Tips for conducting internal investigations

8 Sep

Conducting internal investigations protects companies and their employees.

Most human resources managers hope they will never have to deal with a workplace investigation. Unfortunately, investigations are often a crucial part of HR's job. Whenever an employee files a complaint, whether it's related to discrimination, harassment, theft or failure to comply with workplace laws, the organization needs to conduct an internal investigation. If companies fail to do a good enough job, it can be a problem for the company. For instance, if a company doesn't adequately respond to serious allegations, the event could come back to haunt the brand and result in a diminished public reputation. 

Why investigations are important
Aside from protecting the business against liability, internal investigations have a number of other important benefits. According to "Practical Tips for Conducting Workplace Investigations," from Gibbons P.C., workplace investigations demonstrate to staff that rules and policies aren't just for show. When employees cross boundaries, there are real consequences. Conducting these investigations also may make employees more likely to come forward with an issue because they see their employers actually respond.

Just carrying out the investigation isn't always enough; it needs to be done thoroughly. An ineffective investigation can be used against the employer in court. Also, if employees notice the investigation is subpar or being carried out in a lackluster manner, they may not take the rules as seriously as they otherwise would.

For instance, James Castelluccio, former IBM vice president, won a case against his previous employer, arguing he was wrongfully terminated because of his age, the Society for Human Resources Management wrote. He won $4.1 million in the lawsuit. The judge criticized IBM for how it handled Castelluccio's discrimination complaint.

Here are some tips for conducting an investigation and avoiding a similar faux pas:

Know the laws
In some ways, being an HR professional is more complicated now than ever before because the laws change so frequently, and employees are increasingly aware of their rights. HR professionals need to stay up to date with any legislation that could impact their workplace. This can help them prepare quickly in case of an incident.

Have a plan
It's important to have a written plan in the event an employee files a serious complaint. When no plan is in place, there is a greater likelihood that HR departments will forget a key procedure or simply fail to do an effective job. Before jumping into the investigation, you outline who will investigate, what you will investigate, what evidence will need to be collected and who will need to be interviewed, SHRM suggested. It's also important that everyone understands the full scope of the investigation and why it is taking place.

Develop great interview skills
Interviews are at the center of every workplace interview. HR needs to track down everyone involved or anyone who may have witnessed the incident. In an interview with SHRM, Natalie Ivey, an expert on internal investigations, noted that investigations require great interview skills because interviewers need to confront liars as well as convince some reluctant witnesses to share their stories. Interviewers should thoroughly plan their questions but plan to ask follow ups that encourage interviewees to open up.

Remain objective
While it can be difficult for investigators to remain impartial, it's important for HR to be objective to ensure the investigation is fairly carried out.

Follow through
When finishing up an interview, HR practitioners should ask the person if there is anyone else who they should talk to. It's important not to leave anyone out or overlook key evidence. According to SHRM, failing to follow up with those involved is one of the top investigation mistakes that organizations make.

Proper documentation throughout the investigation is key. HR staff should use employee management software to store any information they learn in the course of the investigation. This data may be useful in future cases, as well. Any workplace investigation may involve reviewing previous incidents with specific employees, according to HR Hero.

Workplace investigations are tricky. Having the right HR management software ensures that companies are able to document every step of the procedures and make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

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