As former FBI director, James Comey, knows: conducting an investigation is a tricky business. Whether you’re leading the White House Russia Probe or probing into the theft of a ham sandwich from the work fridge, you need to handle investigations delicately to ensure justice is served. Fortunately there are protocols and procedures you can follow that will help you avoid unwanted attention (and ‘fake news’).

A workplace investigation should be carried out whenever allegations of misconduct are raised in the workplace, whether from a manager, a colleague or client. Investigations are necessary for HR Managers or other authorities to establish what happened, and why, so they may take appropriate disciplinary action.

Below are our top three tips for conducting workplace investigations:

  1. Maintain Confidentiality

Handle investigations with sensitivity and try to avoid disclosing information about them to any third parties, including the remainder of your workforce and any customers or clients. The process can be embarrassing or awkward for the employee in question, especially if he or she has not engaged in the alleged behaviour, and it would be unprofessional to share details of the investigation (or even its very existence) with anyone who doesn’t need to know.

Also consider what information you need to divulge to the parties who’re involved in the investigation. While it’s necessary to share some details in the interest of eliciting information – for example, you wouldn’t get very far if you said “someone has accused you of doing something on a particular date” – a large amount of information gathered during an investigation should be kept confidential.

  1. Avoid Bias

Your second professional responsibility is to be impartial. This can be difficult when it comes to office politics. And it’s not enough to merely be impartial, you should also be perceived to be impartial. This means that any staff members involved in the complaint, whether as witnesses, complainants or alleged perpetrators, should not be permitted to conduct the investigation.
If you only have a small team, such that you have no staff members unaffected by the complaint, we recommend you engage an external HR consultancy firm or Special Counsel to perform the investigation on your behalf, reassuring your employees that you take impartiality very seriously.

  1. Be Thorough

We don’t expect law enforcement agencies to cut corners when investigating crimes, and neither should employers. Avoid drawing any conclusions or making decisions about the matter until all the evidence has been analysed. This includes speaking to the alleged perpetrator themselves and allowing them to respond to the allegations.

Comey Tip: record all communications, steps taken and findings of fact, as you may need it as evidence of your process later. The likelihood of a Senate testimony is slim, but you never know…

In Summary…

An unfair investigation could lead to an employee being unfairly dismissed, or (in your mind) fairly dismissed yet leaving you with no defence against a claim for unfair dismissal. And we all know how inconvenient and damaging those claims can be. As we’ve seen in the media recently, workplace investigations are a complex procedure and can be difficult to get right – avoiding a political circus in your workplace is key. If you’re not comfortable conducting your own investigations or would like help to walk you through the process, we encourage you to seek professional advice.

enableHR has tools to assist with recording and documentation during a workplace investigation. If you’re an Australian or NZ business and want to know more about how enableHR could help you in this way, contact us.