How to Conduct a Workplace Investigation: Step-by-Step

The ultimate guide to conducing workplace investigations

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on September 12th, 2016

Many HR, compliance and security investigators don’t receive targeted training on how to conduct a workplace investigation from start to finish. Training may cover investigation planning, conducting interviews, gathering evidence and other aspects of the investigative process, but most often doesn’t provide an overall blueprint for conducting an entire workplace investigation.

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This step-by-step article will take you from the initial report of misconduct to the conclusion and final investigation report, with examples and guidance to ensure your investigation follows best practices.

Initial Report and Deciding Whether to Investigate

Failure to investigate misconduct that should be investigated can have dire consequences for the company.
When a complaint or report of wrongdoing is received via a company’s hotline, web form or through any other means, the company is obligated to take the report seriously and act on it quickly. Depending on the type of allegation, there may be regulations that govern how the complaint is handled and the timeline for its resolution. So It’s important to have in place a procedure for receiving and triaging reports.

Before you begin your investigation, download the free Investigation Report Template to help you along the way.

The first decision to be made is whether the report warrants an investigation, and this cannot be taken lightly. Failure to investigate misconduct that should be investigated can have dire consequences for the company.

If the allegation warrants it, you may need to take immediate action, such as separating the parties to the complaint, speaking to them individually or referring them for counselling, mediation or both. Allegations of harassment, or sexual harassment in particular, require sensitive handling and possibly immediate removal of one or both parties to another location.

Assuming the decision is made to investigate the report, there should be protocols in place to get started, including a method for choosing the investigator, assigning the case and tracking and reporting on the investigation.

If you decide not to investigate, this decision needs to be documented thoroughly. State the reasons for the decision to decline to investigate and ensure they are defensible. Assume your decision will be questioned and make sure you have valid grounds.

Learn more about the initial report and first steps in the short video below.

 

Choosing an Investigator

You’ll need to choose an impartial investigator who has the skills, knowledge, access and experience required by the case.
When deciding who will investigate an allegation, you’ll need to decide whether to use an in-house or outside investigator. There are many factors to consider in this decision. You may need an investigator with specific skills, experience or legal knowledge that are unavailable in-house. You may have concerns related to perceived bias or even actual bias that would pose a risk when using a company investigator.

Choosing an investigator isn’t always straightforward. Learn what you need to consider in this free cheat sheet: How to Choose an Investigator for a Workplace Investigation.

Depending on the type of investigation, you may need to consider the gender of the investigator (in a sexual harassment investigation, for example). If the investigation covers multiple locations, cities or countries, you may need to consider using resources in another country, someone who speaks a particular language or someone who has local knowledge.

The bottom line is that you’ll need to choose an impartial investigator who has the skills, knowledge, access and experience required by the case.

Planning the Workplace Investigation

Do some digging into the backgrounds of your interview subjects to find out a bit about them so that you can build rapport easily.
During the planning phase, you’ll need to determine the scope of the investigation. What exactly are you investigating? Is is a code of conduct violation, a possible criminal violation? Are there privacy issues involved? Are there other incidents or issues related to the complaint or incident that need to be triaged?

Creating an investigation plan helps you to avoid one of the biggest investigation mistakes: scope creep. Proper planning helps you to focus on the allegation or incident being investigated and ensures that your investigation stays on course.

To learn how to create an effective investigation plan, download the free Investigation Plan Template.

As part of the planning, you’ll also need to decide who needs to be interviewed, where, when and in what order. You may need to conduct some research and ask some initial questions in order to gather a list of involved parties and determine interview subjects.

You may also want to conduct some internet research at this stage. Do some digging into the backgrounds of your interview subjects to find out a bit about them so that you can build rapport easily. For example, if you find that your subject tweets a lot about the Toronto Blue Jays, you know he or she is interested in baseball. You can use this information to ease into the interview with some casual chat about baseball. Be careful to recognize how doing this preliminary digging can contribute to pre-judging people, resulting in a biased interview and investigation and make a conscious effort to avoid this.

(Bias check: make a conscious effort to disregard background knowledge gleaned from the internet when assessing a subject’s credibility or character during the interview).

Conducting Interviews

When deciding the order of interviews, consider the flow of information, or the order of the story, you need to collect.
The interview phase of the investigation has a single purpose: to find out the truth. With this in mind, you may want to use a variety of interview techniques and strategies to achieve that end. The PEACE model, the REID technique, PACE, cognitive interviewing, interrogation and the confession-seeking interview are all methods for getting to the truth in investigation interviews and all have their strengths and weaknesses. Many investigators find a balance among the different methods that works best for them.

