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Betsy Combier

Help Us to Continue to Help Others »

The E-Accountability Foundation announces the

'A for Accountability' Award

to those who are willing to whistleblow unjust, misleading, or false actions and claims of the politico-educational complex in order to bring about educational reform in favor of children of all races, intellectual ability and economic status. They ask questions that need to be asked, such as "where is the money?" and "Why does it have to be this way?" and they never give up. These people have withstood adversity and have held those who seem not to believe in honesty, integrity and compassion accountable for their actions. The winners of our "A" work to expose wrong-doing not for themselves, but for others - total strangers - for the "Greater Good"of the community and, by their actions, exemplify courage and self-less passion. They are parent advocates. We salute you.

Winners of the "A":

Johnnie Mae Allen
David Possner
Dee Alpert
Joan Klingsberg
Harris Lirtzman
Hipolito Colon
Jim Calantjis
Larry Fisher
The Giraffe Project and Giraffe Heroes' Program
Jimmy Kilpatrick and George Scott
Zach Kopplin
Matthew LaClair
Wangari Maathai
Erich Martel
Steve Orel, in memoriam, Interversity, and The World of Opportunity
Marla Ruzicka, in Memoriam
Nancy Swan
Bob Witanek
Peyton Wolcott
[ More Details » ]
Workplace Investigations
In determining who should conduct a workplace investigation, the nature of the conduct alleged, the persons accused, and persons available with the necessary level of investigation training and experience must be considered. The investigator must be fair and impartial with respect to the issues and the parties. Common choices in the selection of an investigator include human resources personnel, attorneys, outside consultants, and law enforcement personnel.

How Does the Need for an Investigation Arise?
Federal and State Laws Requiring Investigations
Privacy Issues in Workplace Investigations
Other Legal Issues Associated with Investigations
Methodology for Investigations
Putting It All Together

Sooner or later, every employer will face the need to investigate one or more of its employees. More and more employers are recognizing what an important tool a workplace investigation can be in discovering problems and preventing their reoccurence. This paper is a brief survey of the most important legal issues for employers to know about before undertaking any investigation of employees.

How Does the Need for an Investigation Arise?

Many different problems can lead an employer to start an investigation, and not every investigation necessarily fits the popular profile of interrogations, witnesses under harsh lights, and long, drawn-out detective work. Here are some common reasons why companies investigate employees or situations:

* attitude problems
* substance abuse
* discrimination complaints
* harassment complaints
* threats against others
* vandalism and other sabotage
* violations of work rules
* safety problems
* workplace theft

Naturally, each type of problem demands its own methods of investigation. However, certain common threads run through each type of investigation situation. The investigator must be knowledgeable about state and federal employment laws; must uphold the privacy rights of employees and others; must conduct a thorough investigation, but without letting it drag on too long; must be objective; and must keep his or her mind on the ultimate goal of any investigation, i.e., discovering the underlying reasons for the problem so that management can take corrective action. In essence, investigations are just a tool for management to use in analyzing the reasons for problems or gathering data to make management decisions.

Federal and State Laws Requiring Investigations

Many laws in the area of employee relations effectively require employers to undertake investigations in order to meet their obligations under the laws. The general duty of any employer who either knows or should know about a discrimination, harassment, threat, or safety problem faced by an employee is to take prompt and effective remedial action to put an end to the problem. In order to know what action to take, or to find out whether action is even necessary, the employer has to investigate the situation and ascertain the facts. Employers that fail to investigate such situations usually lose any claims or lawsuits brought by the employee in response to the problem.

Some of the more important laws and legal situations that require investigations by employers are:

* job discrimination laws – Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the ADA, the ADEA, and their state
equivalent, the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act
* health and safety laws – OSHA – employers must investigate problems and prevent future similar
problems; prevention of workplace violence – employers have a duty to investigate threats and
prevent acts of violence in the workplace to the extent possible
* drug-free workplace laws – Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988; DOT drug testing regulations
* background and credit checks – in order to minimize liability for negligent hiring or negligent
retention, employers must sometimes investigate employees' backgrounds – Fair Credit Reporting Act
requirements apply

Privacy Issues in Workplace Investigations

Personnel Files
Searches at Work
Drug Testing
Other Legal Issues Associated with Investigations

There are important privacy interests at stake in the workplace. Employers have fairly wide latitude in this area, but must be aware of important limitations that apply in various situations. In general, employees have the right to keep private facts about themselves and their families confidential, the right to not be accused wrongly, and the right to enjoy some degree of "personal space." Following is a discussion of some of the more significant ways in which these privacy interests come up in investigations.

