Eventually, every workplace faces the need to investigate some sort of employment issue. Be it resolving a dispute between coworkers or addressing unethical or unlawful behavior and preventing its reoccurrence, workplace investigations are an important and delicate exercise. They must be handled with the utmost care in order to ensure useful results without creating further headaches. In order to protect the company and the employees involved, confidentiality is crucial and objectivity is key. The following are some tips for effective workplace investigations.
Best practices should prompt employers to investigate suspected misconduct, rule violations, and situations where an employee’s morale, behavior, or performance suddenly declines. Getting to the bottom of an employee’s attitude problem may head off further problems down the road. Investigations may follow instances of suspected substance abuse that compromise an employee’s performance or workplace safety, discrimination or harassment complaints, threats made by an employee against others, as well as instances of vandalism, sabotage, or workplace theft.
Turning a blind eye to misconduct or other liability-triggering circumstances is never a good idea. Employers have a legal duty to investigate in many circumstances, including whenever the employer has reason to suspect issues of unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. Workplace safety issues should also prompt action. The legal obligation is triggered not only when a formal complaint or grievance is filed, but any time an employer receives information of a questionable situation, or when the employer knows or should know about the unlawful or unsafe behavior.
An investigation should never be a seat-of-your-pants affair, no matter how urgent the situation. The key is to combine planfulness and preparation with flexibility to follow the rabbit hole…wherever it leads.
After gathering sufficient information, management decision-makers must reach conclusions about the issues or events and determine what action to take. If an adverse action is taken against an employee, only that employee needs to know the specifics. Follow up with the person who made the initial complaint to let them know that the complaint has been investigated and that action is being taken to address his or her concerns. Check in periodically to determine whether any new issues or problems have come up. Finally, be prepared to explain why you conducted the investigation the way you did and how you came to your conclusions.
This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal questions you may have.
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