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The right way to handle a workplace investigation

So you’ve decided to investigate the great case of who’s been etching “humorous” messages on the office bathroom cubicle walls. Before you get started, a workplace investigation is a serious task, one you need to plan for.

No doubt you read our previous article on when a workplace investigation might be required, and on that basis have decided to put on your detective deerstalker.  But is the answer elementary? Are you taking the right steps towards solving this mystery?

Step one

Before taking any action you should first consider the seriousness of the allegations.  An allegation that, if found to be true, would likely lead to a person’s employment being terminated will almost always require a more extensive workplace investigation than an allegation which may only lead to an informal warning. Use your resources appropriately.

Step two

Prepare an investigation plan, following the principles of procedural fairness.  A plan should map out a timetable for the action (see step three) and list who is required to be involved in each step.

Step three

Action the following:

  • interview the complainant to ensure you have a full understanding of the allegations;
  • inform any respondent about the allegations and that an investigation is underway;
  • avoid unnecessary delay.  The investigation should be completed promptly — but not hastily;
  • interview any relevant witnesses — remember to ask them: who, what, when, how and why;
  • consider all available evidence in an unbiased and impartial manner (if you feel that you are unable to do so, you should ask someone else to take over);
  • inform the respondent in writing of any evidence you have found;
  • allow the respondent a full opportunity to respond to the allegations and evidence before you make any findings; and
  • inform the respondent (again in writing) of your findings.

Step four

At this point your job as investigator is done!  Even though you were the one who completed the investigation, it is not your job to make any decision about disciplinary actions. That role will fall to someone else, based on your (no doubt excellent) investigation report.

Getting a workplace investigation right on the first go can save you and your organisation a great deal of time and trouble later on, as the findings of a faulty investigation can potentially be challenged and overturned in court.

Obviously every investigation will be different, and it can be very difficult to be certain you are taking all of the right steps. For these reasons – and especially where the allegations are of a more serious nature – it may be worth obtaining external legal advice before you start an investigation. In addition to ensuring that you have covered all bases, it may provide you with the protection of legal professional privilege over the investigation report.

Investigations aren’t something that should be made up on the fly.  It’s extremely helpful to have a good plan, and a solid understanding of what’s usually involved in the process of a workplace investigation. With this in mind, ensure you are a good scout before you are required to pull out the magnifying glass, and be prepared!


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