Workplace misconduct has become a hot topic in the national media, shining a light not only on the extent of harassment taking place but also on the intolerance people are developing for it. Ignoring employee complaints or grievances can be illegal, but if how you choose to handle the situation does not hold up to compliance standards, it can land your company in even more hot water.
In this article, I am going you to walk you down the compliant path of principles and procedures to investigate allegations of misconduct in the workplace to ensure that you find effective resolutions instead of unwanted litigation.
Whenever there is a complaint, ethical lapses in judgment, or a credible witness to misconduct, it must be investigated. It doesn’t matter if the complaint or information is written, emailed, spoken, or overheard; it is your companies responsibility to protect everyone in the work environment. Having a solid investigation policy not only protects the employee but the company and its shareholders as well, ensuring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.
Investigations determine what happened during a specific incident, the circumstances, who was involved, any violations of law or company policy and whether misconduct did or did not take place. During an investigation, you will often discover policies or areas where employee performance can be improved that will benefit your business operations and company as a whole.
When to Investigate
Workplace misconduct should always be investigated because you will never know the severity of the problem unless you do. Starting an investigation sooner rather than later gives you a better chance at gathering the most relevant information because as time goes on, memories fade, and employees leave.
When allegations of sexual harassment arise, immediate action and a thorough investigation are required. An investigation is necessary when an employer receives a complaint, hears, sees, or becomes aware of employee misconduct.
Take time to prepare
An investigation is a fact-finding mission and requires planning before you interview the first witness. Prior to beginning interviews, review any previous or similar write-ups or complaints. Review personnel files of all the employees involved for job performance reviews or any other information that might be helpful to the investigation.
Next identify the type of complaint (i.e., harassment/discrimination, theft/criminal conduct, wage/hour) or problem to help determine the purpose and goal of the investigation. Finally, determine what questions to ask during the interviews to ensure fair treatment and consistency.
Choosing the investigator
To avoid biased or preconceived notions, the investigator should be someone who is uninvolved in the department, grievance, or interview process. The investigator needs to be competent and well-trained in handling internal investigations and have strong interpersonal skills to help minimize adverse effects and gossip after the interview.
Options for qualified internal investigators can be a human resource professional, corporate management, managers, or assistant managers. Hiring outside counsel, an external human resources consultant, or a neutral third-party investigator are also options.
It is imperative to protect the confidentiality of employee claims to the best of your ability.
If the complaint contains allegations of serious misconduct (i.e., sexual harassment or violent behavior), you may decide to place the alleged harasser on leave during the investigation or separate them and the complaining employee from having to work together. Tread lightly when choosing to separate employees and make sure that the person who filed the complaint isn’t being affected negatively as this can be interpreted as retaliation.
FYI: Retaliation doesn’t only apply to the accuser – anyone who is involved in the investigation who feels like they are being treated differently after the process has the right to file a retaliation claim.
Now that you’re prepared to begin the investigation by interviewing the accuser to clarify details, gather evidence and get the names of the witnesses you need to question. After each interview read over your notes and fill in any details while they are still fresh in your mind.
Be careful not to jump to any conclusions before all the facts are available. After you conduct all the interviews and collect the evidence, you can evaluate all the information and decide on a formal decision. During the investigation, it’s essential to consider all employees involved, the policies, the action to be taken to resolve the grievance, the reason (explained in detail) and the consequences if the resolution is not carried out.
Make a decision
When necessary, employers must take corrective action that is appropriate to the situation, such as discipline or even termination. The decision should include the reconciliation of any damages incurred by the victim and a detailed description of expectations and scheduled check-ins until restitution is achieved. Consequences for the harasser should be integrated into a development plan and schedule to ensure support and success with the changes to be made. Determine if training or additional education, such as sexual harassment training or anger management training, would be beneficial to the individual or all employees. Review and modify workplace policies to prevent future grievances from occurring and train all employees on the revisions.
In conclusion, workplace investigations are serious procedures that if a court or government agency were to review, you want them to conclude that your company took the situation seriously, responded immediately, and took a good-faith action to resolve the grievance. Addressing grievances and complaints immediately and thoroughly not only protects your employees but your company and shareholders as well.