Getting it right - 5 tips for workplace investigations

It does not matter what the size of the business, all employers face and receive workplace complaints. Once a complaint is received, it must be acted upon, but what action is taken can vary depending on the circumstances and nature of the complaint made.  Good employers recognise this and taking note of the five tips below can assist in handling what can be a stressful time for a business. 

 1. Consider your policies and procedures 

 Complaints can often catch a business off guard and there can be the temptation to launch straight into an investigation. While complaints should be addressed promptly, they must also be addressed properly. 

Many companies have policies and procedures in place that provide guidance or the framework for how a complaint should be addressed, or even how the investigation should be conducted. 

 Before rushing into an investigation, first take the time to look at your policies and procedures for any guidance they may offer. 

2. Understand the complaint 

Some employees’ present beautifully articulated complaints, others do not. Before any investigation can take place and/or any action can be taken in respect of the matters complained of you must first understand the complaint. 

Consider having a confidential discussion with the complainant or asking the complainant to put their complaint in writing so you are able to better understand their complaint.

3. Determine who should conduct the investigation

There are many different ways in which complaints can be investigated in the workplace. Before commencing an investigation, you must first determine who will conduct it. 

An investigation can be done by a manager, human resources, company management or a third party.  Who is best to conduct the investigation will depend on the circumstances in the workplace and the nature of the complaint. 

If the complaint is made against a manager or human resources, they should not be tasked with the investigation to avoid bias in the investigation findings. Further, if the complaint is of a serious nature, or alludes to a wide spread problem in the workplace it may be better to have the complaint investigated by a third party.  This way the investigation will be impartial and independent.  If the investigator is a lawyer, conducting the investigation and issuing the report in that capacity, the investigation report may be subject to legal professional privilege. 

Also consider who will be required to implement the findings and outcomes of the investigation. It may be more suitable to have the complaint investigated by a third party so any action following the investigation can be taken by human resources or management. 

4. Communication is key 

It is important that steps are taken to obtain all relevant information in an investigation. This can be done through interviewing relevant parties (possible witnesses) but also looking for documentary evidence (forensic IT audits of accounts, time sheets, email activity).  Collating all this information can take time and can cause delays to the investigation. 

A complainant will want to know their complaint is being taken seriously and investigated and a respondent will want the complaint to be resolved as quickly as possible with a view to clearing their name. Accordingly communication is vital. 

Any delay to an investigation should be communicated to the relevant parties. Where possible, the reason for the delay, the expected duration of the delay and impact of this on the conclusion of the investigation should be communicated as soon as practicable. 

5. Act on the findings 

It should go without saying however this final crucial step is often overlooked. 

An investigation may find inappropriate behaviours have been displayed in the workplace, or conversely that the respondent to the complaint has acted appropriately. Investigations also often reveal more about the workplace including the culture of various teams or departments and the attitude of staff towards management. 

The findings of any investigation should not be ignored. Use the conclusion of an investigation as an opportunity or platform to discipline where appropriate. Also consider conducting workplace training, introducing new management strategies and rectifying and deficiencies in your policies and procedures or operating practices identified during the investigation.

Taking note of the above tips will assist your business to ensure any complaint received is properly investigated and addressed. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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