Investigations are one of the toughest parts of working in HR, because you have to work between very fine boundaries and there is always going to be someone upset with the result, no matter how gently you tread. In the various investigations I’ve been a part of, I have picked up some tips and tricks that help to make the process more smooth. No matter the result, if you know you’ve done your best and have given the most definitive answer possible, then that’s pretty much the only way you’ll have a satisfied feeling after you close the books.

I still vividly remember one of the first serious investigations I was a part of. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Employee comes to you claiming she is being harassed by a supervisor. The only witness is the best friend and coworker of the employee. The employee has been having consistent performance issues for some time and was on the verge of a performance improvement plan at the time of report.

So, how do you proceed? It’s a tricky road, especially since the employee is also a military reservist and the manager has voiced complaints about her service in the past…

The Benefits of Investigations

I do want to say this. While it’s not all roses and candy canes, there are some positive benefits of investigations worth noting:

  • Doing it properly and impartially helps to defend the company against litigation
  • Doing it fairly and quickly helps employees to see that the process and people involved are trustworthy

Again, not pleasant, but definitely worthwhile.

The Top Five Investigation Mistakes

I’ve seen many investigations go wrong, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s walk through the top five mistakes I see and how to counteract them.

  1. Delayed action
  2. Poor planning
  3. Retaliation
  4. Lack of follow up
  5. Losing objectivity

Delaying is a problem, because unlike your favorite pair of yoga pants this doesn’t get better with time. Whatever your reason for delay, get over it and get to work. Too busy you say? How would you like to explain a $95 million judgment to your boss? Yeah, I thought so. Move this to the top of your list, get to work, and get it done.

Planning is an issue. Most inexperienced HR pros freeze when the investigation hits their desk. But the pros know that following the plan/process is the fastest and most painless way to get through. Taking a little time to put together a simple plan will not only help to improve the results and reduce your stress–it will also help to make sure you are consistent across a variety of investigations, topics, etc.

Retaliation is a huge problem. The EEOC is trying to determine new guidelines regarding this issue. I always start every investigation with a clear message to everyone involved: retaliation will not be tolerated by anyone throughout the entire process, whatever the result turns out to be.

Lack of follow up can be another hangup. It’s tough to make sure you touch base with everyone after the fact, because you know that as soon as you file that report with the right people you have to get back to the work that has been stacking up on your desk since you started the investigation. Even if you can’t share results with the people involved, at least let them know when you wrap it up. And you do create and file a written report for each investigation, right?

Finally, losing objectivity is my Achilles heel. There are two sides to this that get to me. The first is trying to remain objective despite obvious and outrageous evidence presented at the outset. It’s hard to assume that someone is innocent until proven guilty, but you need to ingrain that into your thought process. Secondly, if someone becomes emotional it’s very easy to want to comfort and share your own opinions, but that doesn’t help anyone. Keep a lid on it.

Bottom line: we all have issues. Still, it’s up to you to help make sure your organization isn’t blindsided by something that could have been addressed in its early stages.

What interesting, weird, or crazy investigations have you carried out? Any tips to share? 

I was talking with one of our employees recently and was quite surprised to learn that they did not realize the importance of reporting participation in an outside investigation. Many of our staff members are located on customer sites, geographically remote from the corporate office. Therefore, if they don’t notify us of an investigation, we have no way of knowing about it. I can remember two instances of this coming up in the past year or two–once handled poorly and once handled well.

Oh, I forgot…

One day I was speaking with an employee about some minute detail (address changes or something equally innocuous) and they casually mentioned responding to someone’s questions about a fellow coworker. After doing some digging, I realized that the employee had been a witness in an investigation by an outside entity to determine if another person in the workplace had done something illegal/unethical. I asked if they had considered reporting that to corporate or the HR office, and the response was fairly typical.

“Oh, I was going to, but I forgot.” 

Sigh. Oh, well. It is what it is, right? So I told them the following story as a reminder for how to handle it next time.

Let me check…

On another customer site, our staff works side by side with other companies supplying contractors for the customer. One day a contractor in the office blew his top. It was the usual yelling, cursing, and general mayhem that accompanies someone under too much pressure. The employee was sent home for the day, and the following day brought with it an investigatory team to determine what had occurred. Being in the office, our employee was naturally asked about the incident. Before he responded or gave a statement, he dropped the golden phrase:

“Let me check with my HR guys first just to make sure it’s okay.” 

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Now, HR doesn’t need to be consulted every time you have to sneeze (that’s a great way to waste time at work), but for something like this that could affect someone’s employment status, it doesn’t hurt to let us in on what’s going on. If there is a possibility that an angry person could come back and cause some level of workplace violence, then it definitely needs to be on our radar.

Just remember: When in doubt, let HR check it out. 

Ever had an employee participate in an outside investigation and have it backfire on you? I’d like to hear how you handled it.