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How to Prepare for an Investigation

July 1, 1999
Related Topics: Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
Think there might be something awry in your organization—secrets slipping, cash disappearing?

If you're not sure, you may want to investigate—or you may not. Labor and employment law attorneys Wendi J. Kemp and Jay E. Bovilsky recommend you take these steps before launching full speed ahead into an investigation:

  • Determine the purpose of the investigation.
    Why are you taking this step? Has someone filed charges? Has there been a report of a safety violation? Do you suspect an employee is using drugs or alcohol on the job? Is it possible that someone will be disciplined or fired as a result of the investigation? What do you need to know? Answers to questions such as these will help you shape the scope of your investigation and lay the groundwork for how the investigation should be conducted.
  • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of the investigation.
    On the positive site, an investigation can help you develop a thorough record of facts on which you can base a decision. On the negative side, an investigation will eat up time and, if you hire an outside investigator, money. Furthermore, you may open up a veritable Pandora's box. What appeared to be a small, isolated problem can quickly grow into a larger problem that causes dissension in the workplace and leads to legal exposure.

Certainly, you should never forego investigating an allegation of wrongdoing for fear of what will be uncovered. But anticipating and understanding the repercussions that the action may cause can help determine the shape the investigation should take, as well as the personnel and/or resources that should be devoted to the task.

  • Select the proper investigator.
    Who is the appropriate person to handle the investigation? An HR person? A supervisor? The safety manager? An in-house or external legal advisor? If you want to have the investigation—and any documents generated for the investigation—protected by attorney/client privilege, you'll want your legal adviser to guide the investigation.

The person you select to undertake the investigation should be neutral and have excellent interviewing skills to help him or her get accurate answers to the right questions. This person should be familiar with company policies and practices, understand the need for confidentiality, and have excellent follow-up skills.

  • Plan the investigation.
    Identify everyone you will want to speak with before beginning the interview process. You should also rule out those individuals with whom you do not want to talk. By narrowing your field to only those people you are relatively certain will have information about the situation, you will lessen the effect the investigation will have on your workforce as a whole.

Decide also what physical evidence you will need for your investigation. Are you looking for notes, records, files, receipts or other documents? Do you need to examine a specific physical area for evidence or to confirm information you already have?

  • Prepare a strategy for the investigation.
    Once you know whom you want to talk with and what facts you need to assemble, you should plan your strategy. What's the best way to gather this information? Plan carefully so that your investigation will bring the truth to light, with minimum disruption to the workforce.
  • Prepare an outline of questions.
    Asking each person the same questions will ensure that you are gathering consistent information. You'll have a consistent record that will enable you to compare different responses to the same set of questions, which will make decision-making easier for everyone involved.

In addition, be sure your questions are open-ended. Instead of asking "Did you see this employee driving a forklift erratically?" say "I hear there was an accident involving a forklift in your area. What did you see?"

  • Establish secure files and records.
    Designate a secure and private room to file the information from the investigation as you gather it. Do not keep information compiled during an investigation in personnel files. Keep a separate, confidential file specifically for investigation materials.
  • Review the investigation plan.
    Before you start your investigation process, review your plan to be sure you've covered all the bases. As your investigation proceeds, review the plan regularly to be certain you are staying on track. This will give you the opportunity to amend your plan if necessary as you learn more.

Remember, a methodical and reasoned investigation will most likely lead to a reasonable decision.

Source: Excerpted with permission from Termination Without Consequences. Copyright 1998 by the Bureau of Business Practice, Waterford, CT. (800) 243-0876, ext. 236.

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