Anytime an employee makes a workplace complaint, that complaint should be taken seriously and acted on without delay. In fact, a number of federal and state laws require an employer to conduct an immediate investigation. Just as no two complaints are ever identical, neither are any two investigations carried out in exactly the same manner. Nevertheless, there are some common steps that should be taken when investigating all workplace complaints, including:
- Document and report the complaint. Complaints often originate with an immediate supervisor. If you receive a complaint, the first thing you should do is to document the complaint and then immediately report the complaint to Human Resources or to the individual/office responsible for investigating complaints. This applies whether the complaint was an informal verbal complaint or a formal written complaint.
- Decide if any immediate action needs to be taken. Some complaints warrant immediate remedial action to prevent the possibility of further damage or harm. For example, if the complaint alleges that an employee sexually assaulted the complainant, you may need to suspend the accused employee immediately while you conduct your investigation.
- Determine if you need to hire outside council. Hiring an external investigator is a smart way to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Factors such as the size of the company, the severity of the allegations, and the employees involved in the complaint may be considered when deciding if an outside investigator is warranted.
- Interview the complainant. You should already have a written complaint on file; however, you need to conduct a face to face interview with the complainant. Listen for inconsistencies between the written and verbal versions of events and ask any additional questions not answered in the written complaint.
- Interview witnesses. At a bare minimum, this will include an interview with the employee accused of wrongdoing. It may also include additional witnesses identified by the complainant or the accused. Be sure to document your interviews.
- Gather evidence. This may involve things such as viewing security camera images, reviewing documents, or employing an expert to examine an employee’s computer.
- Review and evaluate the testimony and evidence. Once you are satisfied that you have talked to everyone with relevant information and gathered all the available evidence, take the time necessary to review all of it together, and evaluate the file as a whole. At this point, you should have reached a conclusion as to whether the complainant’s allegations are actionable or not.
- Take any necessary action. If your investigation does not substantiate the allegations in the complaint, the parties involved in the investigation should be notified of your conclusion. If you reached the conclusion that wrongdoing did occur, appropriate action should be taken. That could include anything from a verbal reprimand to termination and referral to the appropriate law enforcement agency for criminal charges.
- Document your conclusions. While you may choose to verbally explain your findings to the complainant and/or accused, documenting your findings in writing is crucial. Remember that your decision may not be the end of the matter. If either party decides to pursue further legal action, your written documentation showing that you conducted a thorough investigation may be crucial.
- Follow-up. Follow-up is always an important final step. If you concluded that wrongdoing occurred, check to see that it has stopped. Talk to the complainant and the accused. In addition, if the investigation uncovered any company-wide problems, such as a lack of training or confusion over procedures, be sure to check with management to see if those problems have been remedied.
At Ablin law, we provide professional, confidential workplace investigations for employers and law firms. Please contact us for more information.