Problems and Pitfalls with Workplace Investigations

Human resources managers and others involved in operations for businesses of all sizes often are tasked with performing investigations to determine if wrongdoing has occurred in the workplace. When addressing allegations of misconduct, employers and their representatives should approach complaints and investigations in a fair and objective manner.

This can be easier said than done, at times. Problems and pitfalls can easily arise in these already sensitive situations; how an employer deals not only with the original problem but also with any new issues that crop up along the way can determine the investigation’s success and greatly can affect company morale.

Below are some tips to avoid running into any additional difficulties during an investigation of workplace misconduct.

Begin the Investigation Promptly

Investigations should begin as soon as the employer learns of the issue. It is best to have a clear and written policy about how and when investigations should occur, and those policies should be followed for everyone with no exceptions. Having a quick response to an issue is not only good internal policy for your business, but in some cases could be required by federal or state harassment and discrimination laws.

Additionally, a prompt response to a misconduct issue is important in order to maintain your business’s reputation in the community. If a report of misconduct is not investigated properly and promptly, you risk alienating partners, vendors, customers and the general public.

Selection of the Investigator

When an investigation begins, it sometimes can be hard for the person who has come forward with an allegation of misconduct to talk freely with an individual they know well. In some cases, especially those that may involve sexual harassment, bringing in a neutral third party to gather information could ease tensions in the workplace and make the person who has come forward feel more comfortable.

Furthermore, if a company does have a designated human resources department, then it can sometimes be prudent to have a lawyer sit in on interviews or help review evidence of misconduct. Having a legal professional involved is a key if the accusation of misconduct is leveled at a high-level manager or if the accusation is unusually significant or involves a large number of witnesses.  In such cases, an employment lawyer can conduct the investigation for you and remove any doubt of bias or favoritism.

In any event, you should look at all aspects of the complaint, the complaining party, the responding party, and the witnesses in order to determine the best investigator.

Maintain Detailed Records

By maintaining clear and detailed records of the investigation, an employer can limit future liability if issues again arise from a particular event. Additionally, keeping a holistic record can enhance the employer’s credibility.

Anytime a workplace misconduct investigation occurs, the results of that investigation should be maintained in a separate investigation file while any discipline issued as a result of the investigation should be maintained in individuals’ internal personnel files.  This ensures that if similar issues arise in the future with the same employee, a pattern of behavior can be established for potential employment termination.

Talk with an Attorney About Your Workplace Investigation Policy

The best way to avoid pitfalls in workplace investigations, particularly those involving senior executives, is to have experienced employment law attorneys conduct the investigation. Another best practice is to clearly outline and define your organization’s procedure for the reporting, investigation and resolution of workplace disputes and misconduct allegations in your employee handbook. The lawyers at Simon | Paschal PLLC can assist you with both workplace investigations and the creation of your dispute and misconduct policy. Contact us today.

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