Conducting an Ethics Investigation: A Comprehensive 20-Step Guide

Conducting an Ethics Investigation: A Comprehensive 20-Step Guide

An ethics issue is your chance to conduct a strong investigation, take action accordingly and move forward using lessons learned.

In spring 2022, Jerry Dias, president of Canada's largest private sector union, Unifor, made a big ethical mistake.

He allegedly took a kickback payment of $50,000 from a supplier of COVID-19 rapid test kits in exchange for promoting the tests' sale to several companies that employed Unifor members. Dias then gave half of the payment to a Unifor employee who filed an ethics complaint and handed over the money.

Following the complaint, Unifor began investigating Dias for violating their code of ethics. A few weeks later, Dias announced his retirement.

When it comes to workplace ethics, bad news like this can be good news.

An ethics breach is an opportunity to conduct a strong, comprehensive investigation, take action accordingly, and move forward with lessons learned. It's also the ideal time to evaluate and assess your current policies, processes, and procedures to prevent future ethics issues.

This guide shares 20 practical tips for a successful ethics investigation. Use this information next time you investigate an ethical lapse to make sure your company stays moral and compliant.

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1. Document Everything Right Out of the Gate

A huge percentage of ethics issues are caught via report. If an employee or customer drops this information in your lap, don't waste it by taking too long to respond.

As soon as that original tip comes in regarding ethical misconduct, start your documentation process. Ideally, your organization should have a formal reporting hotline that employees can use when they are a witness to, or suspicious of, unethical behavior.

If you don’t have a hotline, or if the reporting employee comes to you directly, let them speak, and jot down detailed notes. Write down everything the individual says, such as where and when the alleged misconduct occurred, who was involved, and how long they knew about the actions.

Case management software like i-Sight can make this process easier. It integrates with your hotline so as soon as a tip comes in, a new case is automatically created with all the relevant information already filled in. You'll never miss a report, plus you can get started investigating right away without spending time on paperwork. Learn more here.

2. Never Presume the Outcome

Go into every investigation completely neutral. Never enter an investigation with preconceived beliefs about what happened or who is telling the truth. Jumping to conclusions will only harm the credibility of the investigation process and of you as an investigator.

Only once you have collected all of the evidence, spoken with all of the witnesses and reviewed all of the relevant documents can you begin to form a story. The key is to build a narrative based on the information you've gathered, not to gather information to fit into the story you believe.

Sometimes, even once you’ve collected all of the information possible, there still isn’t enough to come to a solid conclusion.

If you don't think your team can remain neutral, hire an external investigator. They'll be able to uncover what happened and make suggestions for next steps without bias about the accused person or your organization.

3. Take On Your Role (and Your Role Only)

Does your organization have a code of ethics or ethics policy? If so, it should include a description of the different roles in the company and their responsibilities in promoting and maintaining an ethical environment.

For example, administrators are responsible for receiving reports of ethical misconduct and assigning them to an investigator. Working-level employees are responsible for reporting wrongdoing if they witness it.

RELATED: Summer Reading List - Ethics and Compliance

Things become problematic (and sometimes illegal) when employees take on tasks outside of their role, especially during an ethics investigation. They might have a conflict of interest or access sensitive information.

Before starting your investigation, make sure each team member knows their responsibilities, as well as deadlines to complete them. Each person should complete their tasks, nothing more, nothing less.

With i-Sight, you can keep your investigations on-track and secure all with one tool. Role-based access ensures case data doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Task alerts and to-do lists help team members meet deadlines and let managers control the workflow.

Do your employees understand the implications of a workplace conflict of interest?

Download this free conflict of interest policy template to help them define and avoid this ethical issue.

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4. Keep Your Goals Top of Mind

The goal of any ethics investigation is to determine whether the allegations are true and, if they are, to recommend how the situation can be prevented in the future.

If you become too deeply immersed in the investigation or the circumstances surrounding it, you may forget the main purpose of your work. If you forget the purpose, you could derail the entire investigation process and end up doing more harm than good.

Don't get hung up on one detail shared in an interview or what the investigation could mean for your organization. Simply focus on figuring out whether or not your policies were broken based off the evidence you've gathered.

5. Work Quickly but Carefully

According to Lockheed Martin, the average time to complete an ethics investigation is around 35 days. However, depending on the nature and complexity of the allegations, an investigation can take months or even years to conclude.

For ethics investigations, it’s important to work as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. Assign roles, and start gathering evidence and scheduling interviews ASAP.

If word gets out that an investigation is happening, those involved can start to coordinate cover-ups, excuses, and alibis. This could compromise your investigation and put you at risk of further incidents and a huge scandal in the future.

6. Follow Company Protocol

Certain aspects of an ethics investigation should be predetermined. Following preset standards will ensure consistency and fairness in the results, and will also prove the validity, transparency, and defense of your investigation, should it ever be questioned.

In addition, set protocols help you get your investigation started faster, decreasing your resolution time.

