties and taking into account their opinions before making a decision.
Is the individual aware of the issue that needs to be investigated? Do they know how to conduct an investigation that meets company, government and industry standards? The knowledge of the investigator could determine if they are the right person for the job. In some cases, two investigators could be chosen, one who is familiar with the company’s procedures and one who has legal and industrial knowledge.
The company needs to ensure that the investigator knows how to conduct interviews and make people comfortable. The investigator must be aware of the mental health consequences that the process could cause and how to deal with them.
The company needs to look at the qualifications the individual has. The investigator needs to be certified and needs to use a methodology that the company agrees with. Most jurisdictions have some way of verifying security and investigator licences, for example, in NSW you can check here. The organisation needs to know if an individual has conducted an investigation in the past, the type of the investigation and how successful they were.
Once these three elements have been considered, the business should look at its budget and start looking for investigation firms that would meet all the criteria.
It is crucial not to delay the start of the investigation. Managers should try to initiate the process as soon as possible to ensure that the problem is resolved quickly. To make this process more efficient, the investigation process can be split into
The company should decide whether the individual being accused needs to be suspended temporarily. If that is necessary, then managers should:
-Hold a meeting with the accused
-Explain the situation in great detail
-Ensure them that they will be able to tell their side of the story
-Provide them with a suspension letter and support
A suspension is not an admission of guilt. It is a precautionary measure taken to ensure that individuals are distanced during the investigation process and additional conflicts are prevented.
The investigator is then brought in to explain to everyone what is happening and what the investigation process entails. The investigator also needs to gather any relevant information along with potential witnesses.
The interview stage can be a very hard task. In some instances there may not be enough evidence and interviews can turn into a ‘he said, she said’ situation. The investigator needs to analyse the individuals and create an order of who they need to talk to first. They need to prioritise those directly involved with the incident and those with a better idea of what happened. The investigator can advise the interviewees to make notes so they do not forget important events or details.
Once they know who they are interviewing and when, they need to plan the interview. They should have a clear goal for what they want to achieve and what information they are trying to get. The investigator should try to better understand what happened, when and if there is any hard evidence that can be given.
The interviewer needs to develop smart questioning techniques that will encourage people to share as much information as possible. Open-ended questions are very important while yes or no questions should be avoided. The questions should not be phrased as a clarification. For example, the interviewer should not be asking ‘’They were being aggressive right?’’. They should let the individuals recount their own version of the events and explain what they experienced.
It is crucial that the investigator makes notes during every interview. They will be able to remember everything and ask follow-up questions based on other witnesses’ recounts. They will also be able to cross reference and verify whether witnesses are being honest or deceptive. To achieve better results, the interviewer needs to be a good listener. This will allow them to notice any contradictions and determine the credibility of the interviewee.
Just like mentioned before, investigators must remain unbiased. They should not make assumptions and should only focus on the facts rather than the emotions displayed. People will be more open if they realise that the investigator is only interested in reaching a fair conclusion and does not lean towards either side.
The interviewer should provide the individuals with resources they can use to take care of their mental health. The investigator themselves should also reach out and seek professional help as the investigation process could have a great impact on their well-being. They will have to hear many potentially traumatic events, help others control their emotions and be composed during the investigation.
In some cases it may be beneficial to check the files of the complainant and the respondent to check if similar complaints have been lodged. However, investigators may avoid this as it may lead to bias. The actions of the investigator vary for every case according to the nature of the incident.
As interviews are only part of the evidence, investigators need to collect other information such as emails, CCTV footage or text messages. Along with the evidence, the activities that the investigator has undertaken should be documented and stored safely.
During this whole process, it should be a priority that everything within the process remains confidential. The company should limit any information to third parties and the importance of confidentiality should be stressed to all the people who are involved in the investigation. If rumours are created, there is a high chance that it could potentially harm the accused and cause other issues to arise. Managers need to discourage employees from making baseless assumptions and spreading false information and explain to them the ramification if they choose to do so.
Polonious helps its customers ensure that all information is stored securely and the identity of all employees remains confidential for as long as necessary. We help investigators store evidence such as images, videos and document files. We also provide investigators with a to-do list and reminders so they can stay on top of everything. Our goal is to make investigations easier so problems can be resolved quicker.
Once the interviews and the follow-up interviews have been completed and all relevant information has been collected, the investigator needs to look at the facts and write an investigation report. The investigation report can include the case number, date and details about the issue. The allegations should be presented clearly and concisely along with the people that were interviewed. The case notes should also be included, such as the interview notes and the evidence that was found. The investigator may not be in the position to come to a conclusion but can make recommendations on how the situation could be handled.
The managers should use the company policies to decide what action to take after the investigation has been concluded. If it was found that misconduct had occurred then the accused should be given disciplinary action which can include dismissing them. If the employee was suspended and no misconduct was found, then they should be brought back and it should be explained to them what the findings of the investigation are. They should be reinstated without issues and they should be given support in case the experience affected them in any way.
Support has been mentioned numerous times because it is critical to prioritise the employees’ well-being. Workers might have never been in a similar situation before and uncertainty can affect them in various ways. The complainant may feel unfairly treated if the accused is found innocent. Employers need to discourage retaliation and emphasise that everyone should report incidents that make them feel uncomfortable, offended, insulted or suspicious.
If the employee was suspended and was found to have committed misconduct, then they may need to be dismissed after a meeting was held to discuss the business’s reasoning and decision. In some cases, it could be decided that the misconduct is not serious enough for the employee to be fired. Managers may choose to take corrective action and giving the staff member target dates by which they need to complete certain tasks. Examples of disciplinary action include pay cuts, demotion, retraining and loss of benefits and access to certain areas.
Employers must follow up on the corrective action to ensure that it is effective and check whether it needs to be updated. The policies of the company may also need to be reviewed and updated if they were found lacking during the investigation. The investigation activities that were documented should be stored in a file in case they could be used as a reference in the future.
Investigations are stressful and complicated. Businesses can seek out help if they feel they are not qualified to handle the incident. Polonious works with businesses from different industries with their investigations. If you want to make your investigation easier and more effective reach out and request a demo!
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