How to Conduct a Successful Workplace Investigation: Step by Step

How to Conduct a Successful Workplace Investigation: Step by Step

The ultimate guide to conducting a fair and effective workplace investigation

The CEO and two other executives of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum were recently terminated after a long investigation into the museum’s working conditions. After speaking to dozens of current and former employees, the investigation concluded that the workplace was unhealthy and failed to address employees’ concerns and issues.

Workplace investigations like these should be thorough, efficient, and thoughtful, as their conclusions impact many peoples’ lives. An ineffective investigation (or failing to conduct one at all) not only puts employees at risk, but also gives your company the reputation of being a toxic, unethical workplace.

Many HR, compliance, and security investigators don’t receive targeted training on how to conduct an investigation from start to finish. Training may cover investigation planning, conducting interviews, gathering evidence, and other aspects of the investigative process, but often doesn’t provide a thorough approach for a full investigation.

So, what are the steps in the investigation process? This article will take you from the initial report or complaint all the way to the conclusion and final investigation report, with examples and guidance to ensure your investigation follows best practices.

A successful workplace investigation starts with a plan.

Download the free investigation plan template to start your investigation in an organized way.

Get the Template

Decide to Investigate

When your company receives a complaint or report of wrongdoing via hotline, web form, or other avenue, you’re obligated to take the report seriously and act on it quickly.

Depending on the type of allegation, there may be regulations that govern how the complaint is handled and the timeline for the workplace investigation and resolution (such as a data breach). So it’s important to have a procedure in place for receiving and triaging reports.

If the allegation warrants it, you may need to take immediate action, such as separating the reporter and alleged bad actor, speaking to them individually, or referring them for counselling, mediation, or both. Allegations of harassment, and sexual harassment in particular, require sensitive handling and possibly immediate removal of one or both parties to another location.

First, decide whether the report warrants an investigation. This decision cannot be taken lightly. Failure to investigate misconduct that should be investigated can have dire consequences for the company, from reputation damage to a lawsuit.

Assuming the decision is made to investigate the report, you should have protocols for how to conduct an investigation, including a method for choosing the investigator, assigning the case, and tracking and reporting on the investigation.

If you decide not to investigate, this decision needs to be documented thoroughly. State the reasons for the decision and ensure they are defensible. Assume your decision will be questioned and make sure you have valid grounds.

Choose an Investigator

Next, you’ll need to decide whether to use an in-house or outside investigator for your workplace investigation.

There are many factors to consider in this decision. You may need an investigator with specific skills, experience, or legal knowledge that are unavailable in-house. You may have concerns related to perceived bias or even actual bias that would pose a risk when using a company investigator.

Depending on the type of investigation, you may need to consider the gender of the investigator (in a sexual harassment investigation, for example). If your workplace investigation covers multiple locations, cities, or countries, you might need to use resources in another country, someone who speaks a particular language, or someone who has local knowledge.

The bottom line is that you’ll need to choose an impartial investigator who has the skills, knowledge, access, and experience required by the case.

Choosing an investigator isn’t always straightforward.

Learn what you need to consider in this free cheat sheet: "How to Choose an Investigator for a Workplace Investigation."

Get the Cheat Sheet

Plan the Workplace Investigation

During the planning phase, you’ll need to determine the scope of the investigation. To do so, ask:

  • What exactly are you investigating?
  • Is is a code of conduct violation, a possible criminal violation?
  • Are there privacy issues involved?
  • Are there other incidents or issues related to the complaint or incident that need to be triaged?

Creating an investigation plan helps you to avoid one of the biggest investigation mistakes: scope creep. Proper planning helps you to focus on the allegation or incident being investigated and ensures that your workplace investigation stays on course.

As part of the planning, you’ll also need to decide who needs to be interviewed, where, when, and in what order. You may need to conduct research and ask some initial questions in to compile a list of involved parties and determine interview subjects.

Conduct Research

To gather information on the involved parties, look to online sources such as social media or even a simple search of their name. Do some digging into the backgrounds of your interview subjects to find out a bit about them so that you can build rapport easily.

For example, if you find that your subject tweets a lot about the New York Yankees, you know the person is interested in baseball. You can use this information to ease into the interview with some casual chat about the sport.

Be cognizant of how doing this preliminary digging can contribute to pre-judging people, resulting in a biased interview and investigation and make a conscious effort to avoid this.

(Bias check: make a conscious effort to disregard background knowledge gleaned from the internet when assessing a subject’s credibility or character during the interview).

Solid online research skills can make your investigations more thorough and efficient.

Watch this free webinar to learn helpful techniques and tools for gathering information you need online.

Watch the Webinar

Conduct Interviews

The interview phase of the workplace investigation has a single purpose: to find out what really happened. With this in mind, you may want to use a variety of interview techniques and strategies to achieve that end.

The PEACE model, the REID technique, PACE, cognitive interviewing, interrogation, and the confession-seeking interview are all methods for getting to the truth in investigation interviews and all have their strengths and weaknesses. Many investigators find a balance among the different methods that works best for them.

The first step in conducting interviews is contacting the interview subjects and setting up times and places to meet.

To put your interview subjects at ease and increase your chances of getting them to communicate openly it’s a good idea to:

  • Choose an interview location that is neutral and private
  • Be flexible with scheduling to accommodate the interview subject
  • Refer to the interview as “a chat about what happened” rather than an investigative interview
  • Remove distractions, such as photos or decorations, from the interview location
  • Ask the subject to put their phone on silent and keep it in a pocket or bag for the interview’s duration
  • Explain up-front exactly what the interview is about and why
  • Built rapport with the interview subject before launching into questions (using the research you conducted above, if applicable)
  • Offer water and/or coffee or tea to keep the subject hydrated and alert

When deciding the order of interviews, consider the flow of information, or the order of the story, you need to collect.

