Nothing halts an investigation like the he said/she said situation. So what happens when a line of questioning hits this wall? How do you make sure that you get the whole picture? How do you know where the truth ends and personal perception begins? Most notably, how do you make sure you don’t get wrapped up in the stories?
It’s important to remember that an employee should not face disciplinary action unless there is concrete evidence to support the need. Likewise, if an investigation is deemed inconclusive and no action is taken the employer runs the risk of liability for a hostile work environment. What does an effective investigation look like?
Gathering information involves a few key steps. These steps allow the investigator to determine the legitimacy of the complaint allowing the employer to limit their liability by putting a stop to inappropriate behavior. The first thing to be done is to make a list of all the issues presented by the situation, a list of all persons who need to be interviewed, and a list of any relevant documents and information to be reviewed. Next is to gather the listed necessary documents. This includes policies, procedure manuals, time keeping records, schedules, security / access records, personnel files, expense records, etc.
Now that you have the tools, what do you do? A good investigator will always browse the documents and compare the information to the complaint at hand. The materials should give the investigator a picture of what the employees have done in the past, where they were and what they were doing, and information on sanctioned processes and procedures. With this concrete information an investigator is able to come up with a series of questions for the employees on their list of those to be interviewed.
During the interview process it is of the utmost importance that the investigator remains unbiased. An effective investigator will be able to remain impartial to both hard evidence and any perceptions presented by interviewed employees. An investigator should also remain objective throughout the entire process. No judgments should be made until all the facts are in place. Objectivity and remaining unbiased are key because if the investigator is not their biases will present themselves in the types of questions asked. They can be accused of steering the questions and conversation towards the result the investigator is looking for. Additional items of note for an effective investigator are: knowledge of applicable policies and laws, top-notch listening skills, and a keen ability to evaluate evidence.
To whom do you speak and what do you ask? It is very important to speak with both the complaining employee and the accused. Both sides of the story are crucial and it will not do to only get one. From both sides is where the investigator will learn if there are any additional people that need to be interviewed. When interviewing, it’s important to ask open-ended questions; not questions that would result in “yes” or “no” responses. Never assume to understand: investigators finding themselves assuming to know what an employee means need to stop and ask for clarification. Always ask follow-up questions. Ask questions to confirm or contest information given by other people (but don’t reveal your sources). If an employee is giving information out of hearsay, dig for the source of that piece. Questions presented should encompass the “who, what, when, where, why, and how.” Lastly, an investigator should not only pay attention to what the employee is saying but how they are saying it. Pay attention to their demeanor and physical behavior. What inflections are they using, how are they sitting, how are they reacting to the line of questions?
How do you document this investigation while trying to effectively run the questioning? It is always a good idea to have a second investigator in the room with you. This person should be someone on a management level, someone who can take good notes, and who is already known for their trustworthiness. The presence of the second investigator also alleviates the probability of another accusation of hearsay.
At the end, if you are still unsure of the legitimacy of the information the worst thing that can be done is nothing. Do not ignore the issue because of its inconclusive ending. The least that should happen is to reeducate the employees on the policies and appropriate behaviors at work and clarify any vague information.
- Lauren Lynch has a collective 13 years of experience in Human Resources. She completed her undergraduate work at Arcadia University where she earned a Bachelors in Sociology with a double minor in Psychology and Anthropology. While earning her degree she also worked as an intern in Human Resources. Lauren has worked in HR under various industries to include Cable Communications, Technology, and Healthcare and has had a hand in recruitment, coaching and training, onboarding, employee events, benefits, policy, performance management, employee relations, etc. To continue her education Lauren completed her executive education at the University of Notre Dame. The 12-month program included certification classes to elevate skills in leadership and management. This is Lauren’s first time writing business articles and is eager to continue sharing the knowledge she has gained from her experiences.