Personnel Files

In general, whatever is in an employee's personnel file should be accessed only by those who have a job-related need to know the information. The following general principles apply:

* All information relating to an employee's personal characteristics or family matters is private and
* Information relating to an employee should be released only on a need-to-know basis, or if a law
requires the release of the information.
* All information requests concerning employees should go through a central information release
person or office.

In order to reduce the chance of confidential information getting out to people who do not need to know it, most employment law attorneys recommend keeping different types of personnel information is different types of files, i.e., segregating the information. Some of the types of separate files an employer should consider are:

* general personnel file – job application, offer letter, performance evaluations, letters of
commendation, and so on;
* medical file (including workers' compensation and FMLA documentation) – this is the only type of
record that absolutely must be kept in a separate file apart from the regular personnel files - that is
because the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that any medical records pertaining to employees
be kept in separate confidential medical files;
* I-9 records - keep these in a separate I-9 file because it will make it easier to defend against a
national origin or citizenship discrimination claim if you can show that such information is available
only to those with a need to know (in other words, that those who might have made an adverse job
decision were not aware of the person's national origin or citizenship status) - also, if your I-9 records
are ever audited, it would be better if the auditor only saw I-9 records, instead of all kinds of other
records mixed in that might give rise to reports to other governmental agencies;
* safety records - for the same reason you would want an INS auditor to see only I-9 records in an I-9
audit, you want an OSHA auditor to see only OSHA-related records in an OSHA audit - this safety
record file might also contain documentation relating to an employee's participation or involvement in
an OSHA claim or investigation - limiting access to such documentation would make it easier to keep
the information from influencing possible adverse decisions against the employee that in turn could
result in retaliation claims under OSHA;
* grievance and investigation records - maintain a separate file for these records because they often
contain embarrassing, confidential, or extremely private information about employees that could give
rise to a defamation or invasion of privacy lawsuit if such facts were known and discussed by others
within the company - also, making it known that investigation records will not be divulged may make
it easier to persuade reluctant witnesses to give frank and honest answers in an investigation.

The human resources department can develop a security access procedure for these various files. The company can keep an overview by cross-referencing in one file the relevant documents in another file. If a person who has access to one file wants to see another document in a separate file, he or she would have to have clearance under the file access procedure in order to do that.

Searches at Work

In general, employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in certain things or areas where they work, unless they have been given reasonable notice that no such expectation exists and that they may expect such areas to be viewed, inspected, or monitored in some way. For instance, employees who have never been told that their briefcases or purses might be subject to inspection would have a legitimate expectation of privacy in those things. A similar expectation would exist if the employee is allowed to have a work desk with a lockable drawer, or a personal locker in an employee break area – if the employee has never been told such areas might be subject to search, he or she would have a reasonable expectation that such areas would be private and not subject to search by the employer.

The key for an employer that wishes to have the flexibility to search a particular thing or area of the premises is to dispel any reasonable expectation of privacy on the part of employees by letting the employees know that certain things and certain areas will be subject to search at any time at the discretion of company management, with or without the presence of the affected employees. A good search policy will make all areas of the facility subject to search, as well as anything the employee brings onto the premises, including all work areas, equipment, furniture used by the employees, lockers, containers of any type brought by the employee onto the premises, and even personal vehicles left parked on company parking lots. For more details on these issues, see "Searches at Work - Legal Issues to Consider" in this book. A sample policy on searches may be found in the book "The A to Z of Personnel Policies" (part of this same book).

