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Conducting an Ethics Investigation: Top 20 Tips for Success

An ethics issue is your chance to conduct a strong investigation, take action accordingly and move forward using lessons learned.

Posted by Katie Yahnke on November 14th, 2019

The 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey found that employees’ confidence in major institutions is on the decline. Almost 40 per cent of those surveyed expressed concern regarding the ethics of “Corporate America”. The two industries of greatest concern are the federal government and news media.

Losing the confidence of the general public can be catastrophic for a company. A quick glance at this long list of corporate scandals shows just how often ethics is at the root of an organization’s breakdown.

This is why, with corporate ethics especially, bad news can be good news. An ethics breach is an opportunity to conduct a strong, comprehensive investigation, take action accordingly and move forward with lessons learned.

This guide shares 20 practical tips for a successful ethics investigation. Use this information next time you investigate an ethical lapse to make sure your company stays moral and compliant.

Learn how case management software can help you conduct better ethics investigations in our new eBook.


Jump to a tip:

1. Document Everything Right Out of the Gate

As soon as that original tip comes in regarding ethical misconduct, start your documentation process. Ideally, your organization will have a formal reporting hotline that employees can use when they are a witness to, or suspicious of, ethical misbehavior.

This free Conflict of Interest Policy Template will help you develop a policy that ensures your workforce understands the implications of COI in the workplace.

If you don’t have a hotline, or if the reporting employee comes to you directly, let them speak, and jot down detailed notes. Write down everything the individual says, such as where and when the alleged misconduct occurred, who was involved and how long they knew about the actions.

2. Never Presume the Outcome

Go into every investigation completely neutral. Never enter an investigation with preconceived beliefs about what happened, who’s guilty and who’s not. Jumping to conclusions will only harm the credibility of the investigation process and of you as an investigator.

Only once you have collected all of the evidence, spoken with all of the witnesses and reviewed all of the relevant documents can you begin to form a story. And sometimes, even once you’ve collected all of the information possible, there still isn’t enough to come to a solid conclusion.

3. Take On Your Role (and Your Role Only)

Most organizations have an ethics policy. In most policies, there is a description of the different roles in the company and their responsibilities in promoting and maintaining an ethical environment.

For example, the administrator is responsible for receiving reports of ethical misconduct and assigning them to an investigator. Things become problematic (and sometimes illegal) when the administrator starts taking on tasks outside of their role.


RELATED: Summer Reading List – Ethics and Compliance


Make sure during an ethics investigation that everyone has a role, they know what it is and they fulfill it; nothing more and nothing less.

4. Keep Your Goals Top of Mind

The goal of any ethics investigation is to gather information and evidence that will help you determine whether the allegations are true and, if they are, to recommend how the situation can be prevented in the future.

If you become too deeply immersed in the investigation or the circumstances surrounding it, you may forget the main purpose of your work. If you forget the purpose, you could derail the entire investigation process and end up doing more harm than good.

5. Work Quickly but Carefully

According to Lockheed Martin, the average time to complete an ethics investigation is around 35 days. However, depending on the nature and complexity of the allegations, an investigation can take months or even years to conclude.

For ethics investigations, it’s important to work as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. If word gets out that an investigation is happening, those involved can start to coordinate cover-ups, excuses and alibis.

6. Follow Company Protocol

Certain aspects of an ethics investigation should be predetermined. Following preset standards will ensure consistency and fairness in the results, and will also prove the validity, transparency and defense of your investigation, should it ever be questioned.

Organizations may choose to set a time limit for how soon after the first report an investigation formally begins. They may create standards for questioning interviewees, storing physical evidence and sharing the final investigation report.


RELATED: 6 Core Values Exercises for Defining Your Company’s Ethics Culture


For a consistent and transparent investigation, follow your organization’s pre-determined protocol as closely as possible.

7. Develop and Stick with a Plan

A pre-determined protocol can only streamline the process so much. Depending on the type of ethics investigation and the unique circumstances at hand, you will need to come up with an investigation plan.

Keep your thoughts, actions and goals organized with an investigation plan template. Download one for free here.

Before beginning the investigation, when you’re 100 per cent neutral, consider what evidence you’d need to confirm the legitimacy of the allegations. What is the scope of the investigation? Who would you need to interview? What would you ask these people? What documents should you find and review?

Without a relatively narrow and descriptive plan, your investigation may become too vast and, potentially, counterproductive.

8. Have the Right Skills

An ethics investigation will only be successful if the right person conducts it. Due to the job’s unique demands, not just anyone can be an investigator, especially an investigator who deals with ethical misconduct.

For this reason, it’s vital that the investigator has the right skills. For example, the right investigator will know to keep interviews serious and business-like. They will agree an interview is no place for jokes, sarcasm or threats, and will understand that behaviors like this harm the validity of the entire investigation.

The right skillset will also include an understanding of emerging markets for a bribery investigation, or basic forensics for a fraud investigation.

9. Have the Right Personality Traits

The right investigator will also have a certain personality. To increase your odds of a successful ethics investigation, the person who carries it out will be appropriately skeptical.

Imagine an ethics investigator who is gullible or easily deceived. They would assume everyone they speak with is telling the truth and it would be difficult for them to identify discrepancies or inconsistencies.

A successful ethics investigation depends on an investigator who is skeptical, intuitive and logical.

