When a company prepares to investigate, it needs to have a plan of what exactly needs to be done and by when. It needs to have a timeline, the resources and choose the right people. Investigations have many stages and therefore many potential pitfalls. Some are more common than others. The nature of the mistakes differs by the allegation, company, industry and parties involved. People may not realise that they are doing something wrong until after hours of interviews when they still do not have a clear understanding of the incident.

Mistakes to avoid when you investigate

The complaints companies and government bodies receive are increasing every year. There are different kinds of disputes and misconduct taking place in the workplace. A very high number of complaints could indicate that something is wrong with the company’s culture. It may be toxic and it may be fostering bullying and discriminatory behaviour. 

Polonious takes complaints seriously and assists its clients with investigation management by providing them with a system that improves productivity while reducing administration costs. On top of that, our customers report cutting administrative time by over 20% and have seen an increase in case throughput by up to 38%. The status and progress of the investigation can be easily monitored from one central point which eliminates the need for meetings and spreadsheets. If you want to learn more about how we can help you, reach out and request a demo!

During an investigation, the individual who is conducting it is trying to understand what happened, when, who was involved and where it happened. To investigate thoroughly, a number of obligations need to be met as it is a complex process with a lot of room for error. The most common mistakes in an investigation are:

  • Not choosing the right person for the job
  • Not having a reporting system for complaints
  • Not following the plan
  • Not preparing for the interview
  • Not collecting the appropriate evidence

Not choosing the right person for the job

Once it has been determined that an investigation is needed to resolve an issue, the first step a business must take is to find the right person to investigate. Managers must assess whether a problem can be internally investigated or if an external party is needed. Employees may be afraid that an internal investigator will lack objectivity and unconscious bias may influence the process because they are familiar with the employees and work for the company. Organisations usually call a third party to investigate to reduce the number of mistakes or possible conflicts of interest that may arise.

Experts usually recommend that an independent third party is hired to avoid scenarios where employees refuse to accept the outcome of the internal investigation or retaliate as they feel unfairly treated. Choosing a person who is transparent and fair is crucial for the success of the investigation as they will be able to investigate in an impartial manner, free of judgements and biases. Managers need to also consider if they have the resources available to conduct an internal investigation. Individuals may have other tasks to complete, increased responsibilities and there may be a lack of experience.

It is advisable that thorough research is completed before selecting the right investigator. Word of mouth may not be enough as one person may be better at investigating one topic and lack expertise in another.

Not having a reporting system for complaints

An efficient reporting system is important for every organisation. A lot of incidents are underreported, including safety incidents, and one of the main reasons is the quality of the reporting system. Reporting systems are in place for managers to receive complaints from employees about anything, from work culture to non-compliance to harassment. If acted upon, it can be effective in deterring wrongful action and misconduct and can discourage individuals from committing illegal activities at work such as fraud. Outcomes of investigations can also provide learning opportunities to prevent incidents and complaints in the future – particularly in the case of safety incidents.

A lack of a reporting system or an ineffective reporting system could lead to fewer complaints as employees are afraid of getting in trouble if they speak up. It shows employees that the business is not taking them seriously and that the company is not looking for ways to improve. If a reporting system is in place but no complaints are ever received, it could be an indicator that employees do not know that it exists or do not know how to use it.

In most cases, employees lack the confidence to report an incident, especially harassment. A report by the EEOC found that less than 25% of harassment victims formally made a complaint and less than one in three employees talked to a manager. This means that the investigation has failed before it has even started. As the investigation aims to discourage unethical and unlawful behaviour and create a better working environment, a flawed reporting system can lead to the exact opposite. 

Employees fear retaliation, which may eventually lead to a lower-quality investigation as they are afraid that what they say against the accused may result in a worse situation. Employers must ensure that before, during and after an investigation, retaliation is discouraged from both parties to prevent further problems from occurring in the workplace.

Not following the plan

Before starting to investigate, a plan must be created to guide investigators on how to approach this whole process. The investigation process must be outlined in the company policies and an additional plan should be created to address the current issue that the organisation is facing. Failure to do so could result in a disorganised approach to the issue and individuals being confused about who they need to investigate and when.

An effective investigation plan should explain what is being investigated and what evidence has to be collected. It should highlight who will investigate and what issues may be present during the process. It should clearly describe the resources that will be used to investigate and the timeline of all the stages. The investigation plan should also state the parties involved and when it is expected that the investigation will be completed.

A lack of an investigation plan or failure to follow one could cause negative feelings to arise from the employees involved as it shows a lack of interest in the process. If the investigation does not follow policy guidelines then why should employees comply with the policies and procedures? May also result in issues with procedural fairness and compliance, or the investigation failing to achieve its objectives as they’re not clearly defined. While some steps in the complaint policies may be optional, the overall structure has to be distinctly outlined. An ineffective investigation plan could also lead to a delay in starting the investigation, a longer and more complicated process and hence, longer turnaround times.


Not preparing for the interview

Interviews are very important for building rapport and establishing credibility. The investigator will speak to various interviewees and it is important to collect as much meaningful information as possible. The most common mistake an investigator makes is not structuring the interview before asking questions. It is crucial that they take things one step at a time and they slowly ease into the interview. Effective questioning requires an investigator to have great listening skills. 

As a result of the lack of structure, an interviewer might not be asking the right questions. They may not have looked at the case in great detail and they may be asking general questions instead of trying to find the root cause of the problem and understand what really happened. They could also choose to ask close-ended questions that do not encourage individuals to elaborate. Interviewers should let the witness share their side of the story and then follow up with open-ended questions based on what they said. 

Another mistake investigators make is not keeping their composure during the interview or making assumptions. Even if the interviewer is certain that the person sitting across from them is lying, they need to handle the situation with professionalism and not behave aggressively. They have to be calm and treat them with respect. They should always look for ways to get their interviewees to open up to them and jumping to conclusions can have the opposite effect. People are less likely to talk when they feel judged or feel like they are not being heard. This is why an objective and neutral investigator plays an important role in the success of the investigation. 

Not collecting the appropriate evidence

Evidence is key in every investigation. It can prove or disprove claims which is why it is necessary that interviews are conducted and physical evidence is gathered. In many cases, investigators may not collect sufficient evidence or they may neglect to collect evidence from both sources. They may only gather physical evidence or they may make decisions based solely on emails, texts and CCTV footage without asking for further information. 

Gathering evidence before the interview process can lead to more fruitful interviews and better investigation results. However, not using interview notes and physical evidence to spot contradictions or false information could result in misleading conclusions. Failure to obtain sufficient evidence could be the result of a delay in initiating the investigation. Memories may fade and not all relevant evidence may be brought forward. 

Parties in the investigation might forget to inform the investigator of additional data they have collected or might not remember how an incident occurred. The investigator should enquire about any potential sources of information that may exist including but not limited to direct evidence, circumstantial evidence and documentary evidence. 

The biggest mistake

It is difficult to warn someone of where they could be wrong because they might investigate numerous allegations throughout their career. Investigators may not recognise their pitfalls and may not receive useful feedback during their investigations.

However, the biggest mistake an investigator could make is not having a case management system that will assist them during the investigation. Polonious is chosen by many businesses worldwide due to the many benefits that we offer. Our clients enjoy flexible integration, the ability to track cases from anywhere at any time and real-time collaboration are only a small part of what we have to offer. If you want to learn more, we are happy to chat!