Investigations tips to keep you out of trouble

When it comes to employee complaints and the need to investigate them, it may be tempting to brush it all aside. But making light of negative talk around the office could lead to serious legal trouble. So what can you do to handle this in a way that both calms the storm and avoids future legal battles? Here are some tips to be sure you get it right.

Take all complaints seriously

Yes, that means even when someone says they don’t want to make an official complaint. Once you’ve heard about an issue, your failure to act on it could, worst case, lead to an ugly lawsuit. But it could also lead to an office culture where stepping into the gray areas of wrongdoing or harassment becomes accepted. Investigating all complaints sets up a zero tolerance stance that will improve your corporate culture AND keep you out of legal trouble.

Create standard investigation procedures

Your procedures need to cover who does investigations, how they are done, how they are reported, and who takes action on them. When setting up procedures, include these best practices:

  • Be fair
  • Use investigators who are trained and experienced
  • Stay neutral (no one who works with or reports to parties involved should be the investigator)
  • Document the investigation properly
  • Keep the investigation as confidential as possible
  • Report findings of fact at the conclusion to a person authorized to take action (not the investigator)
  • Take corrective action

When conducting an investigation, be fair and neutral. No one should be accused or ambushed. Instead, explain investigation procedures, inform that allegations were made, and get a response to the allegations. The purpose of the investigation is to gather evidence, not make a judgment or take action.

Investigate thoroughly

Your report should include:

  • a summary of each allegation
  • steps taken to investigate, including who was interviewed
  • the response to each allegation
  • evidence gathered
  • findings on each allegation

Ideally, the person who does the investigation and prepares the report should not be the person to take action. This makes it easier to keep investigations confidential and impartial.

Take action

When it does come to taking action on a complaint, you have plenty of options. The first step is to decide whether the allegations were shown to be true. If the complaint is unsubstantiated, the results of the investigation should still be reported to all parties involved.

If allegations were determined to be true, the next step is to decide if the behavior was acceptable, inappropriate or harassment. If you decide to take corrective action, possible options include termination, discipline, training, counseling, transfer, demotion or reduction in pay.

Remember, your goal in any investigation is to make all parties feel heard, so they know their concerns were considered impartially. The keys to success are to be thorough, prompt, fair and as confidential as possible, and then to give the documented results to someone with the authority to decide on corrective action.

If you follow these steps consistently for employee complaints, you will create a culture where everyone feels respected; where everyone understands that misconduct will not be tolerated; and where ultimately, there will be fewer issues to investigate.