5 Steps to Smoother Workplace Investigations
by Employers Council Staff
Lori Karl, Employers Council SeniorInvestigator, loves a good whodunit.
“[Workplace investigations] are like solving a mystery,” said Lori. “You’re trying to find the facts that will resolve disputes. I think I have a knack for it.”
Lori has both a natural inquisitiveness and decades of investigative experience. After earning her law degree at the University of Denver, Lori trained at the FBI Academy at Quantico and joined the bureau as a special agent assigned to a field office in the midwest. . A Colorado native who grew up in Pueblo, Lori wanted to come back to the Centennial state, so after 7 years with the FBI, she decided to leave for the private sector.
“I moved back to Denver, and that’s when I started to do workplace investigations,” said Lori. “It was an easy segue because I had an investigative background.”
Lori managed workplace investigations for Fortune 500 telecommunications and insurance companies before taking a position managing the compliance department of a financial services firm. But she missed investigating. Lori’s love for fact-finding and puzzle-solving drew her to Employers Council, where she’s a Senior Investigator with a current emphasis in discrimination and harassment investigations. She enjoys the opportunity to interact with a variety of organizations, and the diverse base at Employers Council offers that.
“We get to work with large corporations … small nonprofits … all types of different businesses,” said Lori. “That’s really interesting to me.”
She also likes talking to individual witnesses and getting to know them.
“I understand it’s very scary for witnesses to be part of a workplace investigation,” said Lori. “Some people have the perception that it’s going to be like an interrogation, and it is nothing like an interrogation. It’s a conversation. I try to put people at ease at the beginning of the interviews, letting them know that I’m just here to find the facts.”
The most challenging part of any investigation, and one of Lori’s favorite parts of the process, is the analysis needed for the final report. Workplace investigators present their findings to the client in the form of a report; the organization then determines what corrective actions to take on its own (or with counsel, like the attorneys on Employers Council’s Legal Services team provide.)
“I do enjoy a challenge,” Lori said. “Part of that includes analyzing credibility, which is important, especially with he/she said investigations. You have to analyze credibility … when the parties say two contradictory things.”
Long before the analysis begins, however, workplace investigations start with a complaint. An employee brings a significant problem to an employer in written or verbal form. Common complaints that trigger workplace investigations have to do with harassment, discrimination, whistleblowing and retaliation, theft/embezzlement, violence, hostile work environments, code of conduct and ethics violations, and public contract violations. The employer then works with either an in-house or outsourced workplace investigator to determine the facts under dispute.
“If employers are not sure whether [a complaint] requires an investigation, I suggest they call one of the Employers Council attorneys to discuss it with them,” said Lori.
Workplace investigations can be stressful: the instigating incident may have been traumatic, and the stakes for post-investigation consequences may be high. Some anxiety is inevitable, but employers can help workplace investigators create a calm, fact-focused environment to sort through the conflict. To prepare for smooth workplace investigations, Lori recommends employers take these five steps:
1. Ask for substantiating documentation
Well documented complaints give employers and investigators a stronger starting foothold for investigations. Employers can request the employee submit their complaint in written form, if the employee is able. Employers should also ask if the employee has any documentation that can substantiate their complaint. In today’s workplace, this is often in the form of email, but any kind of documentation is helpful.
2. Take any necessary precautionary measures
Depending on the nature of the complaint, employers may need to consider how to protect their employees and de-escalate tensions.
“If the respondent and complainant work together, maybe [the respondent] can change shifts or work locations,” Lori recommended. “If the allegations have to do with physical contact or extreme sexual harassment, [employers] might want to think about putting the respondent on paid administrative leave.”
3. Gather important materials
The workplace investigator will ask for materials that pertain to the case; employers can get a head start by gathering information as soon as a complaint is made. Make special effort to find and save any materials that are subject to routine deletion, like security video footage. Helpful data can include the complaint itself, substantiating documentation, video coverage that applies, pertinent emails, personnel files, relevant company policies, and proof that the parties have been trained on those policies.
4. Determine the scope of the workplace investigation
One of the first things the employer and investigator will talk about is how to draw the boundary lines of the investigation. It’s important to know what questions the investigation is attempting to answer and which questions are beyond its reach. If additional issues or complaints come up during the investigation, the investigator will come back to the employer to ask if the scope should be expanded.
“Often the member will say ‘Don’t include that in the scope,’” Lori said. “But I include any additional issues in a section of my report called ‘Other Issues,’ so the employer has a record that this issue was brought forward.”
5. Identify and notify witnesses
Once the scope has been determined, the employer and investigator will work together to identify the people who need to be interviewed first. Employers should locate a private, confidential space for interviews where the investigation won’t be interrupted or overheard.
“It’s a good idea to then send those people a notice of investigation, so they know someone from Employers Council will be contacting them to do an interview,” Lori said. Notifications should let witnesses know what to expect and walk them through confidentiality and no-retaliation guidelines. Employers Council has a notification template that employers can customize to make this step easier.
Then the actual investigation begins. The workplace investigator and employer will stay in close contact to coordinate any new interviews and deal with issues of scope. When working with an experienced investigator like Lori, employers can be confident that they will receive a comprehensive and unbiased accounting of the complaint.
“I’m very objective,” said Lori. “I can remain neutral. I listen to all the facts. I ask pertinent questions, and then I make a reasoned finding based on the facts. I enjoy sharing my expertise in that area.”