How to Conduct an HR Investigation in 7 Steps

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How to Conduct an HR Investigation in 7 Steps

Having an HR investigation process in place is essential for ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment. Establishing and carrying out such a process takes time, effort, and patience. In this article, we will discuss what an HR investigation is and outline how to conduct a fair HR investigation.

What is an HR investigation?
Why do you need an HR investigation process?
How long does an HR investigation take?
How to conduct a fair HR investigation

What is an HR investigation?

When an employee makes a complaint within your organization, the Human Resources department is responsible for beginning an HR investigation to discover further details about possible employee misconduct. In the United States, businesses are obligated by law to investigate these complaints promptly and impartially.

It is essential to get to the bottom of the complaint as each one has the possibility of becoming a lawsuit. Therefore, HR investigations need to be taken very seriously in your organization to ensure the harmful behaviors discontinue immediately. Quick action towards a complaint will prevent internal issues before they evolve widespread. It will also improve the organization’s reputation as an excellent place to work.

There are a few categories of situations that HR can investigate in the workplace: harassment, discrimination, health & safety, ethics, and retaliation.

HarassmentAccording to a study conducted by AllVoices, 44% of people polled had experienced harassment at work, yet only half of them reported it. The most common types of harassment in the workplace are verbal and psychological, i.e., gossiping about someone or spreading lies about certain coworkers. The harassment continues in the world of remote working through email, virtual meetings, or phone calls. In addition, employees can experience other forms of harassment, such as physical or sexual. 
DiscriminationAccording to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, discrimination “means to treat [a] person differently, or less favorably, … because of [their] race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, disability, age (age 40 or older), or genetic information.” An example of discrimination is an employee not getting a promotion due to pregnancy. 
Health & safetyMany countries worldwide, including the United States, have laws that entitle employees to a safe workplace. This means that businesses need to provide safety equipment such as helmets, harnesses, and gloves or protection from chemicals. Suppose you do not comply with these rules in the US. In that case, an employee can file a complaint with the United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration which can jeopardize your business. 
EthicsWorkplace ethics can be tricky to define but generally, it refers to the way employees in a company supervise themselves. Workplace ethics violations come in many different forms. It can be as straightforward as right or wrong, for example, stealing or defrauding clients. Still, other violations can be more subjective, such as the misuse of company time. 
RetaliationIn the United States, employees are protected by law if they want to file a complaint with your organization. However, according to a survey done by HRAcuity, “eighty-five percent … of employees know how and where to report issues, but many lack confidence their issues will be addressed fairly and are afraid of retaliation.” Retaliation is when an employer or manager takes adverse action against an employee who files a workplace discrimination or harassment complaint. Examples are exclusion from team activities, reassignment, termination of employment, and demotion. 

Why do you need an HR investigation process?

Every workplace investigation will be distinctive in its facts and circumstances; however, your organization should follow general guidelines to help mitigate damage and protect positive workplace relations. HR investigations play an essential role in resolving conflicts at work. An organization needs an HR investigation process before something occurs to ensure your staff that you care about their wellbeing and that you want to create a safe work environment for everyone.

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It is also essential that you educate your staff on making a formal/informal complaint in your organization. You empower them to do so if a time comes that they need to. 

If conducted properly, investigations can help protect the business’s interests by identifying misbehaviors and supporting the employer with fair, unbiased, and knowledgeable decision-making.

Finally, being able to conduct thorough investigations helps your organization protect itself from lawsuits such as wrongful termination situations, and other legal issues.

How to Conduct a Fair HR Investigation
Check out the HR investigation process steps in more detail below.

How long does an HR investigation take?

Each investigation will be unique. There is no set HR investigation timeline, and it can take anywhere from a few days to months. However, the investigation should start immediately after HR has become aware of the concern to ensure relevant evidence and facts will not be lost. For example, surveillance videos, recorded Zoom calls, documents, or factual witness statements. 

Sometimes, the investigator will need support from other departments, making the timeline longer. For instance, if the case under investigation requires inspecting an employee’s work phone or computer, the investigator will need to reach out to IT or a third party to gain access. 

In general, the more complex investigations with more parties involved or several allegations will take more time.

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How to conduct a fair HR investigation

If you want to conduct fair, objective HR investigations, you need to have a standardized process with outlined steps in place. Let’s have a look at what these steps can look like in practice.

1. Take the necessary action immediately

Depending on the complaint, there may be times HR needs to take immediate action to protect the accuser or the complainant. For example, perhaps you’ll need to temporarily suspend the complainant and the accused until the end of the investigation, adjust work schedules, or separate the employees involved in the complaint if they work closely together.

