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Internal Investigations: Know When To Investigate

Internal investigations should never be taken lightly. A poor internal investigation can cause just as much damage as the incident under investigation.

Posted by Joe Gerard on December 16th, 2010

You’re a manager, and as you walk through your workplace you overhear a small group of employees venting to each other. Most of the complaints you overhear are about a certain employee making inappropriate gestures and crude jokes about the appearance of other individuals in the workplace. What do you do? Do you pretend you never heard the comments and just brush it off? Or, do you take action and approach the employees you overheard talking to get some more information? Whatever you do, don’t ignore their concerns. If you fail to take action, a few months down the road employees could start resigning from their jobs, or even worse, slap the company with a lawsuit. Point being: know when to investigate.

Internal investigations should never be taken lightly. A poor internal investigation can cause just as much damage as the incident under investigation. One of the trickiest parts of an internal investigation is knowing when to investigate. You can’t afford to waste time investigating false allegations, but you also can’t afford to fail to investigate a complaint because it seems bogus or exaggerated either. So what should you do? The answer is simple.

When Should I Investigate?

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You can be too late to investigate, but you can never be too early- so investigate immediately. Keep in mind that a complaint isn’t always the event that triggers a company’s duty to investigate. The duty arises when an employer observes acts or statements that suggest prohibited activity. Sometimes, employers may even investigate without a clear legal mandate. An employee complaint can be about virtually any aspect of the employment relationship, but the most frequently raised concerns deal with harassment, discrimination, ethical violations and retaliation. Whatever the complaint, recent legal decisions have proven that employers have an unequivocal duty to investigate promptly and thoroughly as soon as the employer is made aware of possible wrongdoing.

But it Wasn’t in Writing

It doesn’t matter how you found out about the misconduct. What matters is that the issue is investigated properly and corrective action is taken. In the article “Take Complaints Seriously, Follow Protocol for Internal Investigations,” by Candace Walters, President of HR Works Inc., she writes:

“According to David Kresock, a partner with Harter Secrest & Emery LLP, when an employee complains about alleged harassment or discrimination, an investigation must be conducted regardless of whether the company’s procedure for lodging complaints was followed. An employee is not required to put a complaint in writing, and need not even use the words “discrimination” or “harassment” in order to trigger an investigation.”

The Takeaway:

  • Investigate every complaint- Each allegation deserves attention.
  • Keep your ears open and listen to employee problems.
  • A complaint comes in many forms, accept all of them.
  • Always take action- Even if a full investigation isn’t necessary, document the steps you took to determine that conclusion.

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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