By Deb Muller, on April 7, 2020
As a human resources professional, it is probably the phone call or office visit you dread the most. When an employee calls to allege serious misconduct by a co-worker, workplace investigations certainly follow. And for most employee-related events, the workplace investigation process would not be complete without an investigation interview.
For workplace investigations, interviews are crucial to a fair outcome. Done correctly, they can uncover essential information and corroborate a co-worker’s account of wrongdoing. Performed poorly, they can lead to serious consequences for a company, including substantial damage, back pay awards or even full reinstatement of an employee.
Investigation interviews can also be uncomfortable or intimidating for employees who fear retaliation should they report the misconduct in the first place. According to the 2018 EEOC report, retaliation remains the most frequently filed charge with the agency – making up 51.6% of all of the charges filed in 2018.
So the question is, do you know how to conduct an investigation in the workplace that includes a well laid-out interview process? To take advantage of the powerful fact-finding value implicit in a well-conducted interview, here are six essential best practices for workplace investigation interviews:
6 Best Practices for Conducting Fair HR Investigations
1. Follow a standard HR investigation timeline
To thoroughly and accurately ascertain the facts of any employee misconduct allegation, human resources or the professional assigned to do the investigation interview will need to interview both the employee making the accusation and the employee accused of misconduct. In addition, the investigator must also determine if there are any witnesses — if there are, they must interview them as well.
Interview chronology matters, too. Investigators should thoughtfully consider the order in which they conduct their interviews. As a general rule of thumb, Jessica Walberg of Ford & Harrison, LLP recommends interviewing the complainant, harasser, witnesses and then finally the complainant again in Solving the Mystery Behind Conducting a “Flawless” Workplace Investigation – An HR Attorney’s Perspective. However, every situation is unique and will need to be assessed relative to the act of misconduct.
2. Explain to the person why they are being interviewed
Before the interview begins, the person conducting the interview must inform the interviewee why they are being interviewed along with the nature of the complaint. In general, it is not appropriate, or advisable, to provide a witness with specifics regarding the allegation. Let the employee know that you will be asking questions related to an incident in the workplace, but may not be able to provide complete details to ensure confidentiality for all involved.
When interviewing the accused, you may choose to hold off telling the interviewee that they are the subject of the complaint until later questioning. However, it is important that the subject of an investigation is provided an opportunity to give his or her side of the story. Doing so will require that complete details regarding the allegation are provided. Remember that a workplace investigation interview is a fact-finding exercise and the interviewer is primarily asking questions and listening — not providing information to the interviewee.
Access our most recent Employee Experience Survey to learn how employees feel about the handling of HR investigations in the workplace.
3. Adhere to your company’s HR investigation protocol
Every organization should have HR policies and procedures that clearly outline a workplace investigation protocol. Sometimes those guidelines will specify requirements for an investigation interview. Typically, only certain HR professionals or managers are deemed qualified, and therefore, permitted to conduct an investigation interview. Internal investigations must adhere to company guidelines; before any interviews are conducted, all relevant workplace investigation protocols must be identified and followed.
Download our interview protocols checklist.
4. Don’t delay the investigation process
If the employee making the misconduct allegation chooses to pursue the claim legally, the courts will evaluate the timeline of the workplace investigation and whether interviews were conducted in a timely manner. I discuss the importance of timing in Workplace Investigations: Timing Can be Everything. The goal of conducting timely interviews is to ensure that the parties are able to remember the facts as accurately and detailed as possible. If either the complainant or accuser involved in the misconduct allegation is away for a planned absence or holiday, HR should ensure that interviews are scheduled promptly after the person’s return, and the reasons for the delay should be documented.
5. Ask the right HR investigation questions
Within workplace investigations, the interview process must be unbiased with both parties being treated in a similar manner. It is not uncommon for employees to perceive HR professionals as working to a certain outcome that is favorable to the company, and this belief can skew their views of the legitimacy of the workplace investigation process – and the trustworthiness of their HR overall. Using a consistent process demonstrates that a structured process is in place by your organization to deal with these situations in a fair and credible way.
Start by reviewing the process, what they should expect regarding things like no retaliation and timing, as well as what the company expects from the interviewees, such as candor and professionalism. In a recent HR Acuity Employee Relations and Workplace Investigation Survey, a key finding was that it is not just about the workplace investigation process but the perception of the process.
Human resources can develop a standard list of investigation questions that should be asked during investigation interviews. Core interview questions can ensure thorough fact-finding and an equitable approach to the interviewees. The interviewer can, and should, ask additional questions. Creating a standard list will help ensure that the right questions don’t go unanswered.
Impartially conduct your HR investigation with our step-by-step guide on important workplace investigation questions.
6. Document the findings from your investigation
The person conducting the interview should take thorough notes and document both the key findings and responses from the interview. The written summary should also include the date and location of the interview as well as the titles and roles of the participants. As important, the notes must be legible, ideally in an Employee Relations software solution. Indicate the fact-finding protocols that were followed and demonstrate a logical progression to the interview.
As you likely already know as an HR professional, workplace investigations are simply a fact of corporate life. Carried out poorly, the corporate consequences, liabilities, and damage to an organization’s reputation can be huge. An important motivation for HR should be the desire by company management to ensure fair investigation outcomes for valued employees – creating a better workplace for all.
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Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.