By Alissa Penney
You’re in the middle of answering emails and getting some of those critical projects moved off of your desk when an employee asks if you have time to chat. You groan internally but tell them to come in and take a seat. Smile plastered on your face, you ask them, “What would you like to chat about?”
They hesitate and look a bit nervous, then ask if it’s ok if they close your office door.
You can practically feel what’s coming next when the employee tells you that their manager has been denying some employees access to the bathroom during work hours. They’re pretty sure it’s because the manager doesn’t think they’ve been “working hard enough” to deserve a bathroom break. There’s no way they’re going to approach the manager directly about it since everyone else who’s tried has gotten “grunt work” as a response. You nod your head and work to control the frustration you’re sure is showing on your face.
This is definitely going to be a workplace investigation.
Investigations require finesse at the best of times, and this one feels like a bit of a doozy.
So how do you go about starting the process and making sure you cross all the ‘t’s’ and dot all the ‘i’s’ in an efficient, full scope manner?
Generally speaking, you want to ask the following for any potential investigation situation:
- What specifically happened?
- When did it happen?
- Did they see it themselves? If not, who did?
- Who was involved in the situation?
- Was anyone else there when it happened?
- What was said during the incident?
- Do they know if this has happened before?
- Why do they think this happened?
Essentially, you’ll need to run through the list of who, what, when, why, where, and how. Take extensive notes! If you don’t write very quickly, but are a fast typist, take notes with your computer.
Once you’ve got all of the details, read them back to the employee.
This gives you a chance to correct anything you may have gotten wrong and also lets them add anything else that they may have forgotten. It’s always a good idea to ask if there’s anything else they’d like to add or if there is something important that they feel you should know about the situation. Because it’s common for nervous employees to only answer questions directly without doing much elaborating, open-ended questions help get all of the details you need (and sometimes extra information that you wouldn’t have thought you needed).
That’s your initial step done. If you’ve been typing, you should print out the employee’s statement and have them sign and date it. I personally like the following format: On DATE, EMPLOYEE NAME, witnessed INCIDENT. EMPLOYEE NAME stated that OTHER WITNESSES were also present at the time.
It’s simple and straightforward but hits on all of the key details.
Your organization may have another standard procedure here which is appropriate, but having them sign and date their statement adds validity to the complaint and formalizes it. They might be hesitant to do so - especially if they’re concerned about retaliation. Although you can’t guarantee complete confidentiality, you should reassure the employee that you will keep their name as anonymous as possible.
Do your best to maintain confidentiality.
In some cases it will be pretty obvious who filed the complaint, but you should do your best to maintain confidentiality. After all, HR is a department that thrives on building a solid employee-trust relationship. Betraying that trust intentionally will almost certainly cause you issues in the future.
Next is the planning phase.
You’ll need to list out all of the employees you’ll need to interview and the timing of those interviews. This will include any witnesses or employees who may have pertinent information related to the complaint.
Put them in the order you’ll need to interview them and reach out to them to schedule times to meet, keeping the employee the complaint was filed against for last. I recommend scheduling them as back-to-back as possible, making sure to leave yourself some buffer time in case they have more to say than you anticipated. You don’t want employees running into each other when coming out of/going to your office! It has the potential to undermine your whole investigation since it’ll be pretty obvious what the employees are there for.
During the interviews, take lots of notes!
Compile questions as you go and don’t be afraid to ask employees to clarify information that you’re unsure about. Use the time in between interviews to adjust your questions and pinpoint key information.
Once you’ve finished speaking with everyone, you’re ready to write up your investigation report.
Any recommended actions you include in your report should follow your company’s policies and past precedent, if you’ve had similar situations come up before. I suggest including a statement about the risk of not following the recommended actions in the report to make a business case for your leadership.
- Take initial statement and have the employee sign it.
- List and schedule interviews for all necessary employees.
- Refine list as needed.
- Type up report with recommendations.
- Close out investigation and follow up on any action items as needed.
That’s the long and short of it! As with all things, your company may have its own way to conduct investigations that has been tried and true. If what you’re doing works, then great! If not, review and refine your process to find out what works best in your work environment.
*Although the example given is based on a true story, key details have been changed to protect the identity of the organization and individuals involved.
Need a little extra help with conducting internal investigations? ABetterHR provides confidential and quality investigation services. Give us a call, send us an email, or schedule a time to discuss your needs and how we can best help you get to your Better.
About the Author
Alissa Penney is the Owner and Lead HR Consultant of A Better HR, an HR consultation company focused on helping small, thinly stretched HR teams do Better work. She loves getting to learn about what makes other HR professionals passionate about the work they do and helping answer difficult HR questions! She’s also an HR for HR contributor and community steward for the Legal & Compliance and Wellbeing groups.