Drug Testing

Drug tests are, of course, a form of investigation. At least in the private sector, Texas employers have the benefit of operating in a state in which drug testing is largely left up to an employer to do for itself. Employers may do drug testing under a wide variety of circumstances such as:

* pre-employment testing
* for-cause testing (this also includes "reasonable suspicion" testing)
* post-accident testing
* random testing

With any type of drug testing, however, the employer must keep the results absolutely confidential, and the documentation should be kept in the same confidential medical file that is used for ADA purposes. There are many legal issues to keep in mind, and it is essential to have a clear written policy letting employees know about the types of testing that may be done and what will happen if a drug test turns out positive. More information on this subject, including a sample policy and sample test consent form, is available in the book "The A to Z of Personnel Policies" (contained in this same binding).


Defamation consists of communicating false information about a person to a third party, either intentionally (with malice) or with reckless disregard for its falsity. A company can be liable to any of its employees about whom false information is released if it makes the information known itself or negligently allows the false information to be released. For that reason, employers must be extremely careful with the information that often results from investigations. This is why it is recommended to keep information relating to investigations in a separate investigations file. Under no circumstances should an employer allow an employee under investigation to be talked about in ways that could generate defamation liability for the company. Managers should be trained to never say or write anything about an employee that cannot be proven with reliable documentation or firsthand testimony from eyewitnesses.

Other Legal Issues Associated with Investigations

Retaliation Claims
False Imprisonment
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Assault and Battery
Malicious Prosecution
Invasion of Privacy

Retaliation Claims

Almost all laws relating to the workplace rights of employees include provisions prohibiting employers from retaliating in any way against employees who file claims or who assist in the filing or investigation of claims. Employers must take great care when investigating employees to ensure that the company does not take any unwarranted action against the employee that might appear to be retaliation for filing a complaint or claim. In addition, managers must be trained to know when to "back off" with an employee who is involved in a claim.

False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is a cause of action that can be brought against a company by an employee who feels that during part of an investigation, he or she was restrained or confined by the employer to the point where they felt "imprisoned." A company investigator must be very careful not to give the impression that the employee will be physically confined or restrained during an interview, for example. In a typical interview situation, the investigator will want to sit behind a desk or in a chair, facing the door that is the exit for the office. The employee being interviewed should sit with his or her back to the exit door and, if necessary, be reassured that they will not be kept from leaving. This arrangement also minimizes the risk to the investigator that the employee might become violent; if the employee feels that leaving is easy, he or she will probably do that rather than go out of their way to attack someone who is not in the exit path.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

This can be the basis for a lawsuit if the investigator conducts an interview in such a way that the employee feels unusually humiliated or threatened. Successful suits on the basis of intentional infliction of emotional distress are rare, but can be successful if the employer's action is seen as offensive to a reasonable person and would be viewed as outrageous by a reasonable society. There is generally no valid reason for an investigator or any other company official to shout at an employee, use slurs or other demeaning language, or cast the employee in a humiliating light, actions which have been the basis for successful lawsuits in this area of the law.

One sometimes hears about claims for "negligent infliction of emotional distress", but that is not a valid cause of action under Texas law. Nonetheless, employers must be careful to keep tense situations from escalating out of hand, since fine legal distinctions between "negligent" and "intentional" may be lost on juries in a close case.

Assault and Battery

Assault and/or battery can arise in an investigation if an employee charges that he or she either feared that an investigator was going to touch them in an offensive or harmful way (assault) or was actually touched in such a way (battery). This is why, for example, an employer may never physically force an employee to submit to a search. Rather, the employer should simply let the employee know that submitting to a search is required and that refusal to submit to the search can lead to immediate termination from employment (basically, this would be reminding the employee about the company's search policy).

Malicious Prosecution

Employers sometimes find themselves the subject of a malicious prosecution lawsuit if they attempt to bite off more than they can chew regarding criminal prosecution of an employee. If an employee is reported to the police, described as some sort of criminal, and the employer prods the authorities into arresting and prosecuting the employee, but for some reason there turns out to be no basis for criminal charges, the employee may turn around and sue the employer for maliciously prosecuting him or her. If an employee is suspected of wrongdoing, and under the circumstances it would be appropriate to get law enforcement involved, it would be best to simply report to the law enforcement authorities whatever the problem is and make various information available to them. If such information happens to include the names of employees who may have material knowledge of a crime, those employees cannot file a valid complaint that they were maliciously prosecuted – it is not malicious prosecution to simply furnish factual information to the police and let the chips fall where they may.