To streamline your process, consider establishing protocols for:

  • How long the team has to start their investigation following the initial report or tip
  • How/where/when/what order to question interviewees (including the accused, the reporter, and any witnesses)
  • Where/how to store physical and digital evidence
  • When/where/to whom/in what format to share the final investigation report

For a consistent and transparent investigation, follow your organization’s pre-determined protocol as closely as possible.

RELATED: 6 Core Values Exercises for Defining Your Company's Ethics Culture

7. Develop and Stick with a Plan

A pre-determined protocol can only simplify the process so much. Depending on the type of ethics investigation and the unique circumstances at hand, you will need to come up with an investigation plan.

Without a relatively narrow and descriptive plan, your investigation may become too vast and, potentially, counterproductive.

Before beginning the investigation, when you’re 100 per cent neutral, consider the following questions:

  • What evidence do you need to confirm or invalidate the allegations?
  • What is the scope of the investigation?
  • Who would you need to interview? What will you ask these people?
  • What documents should you find and review?
  • Which team members will complete which tasks, in what order, and when?

Share the completed plan with each member of the team and set clear deadlines and expectations to avoid bottlenecks.

An investigation plan keeps your thoughts, tasks, and goals in one place.

Download our free investigation plan template to stay organized.

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8. Have the Right Skills

An ethics investigation will only be successful if the right person (or team) conducts it. Due to the job’s unique demands, not just anyone can be an investigator, especially an investigator who deals with ethical misconduct.

For this reason, it’s vital that the investigator has the right skills.

For example, the right investigator will know to keep interviews serious and business-like. They will agree an interview is no place for jokes, sarcasm, or threats, and will understand that behaviors like this harm the validity of the entire investigation.

The right skillset will also include an understanding of emerging markets for a bribery investigation, or basic forensics for a fraud investigation.

If your in-house team doesn't have the ideal set of skills or knowledge for the investigation, hire an external investigator or expert (e.g. forensic accountant or IT expert).

Shelling out a bit of extra money is worth it to ensure you uncover the truth in an objective, thorough way.

9. Have the Right Personality Traits

The right investigator will also have a certain personality. To increase your odds of a successful ethics investigation, the person who carries it out should be appropriately skeptical.

Imagine an ethics investigator who is gullible or easily deceived. They would assume everyone they speak with is telling the truth and it would be difficult for them to identify discrepancies or inconsistencies in witness accounts.

Choose an investigator who is comfortable speaking with interviewees as well as other investigators, experts, and stakeholders. This person should have an open mind but be good at reading people.

A successful ethics investigation depends on an investigator who is skeptical, intuitive, and logical. They should be friendly but firm, and intelligent but approachable.

10. Look at Small Details for Big Clues

Another way to increase the chances that your ethics investigation is successful: pay attention to the details.

For investigations with a lot of detail and moving parts, it is painstaking work to try to closely analyze every small bit of information. However, it’s important not to overlook small details because they can provide vital clues that can help everything else make sense.

For instance, let's say you're investigating a report that Bryan hired his best friend Tim Smith's company as your organization's new maintenance crew. There is no indication that the two men know each other.

However, in an interview with Bryan's secretary, she says that she and Bryan follow each other on Facebook. She noticed Tim recently added a photo of himself and another man, tagging someone called Tim Smith.

While this isn't definitive proof of a conflict of interest, it's a tiny detail that gives credibility to the accusation.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Ensure Your Ethics Hotline is Successful

11. Keep it Objective

Ethical investigations can draw out a lot of opinions, biases, and feelings.

Imagine you work in the corporate headquarters of a big box store. You've been asked to investigate allegations that a store owner has been funneling money from mandated support initiatives into his own pocket.

You may have personal feelings about this situation. You may feel angry and demand justice at once.

However, the credibility of the investigation and of you, as an investigator, depend on your remaining objective and fair. Keep the investigation objective; don't let personal opinions or feelings influence your work.

12. Assess the Credibility of Everyone Involved

For an ethics investigation to be successful, you want to assess the credibility of each person you speak with. This includes the person who reported the incident, the accused employee, and witnesses or other people who could be involved.

Assessing someone’s credibility may include:

  • Conducting a background check
  • Evaluating their relationships with the organization and other involved parties
  • Looking for context and motive

Everyone has biases; it’s impossible not to. You just want to figure out what biases the interviewees have so you can consider them while contemplating their answers to your questions.

For example, a witness who is a friend of the subject will speak differently than someone who is an enemy.

Your goal is to figure out each person’s biases and the basis of their knowledge of the operative facts.

13. Never Stoop to Immoral Tactics

Investigations don't always go as planned.

Your witnesses might refuse to talk or the physical evidence you've gathered isn’t strong enough to confirm the accusations. To wrap up the investigation faster and more cleanly, you might be tempted to cut corners or reach a conclusion without enough proof.

When conducting an ethics investigation, though, you too must act ethically.

Don’t lead (or mislead) the witnesses or share information that was revealed in previous interviews. Don’t do or say anything that could influence their statement. If you don't have enough evidence, don't fudge details to condemn the accused person.

If anyone found out about your unethical approach, your integrity and that of your investigation would be at risk. Not only would your reputation suffer, but a wrongly disciplined employee could sue your organization and/or file a complaint with the EEOC.

