He said; she said.

Nora Akins

One of the many hats Human Resource (HR) professionals wear is the Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker. Knowing how and when to conduct workplace investigations is an essential function of HR departments. HR is required to respond when becoming aware of issues that require investigation.

Determining whether an employee’s comment or complaint warrants an investigation is the first step. Often an issue can be resolved without launching a formal investigation. Clarifying the issue will reveal whether the investigator needs to speak with others to determine facts, which documents need to be reviewed and whether experts need to be contacted.

A number of factors will establish whether HR, supervisory personnel or an outside investigator is selected to conduct the investigation. The perception of fairness is critical. Investigators need to be unbiased and independent and perceived as such by everyone involved. As a result, the investigator should not be in the chain of command or any party in the complaint.

The investigator’s first step is to outline the scope and objectives of the investigation. The starting point is a confirmation of the identified issue. The goal is always to find the truth. Other issues will complicate this quest. Separating relevant from irrelevant information is a significant part of the work. These other issues can be noted and set aside for subsequent investigations.

The investigator must focus on uncovering the truth of the initial investigation. Scope creep is an easy trap. Clarifying the scope upfront may include a timeframe, related documents and the number of individuals to be interviewed.

The employee raising the issue can be encouraged to provide a summary of the issue in writing. This request can include facts and dates that support the concern and names of people who may have relevant information along with any suggestions to help resolve the issue. The employer cannot require the employee to write out the complaint. The employer can summarize the complaint and have the employee sign it to attest its accuracy and completeness.

In general, after meeting with the person raising the issue and reviewing related policies, the investigator meets with the accused. It is best to begin with broad questions. The investigator must ask direct and specific questions about the allegation to obtain an admission or denial.

No conclusion can be reached until all the information has been gathered and evaluated. The standard of proof in workplace investigations is “the preponderance of evidence.” Is it more likely or not that the allegation took place? Inform the individuals of the outcome and keep communication open to ensure no retaliation takes place.

Employees should feel comfortable raising issues to improve workplace conditions. HR needs to encourage this with a true open door, effective investigations and prompt remedial action. A healthy respectful workplace requires employees who raise concerns.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management, focuses on employer compliance and employee performance by providing management training and refining human resource systems; she can be reached at 873-1735 or nora@managepeopleright.com .

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