When a human resources professional or a supervisor/manager receives a complaint about employee misconduct, conducting a prompt, full, and fair investigation into the matter is important. Doing so will allow the company to make informed decisions about whether disciplinary action is warranted, and can help protect the organization in the event legal action is taken later.
However, it is also critical to approach the investigation in a civil manner, maintaining composure and professionalism from the first communication to the final report. An investigator who forgets this can jeopardize the investigation and land the company in hot water. Those conducting workplace investigations should be mindful of the following points:
1. Maintain neutrality in tone and in questions. The way you ask questions during an investigation interview matters almost as much as the content of the questions themselves. Stick to the facts at hand, and avoid asking interview subjects leading questions – don’t suggest answers to the questions you’re asking. Ask targeted, straightforward questions, and maintain a professional and respectful demeanor throughout the interview. This can be more difficult in some investigations than others, however it’s critical to maintain neutrality at all times.
2. Don’t become aggressive. Investigators need to toe the line between being persistent without becoming aggressive, demeaning or insulting. The person you are interviewing may not treat you with the same respect, however interviewers need to remain calm and level-headed. Positioning yourself too close to a witness, standing over them while they’re seated or other tactics can be seen as intimidation and aggression, even if they weren’t intended that way.
3. Avoid threats. Threats to involve law enforcement, or to take action against a witness for failing to attend an interview or answer questions have no place in the investigation process. It is OK to let a witness know that without their cooperation, you may not have the complete picture and may be forced to draw your own conclusions, however stop short of making threats.
4. Limit the number of people present. It’s OK, and advisable in some cases, to have another person present during interviews, to serve as a witness to the witness’ statements. However, if you have too many people in the room during an interview, the witness may feel intimidated and pressured.
5. Choose a neutral location. Believe it or not, where you conduct workplace investigations matters and can have an impact on the demeanor and candor of your witnesses. Choosing a conference room in the witness’ work area (or in the investigation’s subject’s work area) will only raise tensions and make the interviewee uncomfortable. Remember that the goal of the interview is to get the witness to talk about what they know, candidly. When you choose a neutral spot to conduct the interview, the interview is more likely to be forthcoming, helping to further your investigation.
Maintaining neutrality and professionalism can be tough, especially when the interviewer personally knows and works with the subject of the investigation on a daily basis. By bringing in professional counsel to lead investigations and conduct interviews, companies can ensure workplace investigations are not only full and fair, but also professional and civil – from start to finish.