Workplace complaints can be an area of stress and concern for many employers.
Some complaints require only minimal investigation. For example, disputes and fighting among employees can usually be resolved informally through discussions.
Other, more sensitive complaints, particularly those that could lead to an agency complaint or civil lawsuit, require a formal investigation.
When more formal action is needed, here are some guidelines:
Get started promptly. During that first meeting with the accuser, identify the issues. Get all the relevant information, such as dates and times of any incidents, and names of witnesses.
Make sure to ask the accuser for supporting documents and to put the complaint in writing; this helps eliminate frivolous claims. Let the accuser know there will be a follow-up meeting after witnesses are interviewed.
No deals. Avoid promising the accuser a certain outcome but make sure to follow up on claims. If the accuser asks for confidentiality or anonymity, do not promise this as it may not be guaranteed.
Choose a fact finder. Decide who will conduct the remaining interviews and gather information.
This could be someone from the human resources department, a supervisor, or an in-house or outside attorney. Someone from human resources is often the best choice because that person knows the organization and is less intimidating than an attorney.
However, you may want to consult with an attorney before starting the investigation, because the information gathered may then be considered privileged.
You may also want to have a witness present during the interviews.
Objectivity is paramount. Above all else, the investigator must keep an open mind and not be influenced by personal opinions about the parties involved.
The investigator should also understand the substantive law involved and be familiar with company policies that may relate to the situation.
Interviewing the accused. Interview the accused next.
Ask if they know why the accuser might make such an allegation and whether they have had past difficulties.
Let the accused know that no conclusion has been reached yet and that there will be a follow-up meeting.
Stopgap measures. Decide whether interim action is needed, such as separating the employees involved or suspending the accused with pay.
It is important to note that it may be a discriminatory practice for an employer to use corrective action such as workstation relocation, or shift and scheduling changes for an employee who complains of harassment, when such action is taken without the employee’s consent.
Interviewing witnesses. Plan the order of witness interviews and notify the interviewees. If the accused or accuser has spoken to others about the incidents, include those people as witnesses.
Get witness statements in writing or take detailed notes. Encourage witnesses to return later if they have additional information.
Confidentiality. Assure everyone that the information provided will be kept confidential to the extent possible and that there will be no retaliation.
Reluctant witnesses. Do not detain reluctant witnesses with threats or force. Instead, remind them of their duty to cooperate.
Some interviewees may ask to have a witness present. A union member may usually have a steward present during questioning, and an attorney may be present if criminal investigators have become involved.
Otherwise, an interviewee is not entitled to have a witness, though allowing it would not necessarily harm the investigation.
Final interviews. Interview the accuser and accused one more time. Assess their credibility based on factors such as demeanor, which side makes sense, and whether witnesses made conflicting statements.
Wrap it up. Once the investigation is complete, the investigator should write up the findings.
Read the findings, then decide on a course of action. The director of human resources should review the decision.
Some employers prefer to have a team of individuals affected by the issues — human resources, security, and a manager — read the findings and decide together.
Whichever method an employer chooses, ensure that it is objective and factually based.
Corrective action. Put the decision in writing and give a copy to the accused and accuser. Make sure to take any necessary action promptly.
Get a signed statement from the accuser acknowledging that they know the steps you have taken. Document the appropriate personnel files.
An employer may also want to make an appeal process available.
Follow-up. After the investigation has concluded, follow up with the accuser.
One final note: Remember that government agencies and courts will look at an investigation to see if it is thorough and fair.
A proper investigation now can help protect you against legal problems later.
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