How to Conduct a Workplace Investigation Part 1

There are a number of situations where an investigation might be necessary within the workplace. Most often, the need for a workplace investigation will arise from a formal complaint of some kind such as bullying or harassment, or as a result of a suspected breach of policy or legislation. Given the level of scrutiny on employers it makes sense to consider a formal investigation if you find yourself in one of these unfortunate, but probably inevitable circumstances. Even more prudent would be to build an investigation process into your existing policies and procedures.

Internal or External?

The first decision an employer will need to make when faced with the prospect of conducting an investigation, is whether to appoint an internal Investigator or to outsource this responsibility to a third party.

There are a couple of factors to consider when making this decision including the seriousness of the issue under investigation, the number of witnesses to be interviewed or amount of evidence to be collected, as well as the time and costs associated with running the investigation. In my experience, employers should only conduct internal investigations when the issue is less serious and where the process can be completed very quickly and efficiently.  The most significant threat to an effective internal investigation is the perception that it is not independent or impartial, especially if the investigation is conducted by HR. This can compromise the integrity of the investigation as well as subsequent findings and recommendations. Remembering also that life will go on after the investigation is complete, and the internal Investigator as well as those involved will need to continue to work together, which can be problematic.

An external investigation is more often the smarter and more effective approach. For me, outsourcing the investigation is the only option when it comes to serious matters such as workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination. This process protects the organisation from claims the investigation was biased or predetermined – especially if a manager is the subject of the investigation (which is often the case in workplace bullying/harassment claims). When selecting an external investigator, you must ensure they are licensed and authorised to conduct investigations in your state or territory.

Establishing the Scope of the Investigation

It is very important to be clear about the exact nature and scope of the investigation – before you commence the process. It is difficult to vary the terms of an investigation once you have started, and often you will be required to start over again if you have not set up the scope appropriately from the start. If allegations are to be put to an employee, then these must be specific and well considered before the employee is notified of the claims against them. Also important is to refer to the policy, procedures or legislation that the employee is alleged to have breached.

The allegations must then be put to the employee in writing along with an outline of the investigation process and the name of the Investigator. It is also a good idea to remind the employee of the need for confidentiality throughout the process and the contact details of your Employee Assistance Program (if you have one). If witnesses have already been identified they should also be notified in writing of the investigation and that they may be called to provide evidence to the Investigator as part of that process.

In the next blog post I will discuss the role of the Investigator as well as working with the outcomes of an investigation.

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