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Is a Formal Workplace Investigation Always Necessary?

It depends on the severity and complexity of the issue

Posted by Timothy Dimoff on March 4th, 2014

Every employer will need to conduct internal investigations at some time. How will you know if you need to conduct a formal workplace investigation or if an informal investigation will suffice? Does every accusation or alleged employee misconduct require a formal investigation? What if it’s just a rumor? How do you handle it if the complaint stems from a lawsuit or a legal action by a governing body such as the EEOC?

The purpose of any internal investigation is to gather the facts, to dissect the facts and ultimately to reach a conclusion. A workplace investigation also lets your other employees know that their employer is fair and is committed to objective treatment of all employees.

Learn more about conducting workplace investigations: How to Conduct a Workplace investigation: Step-by-Step.

Every complaint, rumor, or incident should absolutely be investigated, but not every workplace incident needs a formal workplace investigation. Sometimes an informal investigation will be all you need to conduct, providing it will yield the necessary information to reach both a conclusion and a resolution. If the complaint is minor, you may only need to discuss the matter with the employee and his/her supervisor. If the complaint is serious, such as bullying or harassment, you will need to conduct a formal investigation. Some complaints may even require police intervention.

Informal Investigation

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During the initial meeting with the employee who is making the complaint, gather all the facts and issues about the incident including who was involved, what happened, when it happened, where it happened, why it happened, and how it happened. This information should assist in determining whether you need to conduct either a formal or an informal investigation. There are also certain guidelines that can help you decide which type of investigation may be needed.

An informal approach may be all you need to conduct if:

  • the issues concern a misunderstanding of your company policy
  • it stems from a lack of communication between the complaining employee and their supervisor or a co-worker
  • the situation doesn’t need any additional information or resources to reach a resolution

Formal Workplace Investigation

If the issue doesn’t meet the criteria for an informal investigation, then you must conduct a formal workplace investigation. This is a serious matter and should be conducted judiciously in order to prevent lawsuits and other potential issues.

A formal investigation may be necessary if:

  • additional facts are needed
  • the employee is unable to supply all information and it needs to be gathered elsewhere, such as from other employees, etc.
  • there are any documents that need to be reviewed
  • special expertise or analysis is needed

No matter which level of investigation is necessary, it is important to review all details as well as your business policies and obligations for every complaint or issue.


Timothy Dimoff
Timothy Dimoff

President, SACS Consulting & Investigative Services

Timothy A. Dimoff, CPP, president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Inc., is a speaker, trainer and author and a leading authority in high-risk workplace and human resource security and crime issues.
He is a Certified Protection Professional; a certified legal expert in corporate security procedures and training; a member of the Ohio and International Narcotic Associations; the Ohio and National Societies for Human Resource Managers; and the American Society for Industrial Security. He holds a B.S. in Sociology, with an emphasis in criminology, from Dennison University.

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