How to Conduct a Thorough Employee Relations Investigation

By June Jeong | Small Business

How to Conduct a Thorough Employee Relations Investigation image ID 10025590 300x210Employee-Relations-InvestigationWhile the situation that triggers an employee investigation might be unpleasant, it is nevertheless an essential part of the job for HR professionals.  Employee relations investigations need to be conducted whenever there is a complaint filed which centers around rule and policy violations, employee misconduct or even criminal acts.  Additionally, some employee relations investigations need to be conducted around non-formal complaints such as office rumors or suspected rule violations.

Why Employee Relations Investigations are So Vital

If the investigations are not conducted, serious consequences could arise.  These consequences can become compounded if the investigation is conducted in a poor manner and wrongful termination suits are filed over misguided disciplinary actions.  By conducting a poor employee relations investigation—or by not conducting one at all—you are exposing your company to lawsuits based on defamation, harassment, wrongful termination and discrimination.  These lawsuits can be devastating to a company, causing some organizations to declare bankruptcy altogether.  That’s because courts lean in hard on companies with poor or no employee relations investigations practices in place.

How an Employee Relations Investigation is Conducted

The first thing that is needed during a competent investigation is a well-trained and objective investigator.  The main goal here is to procure a fair and impartial judgment to bring the situation to an amiable outcome for all parties involved.   As such, the investigator should be specially trained in employment law, conflict resolution and human relations.

This is typically handled by HR professionals when done internally, or by hiring professional investigators from outside.  Outside investigators are preferable for complex and sensitive cases that may have big implications.  Check with your state to find out what type of licensing these investigators need for compliance.

Once the investigation is underway, there should be specific procedures that have already been established concerning how supervisors and managers must act during the investigation.  These procedures should be written down and outline every step of the investigation process.  They should act as professional guidelines for issues such as fact finding, documentation and the eventual communication of results and protection of confidentiality.

This guideline should ensure that the investigation is conducted in a timely manner and as quickly as possible.  The facts are fresh after the incident occurs and the longer you want to begin the investigation—typically no longer than a couple of days—the higher the risk of a tainted outcome.  Additionally, most investigations should be wrapped up within 5 to 10 days, although more complicated issues may take longer.

The Actual Investigation Process

As the investigation gets underway, the investigator should begin collecting as much information and as many facts about the situation as possible.  This could include interviews, collecting affidavits or reviewing security footage—whatever means are available should be taken advantage of.

The investigation should focus around direct witnesses, victims, accusers, accused and generally speaking, anyone who is able to shed more light on the allegations.  All questions should be non-suggestive, open ended and probing.  These avoid tainting the answers by leading the witness.  The overall goal at this stage should be obtaining completely unbiased accounts of the situation in order to best assess the incident fairly.

The tone of every interview should be extremely professional and all witnesses should be reminded that there will be no retaliation, penalty or otherwise for participating in the investigation.

As the results of the interviews and fact-finding missions are obtained, they should be written down in their entirety to preserve the sanctity of the testimony.  All written records should be compiled in an easily retrievable manner to help as memory aids further down the line, should the need occur.  These written documents should always be compiled in such a way that should they ever be needed in a court of law, they will hold up to legal scrutiny.   They should also contain no personal judgment, only facts.

 When the Decision is Reached

After the investigation is completed, management will then sit down and pour over all the evidence that has been compiled.  Evaluating this evidence should lead to a definitive decision.  While it’s often impossible to come to a perfect decision, the goal here is to come to the most logical one based on the evidence provided.  If the investigation was thorough enough, the decision should be plain and clear to see for all involved in the decision-making process.

Keep in mind that as a rule of thumb, courts generally don’t go against employer actions, even if the management is later proven to be wrong.  As long as the investigation was thorough and it is shown that management acted in good faith, employer decisions are looked upon as final. When the decision is made, all of the concerned parties should be informed, underscoring the fairness of the investigation by only disseminating information to the legitimate parties.

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/

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