Invasion of Privacy

The common-law tort of invasion of privacy consists of the disclosure of private facts about a person. There are two main elements to invasion of privacy:

* the information contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts about a person's private affairs such
that its release would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person; and
* the information is of no legitimate concern to the third parties to whom the information was released.

Thus, since investigations often reveal highly intimate or embarrassing facts about people, especially in the case of sexual harassment, the information must be kept completely confidential by the employer and all who are involved in the investigation.

Methodology for Investigations

Steps Common to Any Investigation
Knowing When You Need an Investigation
Goals of an Investigation
Who Makes the Best Investigator?
Identify Witnesses and Documents
Organize a List of Questions
Interviewing Techniques

A company has many different ways of conducting investigations. Sometimes, as noted above, a company might utilize searches or drug tests to investigate a suspected problem. It might also try monitoring of telephone calls or of an employee's use of the company's computer system or Internet access, or else video surveillance of certain areas of the workplace. Finally, use of more traditional means such as interviews by investigators and background checks by government agencies and private companies may be in order. Telephone, audio, and video monitoring issues and background checks are discussed in more detail in this book in the articles dealing with employee privacy rights (see "Employee Privacy Rights And Identity Theft" and "Monitoring Company Computers And The Internet"). The rest of this paper will focus on the use of company investigators in conducting workplace investigations.

Steps Common to Any Investigation

As noted at the start of this paper, companies must be prepared to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation anytime an employee alleges wrongdoing by the company or by another employee. Being able to show that a prompt and thorough investigation was done may make the difference between winning and losing before the EEOC or a court.

A company must:

* recognize when an investigation is in order;
* decide what the investigation should establish, such as whether a particular person experienced
harassment or whether a set of computer files has been deleted;
* select appropriate investigators;
* identify potential witnesses and documents for review;
* plan the investigation (best to have a written plan);
* organize a list of questions to be asked of witnesses;
* establish security for files and records; and
* be prepared to modify and update the plan as needed based on new information that might come in
as the investigation progresses.

Knowing When You Need an Investigation

One of the most important skills in managing a workforce is knowing when an investigation is in order. Here are some situations that generally call for investigations:

* an employee files a formal complaint or grievance
* an employee reports a questionable situation, but says he or she does not want to make any trouble
* an employee's morale, behavior, or performance mysteriously declines
* an employee is suspected of misconduct
* any violation of a rule

Goals of an Investigation

The main goal of any investigation is to provide a sound, factual basis for decisions by management. The investigation should also produce reliable documentation that can be used to support management actions. Finally, an investigation of employees should reveal whether any misconduct has occurred, identify (or exonerate) specific employees who are suspected or guilty of misconduct, and put a stop to further wrongful actions.

Who Makes the Best Investigator?

Choosing the right investigator or investigation team is critically important. The investigator has to be someone who is credible, respected, regarded as fair and impartial, and knowledgeable about company policies and employment law issues. In addition, they need to have good interviewing skills, be well-organized and able to develop and follow a plan, and be able to communicate well with the various types of employees who will be interviewed. Finally, the company should consider how well the investigator will stand up in court if called upon to testify in a lawsuit, and whether the investigator can be safely trusted with all the confidential things that will come up during the process.

The best investigators are often from the human resources staff, but sometimes high-level managers may need to be brought in or associated with the investigation, if it appears that someone with more clout will get better cooperation from potential witnesses such as other management staff. In some situations, it may be necessary to bring in an outside investigator such as a consultant or attorney, if the situation requires the utmost in confidentiality. Finally, when technical issues are involved, such as the existence or deletion of computer files, experts in technical matters may need to take part.

Identify Witnesses and Documents

The company must move quickly to determine who knows what about which aspect of the situation under investigation. Keep in mind that waiting too long might mean that potential witnesses leave the company, become intimidated or otherwise influenced, forget important details, or go on vacation and are thus unavailable when needed. Knowing who the witnesses are is necessary for the scheduling of witnesses, and the order of interviews can make a big difference in the development of the facts. Always be ready to add to the witness list if other names come up during the investigation.

