The possibility of errors is present in every employment investigation; after all, as long as there is human involvement in any way, errors are possible. Employers need to be mindful of that risk, and take deliberate action to limit errors as much as possible.
The true cost of committing an error can go far beyond the additional time and resources needed to clean up after the fact; companies may face legal action, reputation harm and other consequences long after the investigation has been concluded.
Avoidable Errors in Workplace Investigations
At a threshold level, organizations need to have a formal process in place for employees to report alleged misconduct, and for those allegations to be addressed swiftly and consistently. Without that, HR or senior leadership may not even become aware of a potential issue until it’s become a much larger, and more costly, problem.
However, even with a formal reporting process in place, companies still make avoidable mistakes in the course of investigations.
Failing to plan
Companies that dive into an investigation immediately may feel they’re doing the right thing by not wasting any time. While it’s important to take prompt action after learning of allegations of wrongdoing, it’s just as important to put some careful thought into the investigation before beginning. Identify things like:
How many investigators should be involved, and who should take the lead on the investigation. Choosing an internal investigator may lead to witnesses who aren’t as open or willing to disclose their experience or observations for fear of being the victims of bias in the investigation. An external investigator may also be more objective, as what they hear and learn isn’t clouded by their experiences and history with the alleged wrongdoer, victim and/or witnesses. Investigators should not have direct or indirect ties to any of the people or situation involved in the investigation.
Identifying all potential witnesses who may be able to shed light on the alleged incident(s). For an investigation to be worthwhile, it has to be thorough enough to uncover the truth. When an investigation is conducted in a haphazard manner, key information may fall through the cracks leading to an incorrect or inappropriate resolution. If an interview with one witness identifies someone else who may have relevant information, there should be a process in place to document that finding and to follow up with that new witness.
Waiting too long to start or finish an investigation
Taking prompt action (after careful planning!) is critical. Waiting too long to start or dragging out an investigation unnecessarily can send the unintentional message that the alleged wrongdoing isn’t really egregious after all. This affects not only the alleged wrongdoer, but the victim and witnesses as well, who may lose confidence in the process, and in their employer’s commitment to finding out the truth.
Employers who make the mistake of promising complainants or witnesses that the results of interviews or other investigatory findings will be confidential can end up in hot water. Of course, investigators cannot promise absolute confidentiality, so it’s best to make sure witnesses know you’ll only discuss findings with those who have a legitimate need to know that information.
While expecting perfection from every investigation probably isn’t realistic, when companies approach investigations deliberately, they’re less likely to end up making avoidable mistakes. This, in turn, can result in both immediate and long-term cost savings.