The best workplace investigations begin BEFORE a complaint is filed

If you have a health concern, you want to see a doctor you can trust. One who is prepared to listen to you, take your concern seriously, investigate all possible diagnoses, offer effective treatments and communicate clearly through the whole process.

If one of your employees has a concern about harassment or discrimination, that’s the kind of attention they need. For their sake and for the sake of the company, you must be prepared to listen, take the complaint seriously, investigate it thoroughly, offer reasonable recourse as needed, and communicate clearly through the whole process.

That kind of attention doesn’t just happen. It starts with a strong foundation laid long before any issues or accusations arise. The keystones of that foundation are carefully crafted, clearly communicated policies and supervisors who have been trained to understand and enforce those policies. In fact, if your policies are clear, well-communicated, and properly enforced, you are much less likely to have issues come up in the first place. However, since there is no way to safeguard against any and all issues, you need to be ready to conduct a thorough, fair workplace investigation.

Here are a few tips to help you reach your goals of determining the truth, restoring a healthy workplace, and avoiding costly legal claims down the road . . .

Consider who will investigate. This task is usually left to HR or a high-level manager. However, if this is a serious or especially sensitive issue, consider bringing in an outside party with legal expertise.

Interview everyone involved.  Of course you will interview the complainant and the accused. But don’t neglect any witness that may have been identified. And be sure to take detailed notes.

Leave no stone unturned. Sometimes it just boils down to he-said-she-said. That leaves you to determine which version of the story is most plausible. Use your best judgment. Consider bringing in a neutral third party to review your findings and confirm that you haven’t missed anything.

Act quickly.  Once you’ve concluded the investigation and made your determinations, waste no time acting on any wrongs you uncovered.

Take care of the complainant. Regardless of the outcome, be sure to follow up with the complainant after the investigation is done. Be wary of retaliation claims.

Learn from the experience: Ask yourself: Do we need clearer policies? Do we need to do a better job communicating our policies to our employees? Do we need to do a better job enforcing our policies and following established company procedures? With those questions in mind . . .

Before your next investigation: Make sure your employee handbook includes a policy that clearly lays out your complaint procedures. Employees need to know first that you expect them to report concerns or issues, and second, how to do it. Like any policy, if your organization doesn’t practice what it has printed in the handbook, you open yourself up to legal scrutiny. Make sure your supervisors and managers are thoroughly trained on all company policies, including the complaint procedures.

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