The Eye’s in Investigations

The recent events in Washington surrounding the firing of FBI Director, James Comey, raised questions about the intent and integrity of ongoing investigations that the Bureau was actively conducting. While the average workplace investigation will generally not be the same size and scope of a government-led one, there are some similarities.

Intent.  Understand the intent of an investigation. An investigation is a search or examination of the facts that are used to reach a conclusion. It involves detailed inquiries and a systematic approach to gaining information. When an issue is raised involving a potential workplace violation – a violation of an employer’s policy – a thorough and prompt investigation should be conducted.  It should be conducted in a reasonable manner that demonstrates good faith. An investigation is not a witch hunt nor an exercise to justify a pre-determined management action.

Issues. Understand the issue or issues underlying the complaint. People bring many different perceptions to behavior that they observe in the workplace. Words such as harassment or discrimination frequently appear in the public press. If someone complains about discrimination, find out the basis for (e.g. age, race, sex, etc.) and the nature of (e.g. was it failure to promote because of gender, a poor performance appraisal because of race, or retaliation?) the claim.

Integrity. Assure the integrity of the investigator and the process used for conducting the investigation.  In choosing an investigator, consider everyone involved in the situation, including any witnesses. Make sure the potential investigator(s) have no interest in the outcome and can be objective. Have a process in place to conduct the investigation – don’t do it in a haphazard manner. In addition to who needs to be interviewed, consider the timing and sequence of the interviews, evidence that may exist to support the claim, and other internal resources that may need to be involved. Most important, maintain confidentiality of the people and the process.

Interviews. Conduct interviews in accordance with a consistent and thoughtful plan. Interview people directly involved and those with first-hand knowledge. Ask questions that focus on facts – who, what, when, where and why. Conduct the interviews in a confidential setting and in a relaxed manner – stressing that you’re role is to uncover the facts and not assign blame. Control the setting and avoid interruptions and distractions. Treat the interview as you would any other important business meeting. Additional insights about getting to the root of the problem can be found in The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook.

Every investigation is unique and specific to its facts and circumstances. Plan accordingly.

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