The first step in conducting interviews is contacting the interview subjects and setting up times and places. To put your interview subjects at ease and increase your chances of getting them to communicate openly it’s a good idea to:

  • Choose an interview location that is neutral and private
  • Be flexible with scheduling to accommodate the interview subject
  • Refer to the interview as “a chat about what happened” rather than an investigative interview
  • Remove distractions, such as photos or decorations, from the interview location
  • Explain up-front exactly what the interview is about and why
  • Built rapport with the interview subject before launching into questions
  • Offer water and/or coffee to keep the subject hydrated and alert

When deciding the order of interviews, consider the flow of information, or the order of the story, you need to collect.

  1. First, interview the person who made the report. If there are others named in the report, interview them too.
  2. Next, interview any witnesses to the incident or allegation. This can sometimes lead to more witnesses being identified, and you should interview them as well at this stage.
  3. Finally, interview the subject of the report or allegation.

For more information on conducting investigation interviews, watch this short Q&A with Meric Bloch.

 

To Record or Not to Record the Investigation Interview

One advantage of recording interviews is that a recording leaves no doubt about the ethics of the interviewer and the quality of the questioning.
You may wish to record your interviews, using an audio or video recorder, but this is a matter of preference. Some investigators find that recording devices cause stress and can impede the flow of information from the subject. Others feel that recording the interview allows them to concentrate on the person and what he or she is saying, rather than writing notes, allowing for a more natural conversation.

One advantage of recording interviews is that a recording leaves no doubt about the ethics of the interviewer and the quality of the questioning. It also removes the temptation to interpret what the subject is saying, providing the subject’s exact words for direct quotes in the investigation report.

Gathering and Documenting Evidence

Remember that your job is simply to find out the truth, and weigh each piece of evidence against this requirement.
Evidence gathering can be the most time-consuming part of the investigation and involves collecting both physical and digital evidence. Everything you find out is potential evidence and it’s important to consider every piece of evidence you uncover, whether or not it fits in with your other evidence and impressions related to the case.

All physical evidence must be stored securely and logged. Digital evidence needs to be authenticated, captured, preserved and stored somewhere as well. If you’re using a case management system for your investigations, you can upload your digital evidence directly into the case file, where it will be secure, organized and accessible.

It’s important to follow best practices for chain of custody when securing evidence. Chain of custody is a way of documenting evidence that shows the seizure, custody, control, transfer, storage and analysis of a piece of evidence. It’s a mechanism to record everything that was done to a piece of evidence to ensure its integrity and prove that it hasn’t been tampered with.

Don’t let valuable evidence slip through the cracks. Download the free Chain of Custody Template to ensure all your evidence is tracked and protected.

Consider every piece of evidence and how it contributes to the narrative of what happened. Remember that your job is simply to find out the truth, and weigh each piece of evidence against this requirement. There are many types of evidence and each one can contribute to a successful investigation.

Wondering how to document evidence in your report and what should be documented? Watch the short video below.

 

Reaching a Conclusion

Based on the conclusion you reach in your investigation the company must decide whether or not to take action.
It is your job to come to a conclusion, based on your interviews and the evidence gathered. Your conclusion is simply whether or not the allegation or report is found to be correct.

An investigation that is deemed to be inconclusive is a failed investigation. If you can’t come to a conclusion, consider conducting more interviews, gathering more evidence and going back over the interviews and evidence already gathered.

Based on the conclusion you reach in your investigation the company must decide whether or not to take action.

Action could include:

  • Disciplinary action against an employee
  • Suspension of an employee
  • Counselling or professional assessment of an employee
  • Mediation between or among employees
  • Termination of an employee
  • Involving law enforcement in a criminal action
  • Accommodation in the workplace

If the company decides to not take any action, this should be documented, along with the reasons.

Writing the Investigation Report

The best, most comprehensive, fair and timely investigation is worthless without the documentation to prove that the investigation was comprehensive, fair and timely. At each stage of the investigation steps should be documented, but the final product, the investigation report, is the summary of all the steps, interviews, evidence and conclusions drawn. It’s the final product and may be read by many different audiences, therefore it must be clear, accurate, succinct and credible.

Learn how to write an investigation report that is clear, professional and leaves nothing to chance. Read The Ultimate Guide to Writing Investigation Reports.

Get more tips on investigation report writing in the short video below.

 

Analyzing Investigation Data

In order to reduce the number of incidents and investigations, companies must be continually evaluating and analyzing their risk. They can do this by aggregating and studying their investigation data to determine:

  • areas where problems are occurring the most frequently
  • the types of problems that are occurring in the organization
  • what measures can be put in place to reduce them

This is where case management software can really deliver ROI, by providing myriad options for visualizing data in a way that is meaningful to the organization.

Investigation Follow-Up

Once an investigation has been completed, documented and resolved, you’d think the company can now close the book and move on. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s important to follow up after the investigation to gauge the effect that any actions have had on those involved in the investigation and others affected.

Follow-up also includes looking at any changes that were implemented as a result of data analysis and whether these changes are having an effect on the issues and incidents being investigated. This step should be continual and will put the company in a good position to anticipate and manage risk and spot trends before they become problems.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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