Equally important is identifying which documents will be needed. Memos, time cards, policies, personnel files, journals, and logs must be found and secured. Nothing is worse than discovering that certain documents are needed, then finding out that the documents have been shredded or otherwise purged as part of a routine procedure.

Organize a List of Questions

Any good investigator who is planning to interview witnesses will sit down beforehand and make a list of questions that must be answered for the type of investigation being done. Each situation demands different questions, since the elements of each problem are rarely the same. Generally, each witness will need to answer questions relating to what they saw, when they saw it, who else was there, why something happened (if known), what happened next, and so on. However, some witnesses will know a lot more than others, which is why the employer needs to be prepared to customize the questions asked of certain people. The investigator needs to have a talent for thinking of new questions on the spot to follow up on information as the witness gives it.

Interviewing Techniques

This step is, of course, what many people have in mind when they think of workplace investigations. Following is a list of things that successful investigators do in order to have the best chance of getting all the relevant information within a reasonable amount of time:

* start the interviews soon after the situation arises – delay can cause witnesses and documents to
* hold individual interviews to uphold confidentiality and minimize peer pressure
* maintain objectivity
* take good notes, or record if appropriate (it is best to be up-front about the recording, even though
Texas law does not require that)
* hold the interview in a private, quiet location
* never promise absolute confidentiality (because the company may have to release documents and
names of witnesses due to legal requirements), but go ahead and tell witnesses that the company
will do its utmost to protect employees' privacy unless forced by a court or agency order to do
* keep the interview on track
* do not interrupt witnesses while they are coming out with relevant information
* start out with general questions, then graduate to more closely-focused questions to pin witnesses
down on the details
* repeat important questions, but with different wording, to see whether the witness sticks with the
same answer
* avoid confrontational or accusatory questions
* pay attention to witnesses' body language
* use silence after a question as a technique to encourage reticent witnesses to start talking – people
often feel a need to "fill in" periods of silence
* be ready with follow-up questions if needed

Putting It All Together

Since the main goals of an investigation are to produce a reliable set of facts for a decision and to reach a conclusion, the investigator will eventually have to tie all the various facts and documents together and show what it all means. Sometimes, the investigator only reports the facts to a higher manager, and other times, the investigator will be asked to go beyond that and recommend an action for management to take. Whatever the mandate, however, the report should contain a description of the situation at issue, list the witnesses and documents used as evidence, summarize the information from each document and witness, make an assessment of the credibility of each piece of evidence and describe how it relates to the elements of the alleged problem, and make findings of fact on each element of the alleged offense or violation. If a recommendation is needed, it should follow the findings of fact.

All in all, if the investigator has done his or her job right, the company should have a solid basis for taking action and defending itself against claims of inaction and unfair treatment. Done properly, investigations will either keep an employer out of court, or else enable the employer to worry a little bit less about the outcome.

Workplace Investigations - Who Should Conduct The Investigation?

In determining who should conduct a workplace investigation, the nature of the conduct alleged, the persons accused, and persons available with the necessary level of investigation training and experience must be considered. The investigator must be fair and impartial with respect to the issues and the parties. Common choices in the selection of an investigator include human resources personnel, attorneys, outside consultants, and law enforcement personnel. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

Human Resources: HR personnel will likely be familiar with the employees involved and have extensive knowledge of the employer's policies, practices and culture. However the openness of communication could be impeded and cause a fear of retaliation.

Attorneys: Attorneys will likely be aware of legal boundaries, but may or may not be a good investigator or interviewer. They also may be unfamiliar with the employer's policies, practices and culture. An attorney may be more useful as an overseer of the entire investigative process.

Outside Consultant: An outside consultant may appear more objective and neutral than insiders, particularly if upper management is accused. There is also less risk of a confidentiality breach. However, as with attorneys, an outside consultant may not be familiar with the employer's policies, practices, and culture.

Law Enforcement Personnel: A law enforcement personnel must provide Miranda warnings and other constitutional protections to the accused. Also, the employer looses a great deal of investigative control when using law enforcement personnel. Lack of familiarity or interest in the organization's policies, practices, and culture could be considered a negative. Plus, due to a reasonable doubt standard of proof, there may be a need to impose higher investigative standards than necessary.

