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Why Workplace Investigations are so Important



I am sure you’ve seen it in the news, one investigation after another, either for misconduct, harassment, or workplace bullying. But what exactly are workplace investigations, and what does the process look like end-to-end?


In this article, I will explore the key terms and ideas behind the internal workplace, explaining why this fact-finding process is critical to accountability, building a strong culture, and doing our due diligence for future issues. It is also worth noting that office dynamics are always complicated. While we should seek to dismiss or reprimand employees found in violation of harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct, we also do not wish to harm innocent parties. In rare cases of a false accusation or unintentional misunderstanding, it’s vital to collect and appraise all the relevant information before concluding. Like a defendant in a court case, an employee remains innocent until proven that they violated a company policy by an internal workplace investigation.


At the core of human resources (“HR”) is a commitment to a safe, honest, and fair environment in the workplace. We’re called human resources, after all. Correcting wrongs and misconduct, discrimination, or harassment is one of those HR tasks. Sometimes it may be seen that HR can be a little too eager to skip the investigation and jump straight to the disciplinary stage – thinking they “know” they’re guilty / violated policies. Except, HR can’t ignore internal workplace investigations because it is wrong and may put the company in legal jeopardy, which could come with high financial penalties in various states. Fairness matters. No matter who they are, all employees have a right to fair and objective procedures according to the employee handbook that aligns with various state rights. No one can be unfairly dismissed, reprimanded, or treated unfairly without legal consequences.


A Beginner’s Guide to the Terminology

Let’s start by explaining our terms:

An investigation is a fact-finding process dedicated to uncovering the truth behind an incident. It is undertaken before any decisions, conclusions, or judgments are reached. Investigations have four stages:

  1. Receive the complaint and identify the facts about the event (Who? What? Where? Why? How?).

  2. Conduct interviews with the complainant, witnesses, accused, and other people involved in the event.

  3. Compile, organize and analyze the evidence critically and independently.

  4. Reach a conclusion determined by the analysis.

Company policy violation(s) are the meat and potatoes of workplace investigations, what the accused did, and which policies were violated that warrant immediate attention. While some policy violations are minor (like arriving at work 1-minute late), versus stealing company resources or harassing a co-worker, they are serious violations.

An Unsubstantiated Claim is when an investigator cannot validate the substance of the allegation or reach a conclusion due to interference from the complainant or witnesses.

Dismissal is warranted when employees engage in gross misconduct, and their behavior is not remediable. Another example includes when an employee is found to have violated a company policy, and the employee engaged in misconduct during the investigation (lied, covered up facts, intimated employees).


Why Internal Workplace Investigations Are Important

From the terminology, we can see that if an HR investigation is not conducted fairly, to their policy and procedures, an employee can seek damages or reinstate their job – even if they did commit the act of which they were accused. If conducted correctly and efficiently, workplace investigations ensure that companies can defend their actions, providing key evidence for why certain decisions were made. If a disgruntled employee files an appeal, the company can defend its decision and explain what occurred during the incident – ensuring allegations were not unsubstantiated.


A Final Thought

No one can know all the facts without a thorough investigation. While speaking to the accusing party may paint a particular picture, only by following a strict fact-finding process can you find the truth and respect everyone’s right to due process – guilty or not.

Follow me as I’ll dig further into workplace investigations in the upcoming posts over the next couple of weeks.

Jon Orozco, MBA, SHRM-SCP is a fractional Chief People Officer, helping organizations build out their People Ops/HR departments by creating policies, procedures, and training teams to become effective workplace investigators.

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