The success of an investigation relies heavily on reducing the risk of error during the investigation process- this requires paying attention to detail and careful planning. When preparing for and conducting internal investigations, there are many factors to consider. You are held liable for reacting promptly and conducting thorough investigations once a complaint is made.
This means that you need to complete your investigations properly the first time around- make the investigation a priority, collect all pieces of evidence, ask questions that cover all areas of the investigation and determine an appropriate consequence for the misconduct that was made.
These 13 steps can help you improve the investigation process in your workplace.
1. Follow Workplace Policy
It’s important to follow the company’s policies for handling different types of allegations (harassment, discrimination, privacy, theft, etc). Workplace policies may dictate that different types of complaints require different procedures.
In addition, the company code of conduct is a great place to start gathering information on the behavior that is expected of employees and to determine whether the activity being reported violates workplace policies.
Does your company have good workplace policy documentation? If not, download our free Code of Conduct Template.
Aside from following company policy, it’s important to ensure that all legal obligations are upheld throughout the investigation process.
2. Determine if Further Investigation is Necessary
Not all complaints require a full-blown investigation, but it’s usually wise to take some form of action on a complaint to ensure it doesn’t escalate. There may also be cases in which an employee makes a complaint but ask for nothing to be done.
At the very least, conduct a preliminary investigation, making basic inquiries to ensure that the incident is, in fact, low risk or unsubstantiated. This is a great risk mitigation strategy to ensure that you have a record outlining the basis for closure of the incident without a full investigation.
3. Assign Investigator(s)
Assign an investigator to the case, taking into account that it may sometimes be necessary to assign an outside investigator. The person selected to conduct the investigation should be independent and objective and should not be in a position of direct authority over any of the people involved in the complaint.
Some investigative case management solutions contain a workflow assignment engine that enables investigation managers to create rules that determine how cases are assigned. For example, the software can automatically assign the case to the appropriate investigator based on the location of the allegation, the allegation type, risk exposure, or any other variable.
4. Create a Plan of Action
Outline a plan of action and make a list of questions that need to be answered by the complainant, the subject of the allegation and any witnesses. If you don’t have an enterprise investigative case management solution, you can create your own investigation plan.
Need help planning your investigation? Download your free Investigation Plan Template.
Begin by answering the following questions:
- What is the allegation?
- Is there a company policy related to the alleged behavior?
- Who is the complainant?
- What is his or her job role?
- Who is the subject of the complaint?
- What is his or her job role?
- Should supervisors and managers be informed of the allegation?
- Is there any documentation related to the allegation?
- Are there any witnesses to the alleged behavior?
- Who should be interviewed?
- Where should interviews be conducted?
- Should the parties to the complaint be separated during the investigation?
- Does any immediate action need to be taken to ensure the safety of anyone related to the complaint?
- Is a litigation hold required?
- Does the IT Department need to be involved?
5. Collect Evidence
Gather and record any supporting evidence available to support the investigation. Evidence or exhibits could be in the form of e-mails, video footage, reports, witness interviews etc. It’s beneficial to get a signed statement from the complainant in order to keep a clear audit trail documenting the allegation.
Depending on the allegation type, interviews will generally be the most critical part of your investigation. This generally includes the subject, the complainant and any other staff members who have either witnessed or have any further information supporting the allegation that could be held as useful evidence. It’s important to document all of their responses by either recording interviews or taking notes.
Some investigative case management solutions allow investigators to attach any kind of electronic file to an investigation case record. Each “exhibit” attached to the file will be automatically assigned an exhibit number and can be categorized (i.e. witness statement, documents, etc.) with a description.
6. Write the Final Report
Create an overview of the investigation by summarizing the evidence collected and the recommended outcome. Include supporting evidence, any applicable laws, regulations or workplace policies that relate to the case, and outline the necessary course of action to be taken.