10. Look at Small Details for Big Clues

Another way to increase the chances that your ethics investigation is successful: pay attention to the details. For investigations with a lot of detail and moving parts, it is painstaking work to try to closely analyze every small bit of information.


RELATED: 5 Ways to Ensure Your Ethics Hotline is Successful


However, it’s important not to overlook small details because they can provide a vital clue that can help everything else make sense.

11. Keep it Objective

Ethical investigations can draw out a lot of opinions, biases and feelings.

Imagine you work in corporate for a big box store. You’ve been asked to investigate allegations that a store owner has been funneling money from mandated support initiatives into his own pocket.

You may have personal feelings about this situation. You may feel angry and demand justice at once. However, the credibility of the investigation and of you, as an investigator, depends on your remaining objective and fair. Keep the investigation objective, don’t let personal opinions or feelings influence your work.

12. Assess the Credibility of Everyone Involved

For an ethics investigation to be successful, you want to assess the credibility of each person you speak with. Assessing someone’s credibility may include conducting a background check, evaluating their relationships and looking for context.

Your goal is to figure out this person’s biases and the basis of their knowledge of the operative facts.

Everyone has a bias, it’s impossible not to, you just want to figure out what theirs is so you can consider it while contemplating their answers to your questions. A witness who is a friend of the subject will speak differently than someone who is an enemy.

13. Never Stoop to Immoral Tactics

If the investigation isn’t going as planned, whether your witnesses aren’t talking or the physical evidence isn’t strong enough, you may be tempted to do things “the dirty way”.

As an ethics investigator, you too must be ethical. Don’t mislead your witnesses or share what other witnesses said. Don’t do anything that may influence their statement.

If anyone found out about your unethical approach, your integrity and that of your investigation would be at risk. Remember, a little aggression is acceptable, abuse is not.

14. Offer Appropriate Recommendations

It’s unlikely you’ll ever be responsible for following through with disciplinary action against a guilty subject. However, if the investigation finds that discipline is necessary, your final report will have to offer recommendations for appropriate measures.

Corporate Compliance says that ethics investigators should consider the broader implications of the incident for the affected unit or department. Yes, you must recommend a punishment that fits the crime, but also offer appropriate changes to policies, procedures, training, monitoring, audits or other ideas for prevention.

Appropriate discipline ranges from counseling to termination of employment (and, depending on the severity of the behavior, anything else the courts deem appropriate).

15. Accept Help from Experts

A great investigator needs a myriad of skills. They will be a great listener, a great communicator, organized and quick. They will have attention to detail, respect timelines and think strategically.

Perhaps the most important skill of all, though, is professionalism and knowing when it’s time to ask for help.

An ethics investigation will always be more successful when the investigator knows they’re not qualified or unable to take on a task and get help from an expert in the area.

16. Use an Ethics Audit in Your Report

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends conducting an ethics audit as you conclude your investigation. The audit helps you compare actual employee behavior with the recommended behavior that is outlined in your organization’s policies and procedures.

Also, use an investigation report template to write more accurate, thorough and consistent final reports. Download one for free here.

Ideally, your company will have specific policies that outline ethical, appropriate employee behavior in all areas. More detail makes it easier to compare what’s truly happening with what’s supposed to be happening. It will also help you conclude whether or not the alleged behavior was unethical and/or a violation of company policy.

17. Close Out Formally

Every conclusion you make, whether it’s concluding a preliminary interview or concluding the entire investigation, should be made formally.

At the end of your interviews, offer your contact information. Often, especially in high-stress situations such as an investigation, a person can suppress details or not even realize if a certain bit of information is important. With your phone number, the witness can provide more detail or clarity later on.

A proper conclusion to an investigation would include informing the reporting party and subject of your findings, explaining the company’s stance on retaliation and directing them toward the appropriate resources.

18. Protect Involved Parties from Retaliation

An ethics investigator has a significant role to play in protecting whistleblowers and anyone else who cooperates with the investigation.

Make sure to highlight the company’s retaliation policy. Explain what they should do if they think they’re facing retaliation and have questions about their rights

Corporate Compliance explains that any allegations of retaliation stemming from an existing investigation should be treated as an additional report of possible misconduct and reported and investigated accordingly.

19. Keep it Confidential

Another key to a successful ethics investigation is that it stays under wraps. From the very first report to the very last follow-up email, keep all details of your investigation confidential to the greatest extent possible.

Failing to protect the confidentiality of the investigation can cause serious harm to many people. It can result in irreparable damage to the subject’s reputation (even false allegations can impact a person’s image). It may give the subject more time to coordinate a cover-up. The company may experience negative publicity.

In some situations, minor disclosures might be okay, such as when the benefit outweighs the risk. For example: offering a relatively insignificant detail to get a witness to come clean.

20. Consider the Circumstances

You may be tempted to follow the exact same investigation routine every time. Send the same emails, ask the same introductory questions and use the same techniques.

However, every investigation should be tailored to fit the situation. In some circumstances, for example, it may be best to conduct interviews without a warning. Now, this isn’t a move you’d typically make, but if you’re concerned a witness may destroy evidence otherwise, it might be the right one.

Ethics investigations can differ greatly. It’s a category under which many actions fall. No single routine will work for every investigation, so don’t be afraid to adapt as necessary.

Katie Yahnke
Katie Yahnke

Marketing Writer

Katie is a former marketing writer at i-Sight. She writes on topics that range from fraud, corporate security and workplace investigations to corporate culture, ethics and compliance.

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