By Alissa Penney
As an added bonus to the Investigations 101 post, I have a few frequently asked internal investigation questions listed below:
How long do I legally have to conduct internal investigations?
Although there isn’t technically a legally mandated time frame, it is recommended that investigations are conducted as quickly as possible. If you end up needing to defend your timeline, you will be asked about your timeline and why it took you as long as it did. If you can’t provide satisfactory answers you may find yourself in hot water legally.
Ideally, they should be wrapped up within 48 hours to 1 week of the complaint. In some cases, this may not be possible due to extenuating circumstances (ie extreme weather conditions). Having other work to do is not an extenuating circumstance.
Do I need to have interviewees sign a confidentiality agreement?
I highly recommend that you do this. A confidentiality agreement will help reinforce the confidentiality you will need in order to conduct a quality, truthful investigation. Without one in place, employees may return to work and undermine the integrity of your investigation by talking about it with co-workers, even if they do so without that intent.
Bear in mind that a confidentiality agreement reinforces your company’s expectations of employees during an active investigation. You should have established expectations in your company’s policies already so that they have been clearly communicated to your employees.
Should you audio-record the meetings?
This really depends on the state your company operates in legally. There are a lot of conflicting answers here, but the lawyer recommended answer is no. You may find those recordings being subpoenaed should things end up in front of a court and your statements will be on those recordings as well.
Should you have another person sit in on the meetings?
I personally prefer to have the investigation meetings stay between myself and the employee being interviewed. Another person can make for a very nervous and quiet employee.
However, if you are a slow note taker, you may find that you need another person there to make sure you don’t miss anything. If you do decide to have another person there to take notes, you will want to make sure that:
- The employee being interviewed knows why the note taker is there and what their role is during the interview. This goes a long way to setting the employee at ease and establishing trust with them from the start of the conversation.
In the rare cases I’ve needed a note taker, I introduce them by saying, “This is NAME, they’re a(n) TITLE with HR. I’ve asked them to be here today to take notes for me so that you and I can focus on our conversation better. Is that ok with you? "I like to get their consent to the note taker’s presence but it’s not a requirement by any means. I do find that it puts the employee at ease if they feel that they’re agreeing to it.
- They understand that they are only there to take notes. If you’re taking on the role of interviewer, the note taker should be silent. You may want to discuss this in advance so you are both on the same page.
- Give the note taker time at the end of the interview to clarify any pieces of information needed. Although they’re not there to ask questions, you do want to make sure that the information they’ve captured is correct. You may find it helpful for them to read out their notes and ask the employee “Is that accurate?”, “Did I miss anything?”, “Is there anything you feel it is important to add?”, etc.
Are they allowed to bring another person “for support”? What about for “representation”, such as a union representative?
Because an internal investigation is not typically a union affair, you do not have to allow employees to bring another person. Your company may allow it in general but I recommend using your discretion here. I have personally only allowed an employee to bring a “support” person in one instance because the employee would not have met with me otherwise. In that instance, the “support” person was someone I needed to interview as well so I chose to interview them both at the same time rather than have the “support” person return at a later time.
This helped protect the integrity of their answers by not giving them ‘prep time’.
If their “support” person is an employee who you do not need to interview, you should still have them sign a confidentiality agreement. Even if you don’t think they’ll negatively impact your investigation’s integrity, it’s better to defer on the side of caution here.
Keep in mind that this is YOUR investigation. If you do allow the employee to bring another person with them, that person is NOT allowed to participate in the investigation or interrupt your questions. You should set this expectation at the beginning of your interview and let them know that you reserve the right to ask the other person to leave if they become disruptive.
Should I hold the investigation meetings in my office or somewhere else?
This depends on your work location (is it distracting?) and if there would be any negative impacts of holding the meetings in your office (will employees dread or avoid coming to HR in the future?). Holding the meetings in a neutral workspace allows you to separate your office from potentially negative feelings in the future. If you can, a private workspace or conference room away from HR is ideal.
Keep in mind that if you hold the meetings in your office you should turn your phone’s ringer on silent and turn off your computer if possible. If you are taking notes on your computer, be sure to mute your emails and minimize any distractions. You might even want to go so far as to disconnect from the internet if you think it may cause too many distractions.
How should interviewees be contacted?
By phone is ideal. Work email can be a little tricky but is acceptable if you don’t have any other alternative. Some companies have forms that they send out to employees to notify them that they have been scheduled to come to HR at a specific day and time. I don’t recommend this - if someone else is opening office mail or otherwise sees the form, the integrity of your investigation could be shot before you’ve even started your interviews.
Do you have a question not answered in the FAQs? Shoot me a message or let me know in the comments!
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.