Conducting Investigations - Finding Out What Really Happened

Picture this, you come into work on a Monday after a relaxing weekend. Before you’ve even had your first cup of coffee, there’s an employee at your desk telling you that one of your senior executives has been harassing people. You’re given several examples of highly inappropriate comments and activities about this executive.        

You talk to the person making the complaint and offer reassurances that the situation will be investigated. All the while, you know that investigating a senior leader in your organization will be no easy feat. Then, you start to wonder, did the person really do those things? What happens next?

One of the biggest challenges for HR professionals is to objectively investigate a highly visible and emotional situation. It takes a lot of work to cut through the noise, set aside the emotion, and to understand what really happened. How can you tell what’s rumor, what’s not, and what is the right course of action for resolving an issue?

Complaints are filed for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, they are well intended, but rarely provide the full picture. Before hastily taking action that can potentially ruin someone’s career, or allow inappropriate behavior to continue, there are some important steps necessary to follow to ensure a fair and thorough investigation is completed, including:

  • Don’t rush.  Thorough investigations are rarely completed in 24 hours. Take the time to do the research necessary to get to the root of the matter.
  • Suspend if necessary.  Is there a risk that the harassment will continue? Suspend the accused while the investigation is being conducted and the situation evaluated. If the accuser is highly emotional, consider some paid time off for him/her as well. Don’t allow the accuser to rush the investigation result.
  • Conduct an impartial investigation.  Whoever conducts the investigation needs to be impartial. Perceptions mean a lot so it’s important that the investigator is perceived as impartial if the investigation results are to be believed and respected.
  • Call your attorney.  Having expert advice to guide you through the process is invaluable, can save careers, and keep you out of legal trouble along the way. Consider calling at each next step of the process. Ask your attorney to review your results before you take action. Is there anything that you missed?
  • Take action designed to stop the behavior.  When taking action, consider the results of the investigation, company policy and culture. Also, consider the record of the employee who is being accused. Termination may not be the right answer, especially for a first offense. Also, the accuser does not get to determine the fate of the accused, but you do need to make certain that you are doing the right thing and that the problem is corrected.

Conducting a comprehensive investigation while protecting confidences, is one of the most challenging situations in HR. Actual investigation results rarely match the grapevine version of events. The difference between the two and the resulting action – whether too lenient or too harsh – will never satisfy everyone. In HR, our role is to do the best that we can to uncover the truth of the matter and take action that corrects inappropriate behavior. 

Submitted by Kevin Brozovich, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Found and Chief People Office at HRM Innovations.

Want to improve your investigation skills? Join Kevin, along with John Gardiner of Bodman PLC, for a seminar on Conducting Workplace Investigations  on September 26th in Kalamazoo.