Investigating Workplace Violence Where Do You Start

September 3, 1999
Issue: You’ve just received the unsettling news that one of your employees physically attacked another employee, causing him serious injuries. You want to initiate an investigation, but you’re not sure where to begin or what the investigation should entail. What do you do?

Answer: The short answer is to conduct an investigation that is thorough, well documented, objective, prompt, confidential, and well organized. Ultimately, however, you need a game plan—a good strategy that will ensure you’ve covered all the bases. To that end, consider the following ten steps:

Step One: Decide who should conduct the investigation.
This is a critical decision that requires several considerations, and should be made well in advance of any incident. The investigator should be objective, experienced in investigations, and should make a credible witness in case the incident results in legal action. In addition, an investigator should have "people skills," i.e., a talent for getting people to open up and candidly tell what happened.

Step Two: Review company policies.
In the scenario described above, the company’s workplace violence policy should be consulted. Be sure to follow any procedures and safeguard any rights established in the policy.

Step Three: Identify any potential witnesses.
This aspect of the investigation can be a bit murky, as both parties may request that you interview numerous witnesses to buttress their positions. List all potential witnesses in order of priority, beginning with eyewitnesses and supervisors. Should you interview every person identified by the parties? That is a judgment call. It is not always practical to interview everyone, so you have to consider how valuable the person’s testimony would be.

Step Four: Gather and review documents.
Documents to look for in an inquiry may encompass a number of written materials, including previous complaints, incident reports, company policies, police reports, witness statements, personnel files, time cards, and even expense reports. In short, review all relevant documents.

Step Five: Identify the issues to be investigated.
The person conducting the investigation must ask, "What are we talking about here?" In the scenario above, the answer is straightforward: Workplace violence. But the investigator should keep in mind that new issues may arise as the investigation progresses. Be sure to follow up.

Step Six: Prepare your investigation strategy.
A good strategy involves structuring the interviews in a way that will maximize the amount of information you discover. Ask yourself, "Who do you want to talk to first—and why?" Generally, the person bringing the complaint and the person accused are good places to start in a workplace violence case. The investigator should also consider beginning with the person who is most likely to "spill the beans."

Step Seven: Take interim steps.
It’s perfectly acceptable to suspend someone pending an investigation, especially in cases where the employer suspects a threat to health and safety. The person allegedly posing such a threat should be suspended.

Step Eight: Prepare interview questions.
The investigator should always prepare the questions in advance. Know what questions you want to ask and how you want the interview to develop. The interviewer should begin with broad-based questions to put the person at ease and gradually get around to asking the critical questions.

Step Nine: Anticipate questions.
The interviewer should also try to think of any questions that will arise from the other person’s perspective.

Step Ten: Prepare opening and closing statements.
The advantage to having a prepared opening and closing is to be sure that certain areas are covered with each person interviewed. You want to remind each person of the company policies involved, that the allegations are taken seriously by the company, and that the company will conduct a thorough and prompt investigation. You also want to "keep the door open"—let each person know to come back and see you if anything new comes up.

Cite: Presentation by Charles L. Thompson IV, a partner with the San Francisco law firm of Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos & Rudy.

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The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.