To Investigate or Not? That is the Question

Every incoming allegation won’t lead to an investigation. That doesn’t mean the complaint should be dismissed at face value; it simply means that the allegation doesn’t qualify for further investigation.

Posted by Joe Gerard in on April 11th, 2011

Every incoming allegation won’t lead to an investigation. That doesn’t mean the complaint should be dismissed at face value; it simply means that the allegation doesn’t qualify for further investigation. Investigators need to be careful when making the decision whether or not to investigate, as some allegations may seem insignificant on the surface, but deep down they open up a big can of worms. Each company has their own criteria for qualifying allegations for investigation; however, there are some common factors each company must address during the decision process:

Type of Incident

Some incidents are more severe than others. Allegations of harassment, discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, and other serious issues must always be investigated. On the other hand, complaints such as an employee talking too loudly or someone leaving the lights on at the end of the work day, can (usually) be resolved without an investigation.

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That being said, these small complaints could be part of a bigger picture – and a bigger problem. For example, an employee might complain that their boss speaks too loudly, but deep down; the employee feels that their performance was judged unfairly in a recent performance review. It can be difficult to detect if there’s more to a complaint, which is why it’s always important to talk to the complainant before dismissing their allegations.

Handling of Previous Incidents

Certain types of incidents are more common than others. In the book “The Essential Guide to Workplace Investigations,” Lisa Guerin, JD, writes:

“When you are deciding whether an investigation is warranted, think about how your company has handled similar incidents or complaints in the past. If it has generally investigated similar problems, you should consider doing so now. If legal trouble later develops, you will be able to show that your company was fair and consistent with its employees and treated their complaints with equal concern.”

Consistency is important. Refer to company policies for guidance to determine whether or not an incident warrants an investigation. If the policy states that all allegation of sexual harassment will be investigated, uphold the policy’s promise. In the SHRM article “Expert Provides Guidance on Investigation Dilemmas“, Denise M. Kay, SPHR, president of Employment Practices Solutions, Inc, recommends:

“Employers adopt a system that allows for centralized review of all employee complaints so it’s possible to identify patterns or possible class-action situations and to ensure that complaints are handled in a consistent manner.”

Could the Case go to Court?

If there’s reason to believe that the incident could end up in court, investigate it. There’s always a risk that an employee could report the incident to an outside agency if they feel nothing is being done to rectify the issue internally. If your company has knowledge of an incident and fails to act, you risk additional charges and liability for being negligent. Organizations are responsible for conducting internal investigations into alleged illegal or criminal activity.


Joe Gerard
Joe Gerard

CEO, i-Sight

Spend my days showing off the i-Sight investigative case management software and finding ways to help clients improve their investigations. Usually working with corporate security, HR & employee relations, compliance and legal teams.

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