Employee Investigation Best Practices

Investigations are one of the toughest parts of working in HR, because you have to work between very fine boundaries and there is always going to be someone upset with the result, no matter how gently you tread. In the various investigations I’ve been a part of, I have picked up some tips and tricks that help to make the process smoother. No matter the result, if you know you’ve done your best and have given the most definitive answer possible, then that’s pretty much the only way you’ll have a satisfied feeling after you close the books.

I still vividly remember one of the first serious investigations I was a part of. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Employee comes to you claiming she is being harassed by a supervisor. The only witness is the best friend and coworker of the employee. The employee has been having consistent performance issues for some time and was on the verge of a performance improvement plan at the time of report.

So, how do you proceed? It’s a tricky road, especially since the employee is also a military reservist and the manager has voiced complaints about her service in the past…

The Benefits of Investigations

I do want to say this. While it’s not all roses and candy canes, there are some positive benefits of investigations worth noting:

  • Doing it properly and impartially helps to defend the company against litigation
  • Doing it fairly and quickly helps employees to see that the process and people involved are trustworthy

Again, not pleasant, but definitely worthwhile.

The Top Five Investigation Mistakes

I’ve seen many investigations go wrong, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s walk through the top five mistakes I see and how to counteract them.

  1. Delayed action
  2. Poor planning
  3. Retaliation
  4. Lack of follow up
  5. Losing objectivity

Delaying is a problem because, unlike your favorite pair of yoga pants, this doesn’t get better with time. Whatever your reason for delay, get over it and get to work. Too busy you say? How would you like to explain a $95 million judgment to your boss? Yeah, I thought so. Move this to the top of your list, get to work, and get it done.

Planning is an issue. Most inexperienced HR pros freeze when the investigation hits their desk. But the pros know that following the plan/process is the fastest and most painless way to get through. Taking a little time to put together a simple plan will not only help to improve the results and reduce your stress–it will also help to make sure you are consistent across a variety of investigations, topics, etc.

Retaliation is a huge problem. The EEOC is trying to determine new guidelines regarding this issue. I always start every investigation with a clear message to everyone involved: retaliation will not be tolerated by anyone throughout the entire process, whatever the result turns out to be.

Lack of follow up can be another hangup. It’s tough to make sure you touch base with everyone after the fact, because you know that as soon as you file that report with the right people you have to get back to the work that has been stacking up on your desk since you started the investigation. Even if you can’t share results with the people involved, at least let them know when you wrap it up. And you do create and file a written report for each investigation, right?

Finally, losing objectivity is my Achilles heel. There are two sides to this that get to me. The first is trying to remain objective despite obvious and outrageous evidence presented at the outset. It’s hard to assume that someone is innocent until proven guilty, but you need to ingrain that into your thought process. Secondly, if someone becomes emotional it’s very easy to want to comfort and share your own opinions, but that doesn’t help anyone. Keep a lid on it.

Bottom line: we all have issues. Still, it’s up to you to help make sure your organization isn’t blindsided by something that could have been addressed in its early stages.

What interesting, weird, or crazy investigations have you carried out? Any tips to share?


Originally posted on UpstartHR.



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