Roper Greyell's Jennifer Russell shares five important tips business owners need to keep in mind before moving forward with any workplace investigation
Whether it’s complaints of bullying or a case of theft, workplace investigations are a common reality for many businesses. When done right, the result is an appropriate decision made at a reasonable cost—but done carelessly, the consequences can be staggering
“If your decision is challenged in court, the judge will scrutinize your process,” says Jennifer Russell, partner at law firm Roper Greyell. “There can be damage awards in the tens or hundreds of thousands, and harm to the reputation of the employer.” Here, Russell offers five tips for efficient investigations that stand up to scrutiny.
1. Choose the right investigator for the case
Is the issue simple enough to investigate in-house, or will it be hard to find someone impartial? Does it require special knowledge or training? A human rights complaint, for example, will likely need an investigator with expertise, while a theft allegation might be suitable for a manager or owner—so long as they seek expert advice on their process. “It’s about ensuring the perception of neutrality, but also the necessary skills,” says Russell.
2. Plan ahead
Never launch an investigation without a game plan. Does someone need to be removed from the workplace? Do issues around human rights or occupational health need to be considered? Clearly defining the limits of the case can also prevent the scope—and cost—of the investigation from ballooning as tangential evidence arises, says Russell. “Have a very clear mandate about what you are looking into from the start, because it can it get out of control very quickly.”
3. Structure your interviews
Study up, then pre-prepare your interview questions. Make sure you keep an open mind and avoid confirmation bias, says Russell. “But be ready to listen carefully and divert from your script as necessary,” she says. “Keep your questioning neutral, and be sure to get witnesses to commit to a story.” Russell also recommends opening every interview with a statement that covers the purpose of the investigation, warns against retaliation and explains the extent and limits of confidentiality. “You can’t guarantee the confidentiality of a statement made because it may end up as evidence at a hearing,” she says.
4. Ensure due process
Beware of the instinct to hold your cards close to your chest—the accused must hear all accusations and evidence before you make your decision. “This is one of the most important steps,” says Russell. “You’d be surprised how often this doesn’t happen—and that’s where many problematic files end up on our desk.” The person under investigation may have a legitimate explanation, and if not given a chance to respond, will be justified in claiming the process was unfair.
5. Prepare written reports and notes carefully
Any notes or reports you make during an investigation could become “exhibit A” later on, says Russell, so be conscientious when preparing them. “If the case ends up in court, anything created during the investigation will reflect on the employer,” she says. “So make sure they are complete, neutral and thorough.”
Good investigation skills can benefit everyone from managers to small-business owners to HR professionals, says Russell—but they often don’t come naturally. To learn the proper techniques of interview planning, witness assessment and due process, attend Roper Greyell’s one-day Workplace Investigation seminar on October 6.