Workplace investigations are a source of confusion and fear among business leaders — especially if they’ve never experienced one before. An investigation can be triggered with a complaint from an employee, customer, client or vendor. Or a leader could simply notice a pattern or problem that needs clarity. There could be an allegation with legal repercussions. Or there could be something affecting the health of the workplace but that falls outside of agency and courtroom oversight.
What is a workplace investigation?
Julia Paris, Employers Council Managing Attorney, Workplace Investigations, explains that, very simply, investigations are triggered when something isn’t working well for the employees or the organization. “When people call with potential investigation situations, I ask: ‘If you knew the answer to this question, would you take action?’” Julia said. If your answer is, yes, absolutely, then it’s time to investigate.
In general, investigations tend to fall into five key investigation categories:
If you are considering taking an adverse action (termination, demotion, transfer, etc.), investigate first.
Federal law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and genetic information. State laws can be more stringent than their federal counterparts.
Potential employment law and agency violations should be investigated.
Complaints of criminal activity or workplace violence demand investigation.
It’s also helpful to investigate workplace conflict even when conflicts or problems don’t fit into any of the above categories.
“It’s about the health of the workplace, not necessarily about potential lawsuits,” said Julia. “It’s about keeping our employees in a workplace where they can thrive.”
Four common misconceptions about investigations
When Julia and her team of experienced investigators talk with leaders new to workplace investigations, they help clarify common misconceptions about the process. Here are the top four:
Misconception #1: Workplace investigations are akin to legal trials
“I think the very word investigation strikes fear into the hearts of every person in HR or management, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with them,” said Julia. “Because it does sound terrifying.”
Instead, Julia said business leaders should think of investigations as a series of conversations, not interrogations.
“At an investigation’s essence is this: we’re trying to get answers to questions,” explained Julia. “We are trying to ascertain facts that we don’t yet have, so organizations can make the best decisions for themselves and for their employees.”
Misconception #2: Workplace investigations aren’t that big of a deal
On the other hand, sometimes Julia comes across organizations who have been too casual in their approach.
“We have seen internal investigations where the report merely consists of one sheet with no statements and no analysis,” said Julia.
Workplace investigations need to be thorough, objective and comprehensive in order to be helpful, whether in an organization’s decision-making process or in a court of law. Producing a substandard report is one of the most common workplace investigation mistakes organizations make. It’s also the reason many leaders decide to outsource investigations to organizations like Employers Council, who have deep knowledge, experience, and standardized report processes.
Misconception #3: Workplace investigation findings are definitive
“You can have very reasonable investigators, both of them skilled, come to different conclusions, based on their own views, interpretations and analyses of what they heard and saw,” explained Julia. Leaders should understand that an agency or court might not agree with a finding, even if the investigation was conducted fairly and under best practices. The fact that you investigated — and well —is a factor that can reduce penalties.
“If it ever gets to a tribunal, an agency, or even a court of law, one of the main things they’re going to be looking for is that you actually did something,” explained Julia. “You engaged in this process, you were thorough, and you were objective. You did your best to get relevant evidence and analyze what was in front of you, which is all any of us can do.”
Misconception #4: Workplace investigations always lead to terminations
Yes, sometimes investigations are triggered by a potential policy violation or criminal allegation that could lead to job-ending consequences. But not all!
“Many of our conclusions reveal misinterpretations and miscommunications, not necessarily the actions of ‘evil-doers,’” said Julia. Post-investigation, organizations take all kinds of actions that don’t involve firing an employee, including providing additional training, updating policies, changing reporting lines and communicating misunderstandings.
“There are very positive outcomes that can come about from investigations that don’t end up with someone leaving the organization,” Julia said.
Are you or your organization new to workplace investigations? Are you facing a complaint for the first time? Don’t go through it alone.