In particular, harassment or sexual harassment allegations require quick yet discreet handling. However, it is essential to note that not all the facts are in at this stage of the process, so any steps taken must not be perceived as the final decision. 

2. Decide who will investigate & who will decide

You’ll need to appoint an investigator to lead the investigation. This could be an internal team member in the HR department or a legal counsel, but they mustn’t be associated with the accused or the complainant. It is also vital that the investigator will act fairly and unbiasedly to establish the facts of what happened. 

In order to take immediate action when a complaint is filed, some companies will already have a list of properly trained investigators that they can choose from. Other organizations will hire external investigators to support, especially when the case is more complex or involves senior staff members. 

The investigator responsible for discovering what happened should not be the same person who makes disciplinary decisions. This is to avoid any implication that the result of an investigation was fixed. Therefore, before you start your investigation, decide who will be the decision-maker. Generally, this is an in-house HR professional or someone from legal who, once again, does not know the accused or the complainant.

3. Make a plan for the investigation

The investigator will need to start by creating an investigation plan to discover the validity of the complaint. This will consist of an outline of the issue(s), a witness list to be interviewed, evidence that needs to be collected and analyzed, workplace policies or procedures, legal documents, and an idea of the investigation timeframe.

They will also need to understand what is missing in the case and what information they want to find out. The investigator also needs to inform the employee being investigated about the reasons behind the investigation, what will happen in the inquiry, and possible next steps.

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Always keep in mind that ensuring confidentiality is essential when conducting a workplace investigation.

4. Ask the right questions in the interviews

You’ll need to conduct interviews with the accused employee, complainant, and witnesses. Prepare target interview questions in advance to gather relevant information and details about the events. In the investigation interview process, you can use a few different interview question models to get to the truth. Here are some examples:

In the investigation interview process, you can use a few different interview question models to get to the truth. Here are some examples:

Of course, each method has pros and cons, so many investigators use a mixture that works best for them. 

Some example questions include:

  • What was the incident’s date, time, duration, or behavior?
  • Was there physical contact? Can you describe it? Can you demonstrate it?
  • Do you have any physical proof of the incident (emails, notes, recordings, etc.)?
  • Are there any reasons someone would invent or lie about the events?
  • What were the circumstances leading up to the incident?

In addition to conducting interviews, you can also ask the involved parties to provide written statements with their view of the situation. Make sure to provide clear instructions on what such a written statement should include.

5. Document the findings of your investigation

Gathering evidence and documentation will be the most time-consuming part of the investigation because it involves physical and digital evidence and testimonials. All physical evidence must be securely stored, and digital proof needs to be authenticated and stored in a protected spot. There are digital tools such as HR case management systems used for workplace investigations to keep everything safe, confidential, and organized. 

You should document each step of the investigation. The final investigation report summarizes all the stages of the investigation process, interviews, evidence, as well as the final findings and recommended action. It’s important to note that the investigator only makes a recommendation based on the evidence results. They are not the disciplinary decision-maker.

Depending on the extent of the investigation, you need to recognize relevant workplace policies and identify possible legal risks and the advantages and disadvantages for the larger organization.

6. Communicate the results of the investigation

Once the report is complete, the investigator will share it with the relevant decision-maker and the parties affected. Many businesses have guidelines for investigation disclosure and what details employees involved are entitled to. Sometimes the staff is given an “Executive Summary” with the findings but not detailed accounts of the witness statements. This is done to protect the interests and privacy of those involved. 

At this point, the investigator is no longer involved. Instead, the decision-maker will decide what action needs to be taken based on the report and whether or not disciplinary action is necessary. Should the decision be different from the report’s advice, you should make sure to add the reasons why to the report as an appendix.

7. Find the way forward

Now that you’ve concluded your HR investigation, you need to determine how you will proceed. The decision-maker will replay their decision to the accused and the disciplinary actions the organization is going to take. Depending on the reason behind the investigation, your team can see the disciplinary discussion as an opportunity to deliver goal-focused feedback instead of corrective action.

Together with the employee, the decision-maker can develop a performance improvement plan where both parties agree on an action plan and timeline. The decision-maker should also clearly outline the consequences of not adhering to the program to the employee. 

It is also crucial to understand if the investigation hasn’t negatively impacted the broader organization. If yes, your team will need to start repairing trust with your staff. 

Over to you

Conducting an HR investigation is not easy for any of the parties involved. You need to have a solid HR investigation process in place and follow the steps consistently to ensure compliance, transparency, and fairness.

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