If you’re using i-Sight case management software to manage your investigation, the final report can be generated with one click. Since investigators are using the case file on a daily basis to record their notes, send emails and record exhibits, the preparation of the final report can happen in minutes. Investigators simply select the desired final report template and click a button to extract information from the i-Sight case file into an MS Word document. The result is a polished and consistent final report based on a comprehensive and auditable electronic case file.
If you’re not using case management software, download our free Investigation Report Template to create your final investigation report.
7. Take Action
Corrective action, if taken, should be tailored to the situation. Appropriate action could include:
- employee training
- disciplinary action
- creating new policies
- revising existing policies
Once you determine the appropriate action, act on it to correct the issue as soon as possible.
8. Follow Up
Conduct separate follow ups regarding the complaint. Follow up with the subject to make sure that they have made the necessary corrective actions and provide them with the tools and training necessary to make changes. With the complainant, follow up questions should be aimed at ensuring there are no signs of retaliation and to make sure that they are aware that the situation has been handled. Finally, ask them if they have noticed an improvement since their complaint was made.
9. Avoid Making Pre-Judgments
It’s important to approach each investigation in a non-judgmental manner. Avoid assuming whether the subject (the accused) is guilty or innocent until all of the facts have been gathered and all sides of the story have been heard. Jumping to conclusions before understanding the facts of the case make it difficult to conduct a fair investigation.
10. Determine if Temporary Dismissal is Required
There are some situations that require the consideration of interim dismissal of the subject while an investigation takes place. Temporary dismissal (with pay) or reassignment to another department in the workplace should only be considered if it’s decided that the presence of the subject hinders or influences key elements of the investigation (ie. evidence, witnesses, etc.). Should this decision be made, it’s important to provide reasoning to the subject for the temporary situation and explain that it isn’t a disciplinary action against them regarding the alleged misconduct. In the article “10 Steps to an Effective Investigation” on hr.blr.com, they state that
“Taking action before the investigation is complete may be necessary for health or safety reasons, or in situations that are very disruptive or emotionally charged. Temporary transfers, reassignments, or paid leave are examples of interim relief employers can use when necessary.”
11. Get Interviewee Signatures
The Personneltoday.com article “Trade Secrets: Conducting Internal Investigations” suggests that “at the end of each of the investigation interviews, it is best practice for interviewees to be invited to read through any notes the investigator has made and then sign them.”
This allows for further clarification of statements made should there be a misunderstanding on behalf of either party. This also makes it difficult for the interviewees to try and go back on their word and aims to avoid future changes to their story.
12. Maintain Information Control
Create and follow a policy that limits the spread of investigation information. In the article “Internal Investigations: The Basics“, the author makes it clear that “employees’ reputations and relationship to the organization are on the line in an investigation.
Careless disclosure of information causes rumors, damages productivity, and creates liability for the company and the investigator.” Disclose information only when necessary- which, in many cases, is only between the investigators on the team that is assigned to the particular case.
With case management systems such as i-Sight, it’s easy to manage cases and ensure that investigation information remains confidential, as it has customizable case assignment rules for that allow you to control case access. By keeping all pertinent case information in one easy to access place, i-Sight reduces the chance for information leaks during the investigation as you establish the access capabilities for each case for the members of your team.
13. Separate Roles
It’s wise to have an individual or team working on the investigation process and then have a different individual or team make the final decision regarding the action to be taken regarding the misconduct.
In many cases, a team of investigators will conduct the interviews, collect the evidence and other elements in the investigation process and then create a report that will be submitted to a specific department for review and decision making regarding the punishment decision. The investigation team can include suggestions that they see fit for reprimanding the subject in the report to be passed on.
Preparing investigation reports the old-fashioned way often requires a major time commitment. With i-Sight, we have created drag and drop reporting, allowing investigators to simply click a button that generates a MS Word document- containing a comprehensive chronology of events/activities, the contacts that were made, the evidence that was gathered and the investigators’ recommendations that are pulled from the case information stored in i-Sight.