In a perfect world, employers would not have to conduct internal workplace investigations. They would hire honest, loyal, drug-free, hard working employees who would work without incident and would leave their personal problems at home. But in the real world employees are people, who come to work with all the attendant baggage that people carry. Whether from personal stress, character flaws, or watching too much television, employees have problems and cause conflicts, and employers are required to assign blame and mete out discipline.
Employee problems come in all shapes and sizes such as complaints of sexual harassment, money missing from employee lockers, workplace accidents, and employee sabotage. And when problems happen, they rarely are cleanly delineated and easily resolved. They come to supervisors through the muddied, if not conflicting, reports of the various people involved.
Because workplace disputes often have personal importance to the employees involved, their individual perceptions can be shaded. Furthermore, since these disputes may impact their livelihood, they may even lie. From these differing accounts, employers must investigate and determine what really happened.
To make matters more difficult, there is no magic formula for conducting workplace investigations; they necessarily vary based on the issues and the people involved. Some issues may be resolved quickly and discreetly while others may require broad canvassing of the entire workforce.
HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including workplace investigations
Any workplace investigation requires judgment calls about what issues to investigate, who to include in the internal investigation, and ultimately who to believe. Although no workplace investigation is perfect, the goal should be to conduct the investigation in the fairest way possible. In all likelihood, the truth will never be certain, but employers must use their best judgment.
Another issue employers must be mindful of is the importance of documentation in workplace investigations. Examining domentation of previous employee behavior and incidents may be part of the workplace investigation. It also will be necessary to document interviews with witnesses and other steps taken during the investigation process. Getting the documentation right is vital to conducting a proper workplace investigation. Once the investigation is completed, employers need to determine what documentation should be preserved.
Workplace investigations also have risks. A shoddy investigation may do more harm than good, raising questions about the accuracy of the results as well as casting doubt about the employer’s commitment to treating employees fairly. There is also the risk that an employer may not like what the investigation uncovers. It may reveal that a pivotal employee has committed offenses that require termination; it may require addressing systemic problems which raise the specter of litigation.
Employers beware though: If an investigation is conducted and a serious problem is uncovered, you have an obligation to act to right any wronged employee or otherwise address any legal impropriety.