Remember, a little aggression is acceptable; abuse is not.

14. Offer Appropriate Recommendations

If your investigation finds that the accusations have merit, your final report will have to offer recommendations for appropriate disciplinary measures against the employee.

Corporate Compliance says that ethics investigators should consider the broader implications of the incident for the affected unit or department and the organization as a whole. Did the incident negatively impact your corporate reputation? Did it cause stress to the bad actor's coworkers?

When making disciplinary recommendations, first turn to your internal policies. Do you have set consequences for certain infractions? Then, consider how you handled similar issues in the past. How did you discipline those employees? Sticking to protocol can help you avoid wrongful discipline lawsuits.

Appropriate discipline ranges from counseling to termination of employment (and, depending on the severity of the behavior, anything else the courts deem appropriate).

Finally, you must recommend a punishment that fits the crime, but that's not all you need to include in your report. Also offer suggestions for other corrective and preventive actions, such as:

  • Changes to policies and procedures
  • Training updates
  • Workplace monitoring changes
  • Audits

15. Accept Help from Experts

A great investigator needs a myriad of skills. They will be a great listener, a great communicator, organized, and quick. They will have attention to detail, respect timelines, and think strategically.

Perhaps the most important skill of all, though, is professionalism and knowing when it's time to ask for help.

An ethics investigation will always be more successful when the investigator knows they're not qualified or unable to take on a task and get help from an expert in the area, as mentioned above.

16. Use an Ethics Audit in Your Report

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends conducting an ethics audit in the final investigation report. The audit helps you compare actual employee behavior with the recommended behavior that is outlined in your organization's policies and procedures.

Ideally, your organization has specific policies that outline ethical, appropriate employee behavior in all areas. More detail makes it easier to compare what's truly happening with what's supposed to be happening. It will also help you conclude whether or not the alleged behavior was unethical and/or a violation of company policy.

Most importantly, an ethics audit can help you make those recommendations about changes to your policies and procedures. For example, if you have numerous incidents each year of employees breaking your gifts policy, it might be time to rewrite it or better train employees on the rules it includes.

Don't let poor reporting ruin your ethics investigation.

Using an investigation report template helps your team write more accurate, thorough, and consistent final reports. Download one for free here.

Get the Template

17. Close Out Formally

Every conclusion you make, whether it’s concluding a preliminary interview or concluding the entire investigation, should be made formally.

At the end of your interviews, offer your contact information. Often, especially in high-stress situations such as an investigation, a person can suppress details or not even realize if a certain bit of information is important. With your phone number, the witness can provide more detail or clarity later on.

A proper conclusion to an investigation would include informing the reporting party and subject of your findings, explaining the company’s stance on retaliation and directing them toward the appropriate resources.

Formal documentation at every stage helps your team twofold. First, it keeps your ethics investigation on track and ensures everyone is on the same page about its status. Secondly, you'll have proof of who did what, when, and why. This can help your case if an employee ever challenges your decision in court.

18. Protect Involved Parties from Retaliation

While investigating an ethics incident, protecting whistleblowers and anyone else who cooperates with the investigation is just as important as the investigation itself.

In interviews with both the accused and the reporter, highlight the company’s retaliation policy. Explain that you don't tolerate retaliation of any kind, as well as the consequences of violating this policy. Tell the whistleblower where and how they can get help if they think they’re facing retaliation and have questions about their rights.

Corporate Compliance explains that any allegations of retaliation stemming from an existing investigation should be treated as an additional report of possible misconduct and reported and investigated accordingly.

19. Keep it Confidential

Another key to a successful ethics investigation is that it stays under wraps. From the initial report to the very last follow-up email, only share investigation information on a need-to-know basis.

Failing to protect the confidentiality of the investigation can cause serious harm to many people. It can result in irreparable damage to the subject's reputation (even false allegations can impact a person's image). The subject could use the information to coordinate a cover-up. Your organization might even experience negative publicity.

In some situations, the benefits of minor disclosures outweigh the risk. For example: offering a relatively insignificant detail to get a witness to come clean. Use your judgement and err on the side of confidentiality.

20. Consider the Circumstances

You may be tempted to follow the exact same investigation routine every time. Send the same emails, ask the same introductory questions, and use the same techniques.

However, every investigation should be tailored to fit the situation. Having a plan helps your team get organized, but flexibility is key to a successful outcome.

In some circumstances, for example, it may be best to conduct interviews without a warning. Now, this isn’t a move you’d typically make, but if you're concerned a witness may destroy evidence otherwise, it might be the right one. Or, a witness might mention someone involved in the incident who you hadn't thought to add to your interview plan.

Ethics investigations can differ greatly. It’s a category under which many actions fall. No single routine will work for every investigation, so don’t be afraid to adapt as necessary.

RELATED: Your Complete Guide to Establishing an Ethical Culture

The most important part of an ethics investigation happens after the final report. Prevention is the easiest way to avoid repeat incidents, so focus your team's time there. Take what you've learned from the issue at hand to find ways to create a workplace culture where ethical behavior is the norm.