Whoever is selected to investigate, it should be someone who:

* understands the purpose of the investigation,
* appreciates the legal and practical issues,
* knows the employer's practices, policies, and culture,
* has good interviewing skills,
* is credible, respected and impartial,
* would be effective as a witness,
* is able to maintain confidentiality,
* pays attention to detail, resolves inconsistencies, addresses all open issues and prepares good
documentation, and
* can weigh competing and conflicting information, make a recommendation to the decision make and
support it.

And finally, a good investigator is someone who can execute the plan but is flexible enough to adapt to the twists and turns that arise during workplace investigations.

November 30, 2005
When and How to Conduct Workplace Investigations

Knowing when and how to perform an investigation are two critical components for employers to avoid litigation and other problems regarding workplace misconduct, such as harassment.

Employers must conduct an investigation whenever they are put on notice of possible misconduct, and the investigations must be effective and thorough, according to Rebecca Speer, founder of Speer Associates, and Dawn J. Groman Darringer, a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, who recently presented the BLR audio conference "Workplace Investigations: Responding to Employee Complaints and Addressing Misconduct."

Speer, who has conducted investigations for a wide variety of companies, said employers must initiate an investigation even if the complaint is informal "venting" by employees, arguing that employers shouldn't wait until they receive a formal complaint to begin an investigation. By then, it could be too late to head off problems.

Darringer agreed that even an informal complaint triggers the employer's responsibility to investigate possible misconduct. Speer added that in general, an investigation should proceed even if the complainant is uncooperative.

Darringer noted that adequate training for supervisors and employees is important for employees to understand the definition of harassment (and other forms of misconduct) and the company's responsibility in responding to complaints.

She said that the employer's response to complaints is an important factor in the complainant's decision of whether to file a lawsuit.

The two experts also offered tips on ensuring that workplace investigations are thorough, a factor that courts examine when evaluating an employer's response to complaints.

Speer said the person who conducts the investigation should be able to act objectively with no stake in the outcome. The person should also be skilled. The investigator should also have the right temperament, including good interpersonal skills to build rapport with the complainant and witnesses. She added that the person should be respected within the organization so his or her conclusions carry weight. This person should follow through on the investigation and avoid cutting it short or forming conclusions before it is complete.

She said that employers may have to use an outside investigator if the organization lacks the requisite skills or time to conduct an investigation or the person accused of misconduct is high up in the organization.

When planning an investigation, the investigator should frame the issue and build the framework of the investigation, including what questions must be answered during the investigation. The investigator should create a prospective witness list, identify additional sources of information and evidence, and decide how he or she will preserve evidence (such as e-mails) and how the investigator will retain notes from interviews with witnesses.

Darringer said that investigators should ensure that their notes from interviews are dated, have as much information to be most helpful to the investigation, and indicate the duration of the interview. Speer added that the notes should be as factual as possible.

When conducting interviews, investigators should set up ground rules, describe the process to interviewees, and explain the need for confidentiality, Speer recommended.

After the investigation is completed, there are several actions that should be taken, according to Darringer. The employer/HR should:

* Make a determination (may be with the advice of counsel).
* Inform the parties of the outcome.
* Take prompt action to remedy any inappropriate conduct.
* Penalize the harasser (the penalty should be adequate for the misconduct)
* Remedy any loss of tangible job benefit suffered by the victim.
* Consider education

When informing parties of the outcome, it is important to preserve confidentiality but also let the complainant know that the company took the complaint seriously and took appropriate action, according to the two experts.

View more resources on Complaints and Investigations

October 23, 2007
10 Steps to an Effective Investigation

Failure to properly investigate wrongdoing in the workplace can be costly. In cases of theft or fraud, it's important to investigate to stop property losses. And in cases of alleged discrimination, a prompt investigation is critical. It's important to stop any inappropriate behavior and to prevent increased legal liability for the employer. But without some reference points, it's hard for employers to know how to prepare for and conduct an effective investigation.

