Learn more about workplace investigations: what they are, why they’re important, and how to successfully conduct one in your workplace.
Published 14 Jul 2023
| By Tiffany Argent, Leizel Estrellas
A workplace investigation is an objective, independent, and systematic process of uncovering facts about a particular incident that occurred at work. It involves carefully discussing a complaint or grievance for specific misconduct, policy violation, or unethical behavior to reach a final decision and determine the appropriate course of action. The success of this process lies in strict confidentiality, extensive documentation, and an impartial lens during the investigation period.
A workplace investigation involves the following parties:
Companies hold workplace investigations for various reasons. At its core, it aims to ascertain what truly happened in a specific incident through an intensive fact-finding process. For this to work, investigators (typically from human resources) gather information from all parties through interviews, documents, and other sources and collate them for further probing and analysis.
Through workplace investigations, companies can achieve the following goals:
Workplace investigations typically take place for grave offenses and violations that can impact an organization’s operations, legal compliance, and reputation. The list below shows the most common types of issues that warrant a formal investigation:
When an employer receives a written or verbal complaint from an employee, here are the steps they should take:
The first step in the investigation process is to verify the complainant’s submitted report. The employer peruses the submission and takes note of the purpose, scope, actions, and timeline, along with the evidence provided. Doing so allows them to judge accurately if the situation requires formal intervention.
Before launching a formal investigation, it’s best to determine if it’s necessary in the first place. For example, the employer can seek informal means to resolve the issue without needing to escalate it into a full-scale intervention.
To decide if an investigation is worth pursuing, see if the issue breaches labor and criminal laws, such as the following:
After establishing the need for a formal investigation, they must begin laying the groundwork as soon as possible.
A smooth-sailing investigation process begins with a proper plan. It sets clear expectations about the case and ensures that the investigation is fair and just. A solid investigation plan should address the following questions:
Once the preparations are complete, it’s time to proceed with the investigation process. Typically, it begins by explaining to the respondent the complaint filed against them. In this step, the investigator should inform them about the following matters:
The investigator must always emphasize that everything will remain strictly confidential to secure the cooperation of the respondent.
For a fair and objective conclusion, it’s important to gather information from all involved parties. Start by reviewing the investigation plan and its details about the types of evidence necessary for the case.
During their data gathering, the investigator can look into two things: tangible evidence and eyewitness testimonies.
In establishing a solid case, an investigator must, first and foremost, obtain tangible sources (both physical and digital) as proof that the issue occurred. Some common examples of this type of evidence include the following:
Witness accounts are also an excellent way of getting information, as they can uncover things that are critical to the case. After all, some records may not be able to capture fully what the witness has observed on the issue.
After identifying potential witnesses, investigators can obtain their statements in written and verbal forms. Whichever method they choose, always assure that the information they provide will be strictly confidential and will not be used against them in any way or form.
Then, proceed by explaining what the case is about and what information is needed from them. The following guide questions can help investigators navigate the conversation better:
Once the information is sufficient, the investigator can now review the materials presented to them. They will cross-examine the testimonies from the involved parties (complainant, respondent, and witnesses), find a common link or pattern among their statements, and identify and rule out inconsistencies. Ultimately, this rigorous process allows them to form an accurate, structured narrative of what truly happened in the incident.
In this step, it’s critical to set aside any biases and focus on the facts to reach an objective and credible conclusion.
Lastly, once the investigator finishes examining the evidence, they will report the results to the people or parties specified in the investigation plan. In this step, they will draft and hand over a written investigation report, a document outlining the details of the case.
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Investigators will also often create a work environment survey to understand the overall climate of the workplace.
Moreover, if required, the investigator can also provide recommendations for the appropriate course of action given their findings. It could be either of the following types of action:
A fruitful workplace investigation becomes possible with the right practices and procedures. Here are four things to keep in mind while holding an investigation in the workplace.
Workplace investigations might involve personal information and sensitive data that can endanger a person if wrongfully disclosed. Moreover, this breach can jeopardize the integrity of the process, violate privacy laws, and put the person’s name and reputation at risk.
For this reason, it’s critical to keep all matters related to the investigation confidential until a final verdict is reached. Make sure to explain the importance of confidentiality to all staff members, regardless of their involvement in the case.
An investigator serves as a middle ground between disputing parties. To uphold their credibility and integrity, they should provide fair treatment to all involved persons in the investigation. It entails treating both complainant and respondent with dignity and respect by:
Humans, including investigators, are bound to have biases and preconceived notions in their heads. However, these personal leanings can cloud an investigator’s judgment, diminishing their credibility and forging mistrust in an organization.
For this reason, an investigator must set aside their personal opinions and put on an impartial lens during the investigation process. Before reaching a conclusion, they should gather sufficient data based on reliable sources.
Lastly, investigators must always adhere to company policies and legal guidelines when carrying out workplace investigations. When gathering evidence, for instance, it’s important to align their approach with data privacy and protection laws in their jurisdiction.
After all, these laws and protocols are in place to protect the integrity of the investigation and to carry it out in a fair, objective, and timely manner.
A workplace investigation is expected to be completed as quickly as possible, ideally around 1-2 weeks. In practice, however, this timeframe might vary depending on the complexity of the case and the time an investigator can commit to the case.
Confidentiality is a cornerstone of successful workplace investigations, as data breaches can compromise their integrity and impartiality. Thus, all information acquired during an investigation should not be disclosed to unauthorized individuals until a conclusive decision is reached.
A workplace investigator performs an independent, objective, and impartial study about a breach, violation, or unethical conduct through a rigorous fact-finding procedure. They take a fair, unbiased, and neutral approach to make sense of the issue and formulate credible and acceptable decisions based on the facts of the case.
An incident report captures essential details about workplace accidents, injuries, near misses, equipment and property damages, security breaches, and so forth.
Meanwhile, an investigation report documents the probing process, summarizing how the investigation went for cases of misconduct, policy or legal violation, or unethical behavior.
Workplace investigations follow a systematic and rigorous procedure to establish the facts of an incident or dispute. And as mentioned earlier, documentation and confidentiality are crucial to its success. Fortunately, digital platforms like SafetyCulture (formerly iAuditor) have the tools you need to perform a smooth-sailing investigation at work.
As a leading operations platform, SafetyCulture simplifies your work by digitizing manual processes, such as data collection and documentation. This way, you can focus on assessing the evidence gathered and determining the right course of action. With SafetyCulture, you can:
You can also use the following checklists for specific cases that require investigation:
Tiffany is the Head of Customer QSHE Services at SafetyCulture, a chartered member of IOSH and an IOSH mentor with 17 years of health and safety management experience in freight forwarding, warehouse operations, science and manufacturing.
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