4 Great Ways to Ruin a Workplace Investigation

4 Great Ways to Ruin a Workplace Investigation

Experts weigh in on some of the biggest investigation mistakes that get companies into trouble.

Workplace investigation mistakes can cost a company millions in lawsuits. Recent headlines about botched corporate investigations show the legal and financial implications of making even a small mistake can be substantial. So it makes sense for companies to put the necessary time and effort into getting the right investigators on the job and avoiding the most common investigation mistakes.

We asked the experts to tell us about some of the biggest mistakes companies make when conducting workplace investigations. Here are some of the many they pointed out:

Going in Cold

“The biggest mistake investigators make is conducting an admission-seeking interview without having the requisite experience,” says Christopher Rosetti, CPA, CFE, partner in the accounting firm BST and a recognized fraud and forensic accounting expert. “Inexperienced interviewers tend to not follow up on clues given by the admission seeker, and they also tend to be less confrontational,” he says.

A skilled interviewer knows how to coax the truth out of a subject using a variety of techniques, starting from the first exchange of words. Things can go wrong from the start if the interviewer doesn’t have the necessary skills. “Inexperienced interviewers fail to establish a rapport, which allows them to communicate effectively with the subject,” says Rosetti.

Not Doing Your Homework

Another mistake is going into the investigation interview unprepared. Researching the case, the people and the circumstances surrounding an allegation is the best way to ensure you don’t botch the very first interview.

And whatever you do, don’t show your hand before you have all the facts. “The biggest mistake made in these investigations is confronting a suspect before all the documentation and facts can be gathered,” says Stephen Vedova, an attorney in the Chicago office of Foley & Mansfield.  “Alerting a ne'er-do-well to the fact an investigation is ongoing can allow them time to delete, destroy or obfuscate their trail.”

Handling Evidence Badly

“One of the biggest investigation mistakes is the failure to recognize and secure evidence. Often, the interviewer fails to bring evidence or documents to the interview,” says Steven Wolf, Executive Director at Capstone Advisory Group and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University at the McDonough Business School, specializing in fraud investigation and forensic accounting.

“It's critical to establish a chain of evidence to enable you to admit it in court, should the need arise. It is important to get the suspect to verify possible evidence you may have so you do not misread the data. A good example is the investigators incorrect interpretation of an e-mail communication. This incorrect interpretation might lead the investigation down the wrong path or cause it to be prematurely brought to conclusion without gathering all the facts.”

Wolf also warns against failing to obtain the suspect's version of the full story as that may lead the investigator to make hasty or false conclusions about the suspect that leads to an incorrect conclusion. “It might also reduce the investigators ability to gather useful evidence,” he says.

“Failure to document the suspect’s reported testimony and get them to acknowledge their answers is a common mistake,” adds Wolf. “It is always a good idea and practice to have a witness present in the interview and sign off after reading your notes. From personal experience, the interview notes taken by the interviewer may not reflect what the witness/suspect actually said or was misinterpreted in some way, especially if the interviewer is an adversary as opposed to an objective fact finder.”

Jumping to Conclusions

Just because this one is last doesn’t mean it’s the least important. And it’s certainly not the least common.

“Investigators need to avoid ‘confirmation bias’,” says Kevin Napper, practice group leader of Carlton Fields’ White Collar Crime and Government Investigations practice. “This is when the investigator makes up his or her mind about the case beforehand, or too quickly, and then looks for facts that line up with their theory, thereby filtering out or ignoring contrary information without even realizing it,” he says. “An interviewer should let the interviewee answer the question in an open-ended way and let the facts develop as the investigation proceeds.”