10 Tips to a Safe, Fair, and Productive Investigation

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Whether you are an HR Professional, manager within a large organization, or owner of small business at some point an employee has come to you with a grievance. While the tips list below do not list all things one can do, nor take place of legal advice, they may be helpful to ensure all parties receive a fair investigation and your time is used in a productive manner.

1 – Listen. Pay attention to the words said i.e. harassment, not fair, hostile, mean, too much work, etc. When they are done speaking (this may be awhile) ask them specifically about any words you find concerning: harassment, hostile, discrimination. Specifically ask them, ‘harassment (or hostile or discrimination) is a strong word. Let me share with you what it means to us (the organization), and tell me if that is what you mean. “Harassment means that you are being discriminated against because of your race, color, etc… (Or hostile work environment means…..)” Then ask them if this is what they are experiencing.  

2 – Determine if the issue requires an investigation. Many times when an employee or supervisor comes to HR, manager, or owner there may not be anything to investigate, but instead they are venting. You can simply ask, “I want to make sure I understand why you are here. Are you venting, or making a formal complaint?” They will usually answer the question directly.

If venting – listen, empathize, and let them talk. Showing compassion and understanding is key. The less you talk the better. Listen and connect with them, paying attention to any red flags that may need to be followed up.

If formal complaint – ask point blank “what is the problem, (issue, concern), etc.” They will usually come right out and say it.

3 – Have them put in writing. Let them know that to ensure that their complaint is understood, we request they put it in writing.

4 – Determine level of severity. If it is discrimination, hostile work environment, harassment, immediately begin the investigation. This entails taking notes on the conversation and asking questions, asking about witnesses, dates, times, locations, etc. Following up with witnesses.

If it does not entail high level of severity, get an idea of how seriously this is affecting the employee, their production, and work environment. Although it may not be harassment, the issue may be affecting employee production or work environment.

5 – Gather information. From the person making the complaint ensure to get witness names, dates, event, etc. this will help you create questions and get a better understanding of the issue.

6 – DO NOT MAKE A DETERMINATION IMMEDIATELY. When someone is making a complaint sometimes the story sounds so good, we actually will say what we will do without doing a full investigation, or hearing the other side of the story. Remember there are two sides to each story, and although this one sounds legit, there is usually a very good explanation as to why the other person behaved the way they did.

7 – Plan. This entails writing questions ahead of time, researching witness and all involved (documents, personnel file, time systems, etc.) This gives you a good idea of the facts of the situations and can better create and position your questions. Plan the timing of when to bring in people and speak to them. Determine who to get involved (including manager. Legal, etc.). If the complaint is toward another individual, bring the individual in before any witnesses. Determine if you go directly to the source of the complaint. Involve the least amount of people possible. It will probably be the case that you are able to resolve the issue with just the main people involved without getting witnesses involved.

8 – Execute quickly. Bring in person(s) to speak with and interview quickly.

9 – Resolve. Do not make a determination during the investigation. Make sure to gather all information and interview and research all necessary things before coming up with resolution. Resolution can be reviewed with management, your boss, legal, etc. Implement any disciplinary actions, terminations, etc. that may be necessary.

10 – Close. Follow up with the individual that made the claim to let them know that the investigation is completed the issue is now resolved. Under no circumstances do you tell what was done i.e. discipline term etc.   Just let them know that we took it very seriously, researched it and it is resolved.   If it continues to please let you know immediately.

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