  1. First, interview the person who made the report. If there are others named in the report, such as if there were multiple victims or the person complained on behalf of someone else, interview them too.
  2. Next, interview any witnesses to the incident or allegation. This can sometimes lead to more witnesses being identified, and you should interview them as well at this stage.
  3. Finally, interview the subject of the report or allegation.

If you’re wondering what questions to ask during an investigation interview, read our article with questions for the reporter, subject, and witnesses here.

To Record or Not to Record the Investigation Interview

One advantage of recording interviews is that a recording leaves no doubt about the ethics of the interviewer and the quality of the questioning. If an interviewee claims your interviewing methods were unethical, you can use your recording to protect yourself and your organization.

You may wish to record your interviews using an audio or video recorder, but this is a matter of preference. Some investigators find that recording devices cause stress and can impede the flow of information from the subject. Others feel that recording the interview allows them to concentrate on the person and what he or she is saying, rather than writing notes, allowing for a more natural conversation.

Before the interview, check to see if your state requires both parties to consent to the recording. It’s always nice to ask for consent no matter where you live, and it could ensure you comply with state laws, too.

Do you know what questions to ask?

Download the cheat sheet: "Top 20 Questions to Ask in an Investigation Interview."

Get the Cheat Sheet

Gather Evidence

Evidence gathering can be the most time-consuming part of the investigation. You’ll need to collect both physical (if applicable) and digital evidence.

Everything you find out is potential evidence. It’s important to consider every piece of evidence you uncover, whether or not it fits in with your impressions of the case or with the other things you’ve learned.

All physical evidence must be stored securely and logged. Digital evidence should be authenticated, captured, preserved, and stored somewhere (such as a secure server) as well. If you’re using a case management system like Case IQ for your investigations, you can upload your digital evidence directly into the case file, where it will be secure, organized, and easily accessible to the team.

It’s important to follow best practices for chain of custody when securing evidence. Chain of custody is a way of documenting evidence that shows the seizure, custody, control, transfer, storage, and analysis of a piece of evidence. It’s a mechanism to record everything that was done to a piece of evidence to ensure its integrity and prove that it hasn’t been tampered with.

Consider every piece of evidence and how it contributes to the narrative of what happened. Remember that your job is simply to find out the truth, and weigh each piece of evidence against this requirement. There are many types of evidence you might encounter, and each one can contribute to a successful workplace investigation.

Don’t let valuable evidence slip through the cracks.

Download the free chain of custody template to ensure all your evidence is tracked and protected.

Get the Template

Reach a Conclusion

The next step of a workplace investigation is to reach a conclusion based on your interviews and the evidence gathered. Your conclusion is simply whether or not the allegation or report is found to be correct.

A workplace investigation that is deemed to be inconclusive is a failed investigation. If you can’t come to a conclusion, try conducting more interviews, collecting more evidence, and/or going back over the information you’ve already gathered.

Based on the conclusion you reach, the company must decide whether to take action and what action to take, if any.

Action could include:

  • Disciplinary action against an employee (i.e. written warning)
  • Suspension of an employee
  • Counselling or professional assessment of an employee
  • Mediation between or among employees
  • Termination of an employee
  • Involving law enforcement in a criminal action
  • Accommodation in the workplace (i.e. allowing the victim to work from home)

If the organization decides to not take any action, this should be documented, along with the reasons for this decision.

Write the Investigation Report

The most comprehensive, fair, and timely workplace investigation is worthless without the documentation to prove that the investigation was all of those things.

Every stage of the workplace investigation should be documented, but the final product, the investigation report, is the summary of all the steps, interviews, evidence, and conclusions drawn. It details all the tasks you completed and information you gathered to arrive at your conclusion.

The investigation the final product and may be read by many different audiences, including the C-suite, board members, and other stakeholders. Therefore it must be clear, accurate, succinct, free of jargon, and credible.

Analyze Data and Follow Up

To reduce the number of incidents and investigations in your organization continually evaluate and analyze your risk. To do so, aggregate and study your investigation data to determine:

  • Geographic areas where problems occur most frequently
  • The types of problems that are occurring in the organization (e.g. theft, discrimination, harassment)
  • What measures can be put in place to reduce them

This is where case management software can really deliver ROI, by providing myriad options for visualizing data in a way that is meaningful to the organization.

Investigation Follow-Up

Once an investigation has been completed, documented, and resolved, you’d think you can close the book and move on. But that’s not necessarily the case.

It’s important to follow up after the investigation to gauge the effect that any actions have had on those involved in the investigation and others affected. Has the issue recurred? Do the parties feel supported?

Follow-up also includes looking at any changes that were implemented as a result of data analysis. Did these changes having an effect on the issue or incident? This step should be ongoing and will put your company in a good position to anticipate and manage risk and spot trends before they become problems.

How Case IQ Can Help

If you’re still simply reacting to employee misconduct, you’re putting your organization, your other employees, and your reputation at risk.

With Case IQ’s powerful case management software you can increase oversight, track and manage investigations, and report on results for better risk management and prevention.

Case IQ’s award-winning reporting tool highlights trends and hot spots in investigation data, helping you identify your areas of risk. Use this insight to focus preventive measures and improve your program.

Learn more about how Case IQ can improve your organization’s investigations here.