The best person to conduct an internal investigation isn’t always the next available company investigator. Different cases require different skill sets and circumstances sometimes require the services of an outside resource.
One of the biggest challenges in workplace investigations is finding the right people, says Sheryl Vacca, Senior Vice President and Chief Compliance and Audit Officer at the University of California.
The first step in deciding who should investigate an employee suspected or accused of workplace misconduct is to assess the situation and decide whether or not the case can be handled by an internal investigator.
Sometimes you simply don’t have a suitable internal resource, or the “bandwidth” to handle the investigation says Vacca. Investigations should be undertaken quickly to ensure fair treatment of the person being investigated. Delays due to lack of resources can have a negative impact on the whole process.
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In these cases it’s clear that you need to use an outside resource. But there are other considerations that may also dictate use of external investigators.
Lack of Skills and Experience
There are times when you may not have an investigator on staff with the necessary skills to conduct a particular investigation.
A serious allegation of fraud or embezzlement may require specialized forensic investigation skills. A sexual harassment accusation may require an investigator with sensitivity training or experience with workplace harassment investigations.
Investigations of High-Level Staff
It may not be appropriate for internal investigators to conduct investigations of certain high-level staff.
“It depends on the sensitivity of the issue, the level of the person we’re investigating,” says Vacca. “I try very hard not to be the one to do the investigations of high level (staff) for a couple of reasons. One (reason) is that I’m supposed to have an ongoing relationship with that group of people. If I’m investigating them it changes our relationship. So what I try to do is to coordinate or facilitate having an expert from external come in … or even using someone who is completely away from my department, who is a skilled investigator and who doesn’t have anything to lose in playing a part in this particular investigation,” she says.
An internal investigator must be able to investigate a case objectively, and this means that they cannot have a vested interest in the outcome. “You have to ask them to either remove themselves from (the case)… or, if you’re going to let them continue, then you’ve got to have checks all along the way to assure that emotion hasn’t guided the process,” says Vacca, adding that it’s extremely rare for someone with a vested interest to be allowed to investigate.
Vacca advises against assigning an internal resource to investigate a staff member with whom they, or their team members, have a working relationship. It may be difficult for the investigator to remain impartial and to avoid “labeling,” outlined by Vacca as one of the classic investigation mistakes.
“They get very emotional about an allegation and they build their perceptions into realities that are very subjective. And it is hard for people to step away and say ‘but what are the facts?’… Emotionally they’re so tired of dealing with the individual. So it’s really hard with people in workplace investigations to step away from that emotion,” says Vacca.
“It can be very tenuous,” she says, “for you to have somebody as part of your team who has investigated somebody you’re trying to have a relationship with. It ruins all future (relationships) when it comes to trying to work day-to-day. I’m not saying it’s better to go outside, I’m just saying it has to be a consideration.”