If a problem or complaint has come up at your company, a proper investigation can help you figure out what happened -- and what to do about it. It can also help your company avoid liability for employee wrongdoing, but only if you act fast and take effective action to remedy the problem. Below, you'll find the ten steps to a successful workplace investigation. For detailed information about how to investigate, including separate chapters on common problems like harassment, employee theft, drug use, and more, get a copy of The Essential Guide to Workplace Investigations, by Lisa Guerin (Nolo).
1. Decide whether to investigate.
Before you put on your detective's hat, take some time to decide whether you really need an investigation. In a few situations -- for example, if all employees agree on what happened or the problem appears to be minor -- you may reasonably decide that a full-blown investigation is unnecessary. Usually, however, it's best to err on the side of conducting an investigation. If the problem is more serious than it seemed, failing to investigate can lead to legal trouble -- and continuing workplace problems. And sometimes, you just can't tell how widespread or substantial a problem is until you do a little poking around.
2. Take immediate action, if necessary.
You might have to act right away -- even before you begin your investigation -- if a situation is volatile or could otherwise cause immediate harm to your business. If an employee is accused of sexually assaulting a coworker, stealing valuable trade secrets, or bringing a weapon to work, you'll probably want to suspend the accused employee temporarily -- with pay -- while you look into the matter. But be careful not to prejudge the situation or lead the accused employee to believe that you've already made up your mind.
3. Choose an investigator.
You'll want an investigator who is experienced and/or trained in investigation techniques, is impartial and perceived as impartial by the employees involved, and is capable of acting -- and, if necessary, testifying in court -- professionally about the situation. If you have someone who meets this job description on your payroll, you're in luck. If not, you can hire an outside investigator to handle things for you.
4. Plan the investigation.
Take some time up front to organize your thoughts. Gather any information you already have about the problem -- such as an employee complaint, a supervisor's report, written warnings, or materials that are part of the problem (such as X-rated emails or threatening letters). Using this information as your guide, think about what you'll need to find out to decide what happened. Whom will you interview and what will you ask? Are there additional documents that employees or supervisors might have? Is there anyone who witnessed important events -- or should have?
5. Conduct interviews.
The goal of every investigation is to gather information -- and the most basic way to do that is by asking people questions. Most investigations involve at least two interviews: one of the employee accused of wrongdoing, and another of the employee who complained or was the victim. Sometimes, you will also want to interview witnesses -- others who may have seen or heard something important. When you interview people, try to elicit as much information as possible by asking open-ended questions.
6. Gather documents and other evidence.
Almost every investigation will rely to some extent on documents -- personnel files, email messages, company policies, correspondence, and so on. And some investigations will require you to gather other types of evidence, such as drugs, a weapon, photographs, or stolen items.
7. Evaluate the evidence.
The most challenging part of many investigations -- especially if witnesses disagree or contradict each other -- is figuring out what actually happened. There are some proven methods of deciding where the truth lies -- methods all of us use in our everyday lives to get to the bottom of things. You'll want to consider, for example, whose story makes the most sense, whose demeanor was more convincing, and who (if anyone) has a motive to deceive you. And in some situations, you may just have to throw up your hands and acknowledge that you don't have enough information to decide what really happened.
8. Take action.
Once you decide what happened, you'll have to figure out what to do about it. If you conclude that serious wrongdoing occurred, you will have to take disciplinary action quickly to avoid legal liability for that employee's behavior and to protect your company and other workers from harm. In deciding how to handle these situations, you should consider a number of factors, including how serious the actions were and how you have handled similar problems in the past.
9. Document the investigation.
Once your investigation is complete, you should write an investigation report that explains what you did and why. This will not only give the company some protection from lawsuits relating to the investigation, but will also provide a written record in case of future misconduct by the same employee(s). Among other things, your report should explain how and when the problem came to the company's attention, what interviews you conducted, what evidence you considered, what conclusions you reached, and what you did about the problem.
10. Follow up.
The last step is to follow up with your employees to make sure that you've solved the problem that led to the investigation. Has the misconduct stopped? Has the wrongdoer met any requirements imposed as a result of the investigation -- for example, to complete a training course on sexual harassment? If the investigation revealed any systemic workplace problems (such as widespread confusion about company policy or lack of training on issues like workplace diversity or proper techniques for dealing with customers), some training might be in order.