At the annual labor and employment seminar presented by the law firm of Carmody & Torrance, LLP, attorneys Nick Zaino and Howard Levine outlined a step-by-step process to assist employers in conducting workplace investigations. Because each workplace situation presents a unique set of facts, Zaino and Levine warned employers against applying the process in a "cookie cutter" manner. Instead, employers can use the following ten steps as a general guide:

Step 1: Determine whether an investigation is necessary. Some federal laws require employers to conduct an investigation following a complaint of wrongdoing. Title VII, health and safety laws, and whistleblower laws are some examples. Even if an employee complains but then asks an employer not to take action, it's usually better to investigate to avoid liability than have to explain why an investigation wasn't conducted. The decision can depend on the seriousness of the allegations, the number of employees involved, and whether the full extent of the wrongdoing is known.

Step 2: Determine whether interim relief is necessary. Taking action before the investigation is complete may be necessary for health or safety reasons, or in situations that are very disruptive or emotionally charged. Temporary transfers, reassignments, or paid leave are examples of interim relief employers can use when necessary.

Step 3: Determine who should conduct the investigation. Generally, it's better if the investigator is someone not too closely involved in the situation (e.g., if an employee complains about co-worker harassment, it may be better not to have their supervisor conduct the investigation). Having two investigators is often helpful so that one person can take notes during witness interviews and the other can focus on questions and follow-up inquiries. The second investigator can also serve as a witness to confirm events or statements that occurred during the interviews.

Step 4: Preserve, obtain, and review all relevant documents. Investigators should ask witnesses if they have any relevant documents, including e-mails, expense reports, notes, surveillance camera tapes, and personnel documents. It's better to find out all the facts during the investigation than to be surprised by information that surfaces later during a lawsuit. Employers also need to be mindful of new federal rules that require employers to preserve electronic information that may be relevant to a lawsuit.

Step 5: Review potential legal issues. Employers should know whether the investigation is required by law. Once the legal issues are outlined, the investigation can be tailored to obtain relevant information. Employers may want to contact their legal counsel to make sure they've considered all areas of potential liability.

Step 6: Determine time and place to conduct investigation. The investigation should start promptly after the alleged problem is discovered or reported. Interviews should be held in a private area where witnesses feel comfortable about disclosing information. Obtaining as much relevant information as possible will help employers get a complete picture of the facts. For this reason, employers should consider conducting interviews away from the company premises.

Step 7: Interview individuals with knowledge of facts. It's a good idea to prepare talking points and interview questions in advance so that there's thorough coverage of the issues. The prepared materials can also serve as good documentary evidence of the investigation. Generally, it makes sense to start the interviews with the complaining employee to understand the problem and determine the scope of the investigation. Employers can request ­ but should not require ­ a written complaint or statement from the complaining employee. A written statement can help avoid problems if the person's story starts to change as events unfold. Next, investigators should talk with the accused wrongdoer and anyone who has any relevant information. A good approach is to ask open-ended questions that invite a person to provide information, listen carefully to the responses, and follow up with narrower questions. It's important to remember to ask each person to provide any related documents they have, including e-mails and other electronic documents.

Step 8: Prepare an investigation report. After carefully documenting the facts gathered during the interviews, the investigation report should summarize what happened, identify relevant policies and procedures, provide important factual findings, analyze inconsistent or conflicting information, and conclude by indicating any necessary corrective action. Employers should keep in mind that all the documents they create during the investigation may be subject to discovery if there's a subsequent lawsuit.

Step 9: Take appropriate action. Any corrective action needed should be tailored to the specific situation. Appropriate action can include: training, disciplinary action, creating new policies, or revising existing policies.

Step 10: Follow up. It's a good idea to follow-up with employees to let them know that the company took the complaint seriously and conducted a thorough investigation. Do not, however, disclose any corrective action taken against the wrongdoer ­ that's private personnel information. Document the follow-up meetings and encourage employees to immediately report any additional claims or retaliation.

Effective workplace investigations can help employers address a problem early on and avoid costly losses. Taking the time to prepare for and conduct a thorough investigation will go a long way in helping employers avoid liability, improve employee morale, and keep their work environments productive.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation