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8 Steps to Conducting a Thorough Workplace Investigation

Workplace investigations can be difficult for everyone involved, but they’re essential to maintaining a safe and productive work environment. From workplace safety violations to whistleblower complaints, each type of investigation has its own requirements and challenges. Your human resources team needs to know how to conduct a thorough workplace investigation and when to hire an outside investigator.

Here’s what you need to know about workplace investigations and how you can use automation to streamline the incident reporting and investigation process.

What Is a Workplace Investigation?

A workplace investigation is the process of assessing the accuracy of a complaint and determining the proper response to allegations of workplace misbehavior. A complaint may be directed at an individual employee or at the company itself, as in the case of safety violations and HR compliance issues.

Workplace investigations can be either formal or informal, and can be performed by an outside investigator or conducted by your in-house team. The person who makes the complaint is known as the complainant, and the person accused of misbehavior is called the respondent. Other co-workers may be involved as witnesses.

The goal of a workplace investigation is to address the misbehavior or policy violation, recommend changes to company policies to prevent future incidents, and protect the company from legal liability and reputational damage.

6 Types of Workplace Investigations

There are several different types of incidents that require a proper investigation. Here are six of the most common types of workplace investigations to prepare for:

  • Workplace safety incidents: Workplace safety investigations may be triggered by a work injury, or a complaint about unsafe working conditions. You’ll need to conduct a thorough investigation to apply for workers’ comp and to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) regulations.
  • Abuse or harassment: The U.S. Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) has strict prohibitions on sexual harassment and other forms of abuse directed at co-workers. You may also need to conduct an investigation into workplace violence if an employee gets into an altercation with a customer.
  • Illegal or criminal behavior: Illegal behavior can include anything from illicit drug use at work to outright fraud or embezzlement. Financial crimes may be discovered during an audit, triggering an internal investigation process.
  • Whistleblower reports: Whistleblower reports are complaints made to a third party — often a regulatory body — about illegal behavior in the workplace. A company may undertake a fact-finding mission to get ahead of any external investigations or media reports that could damage its reputation.
  • Workplace discrimination: Allegations of discrimination based on race, gender, age, or another protected class should always be investigated. Accusations of unequal pay and worker misclassification are also increasingly common.
  • FMLA compliance: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of leave per year for certain personal and medical conditions. State laws may provide additional protections. Failure to comply with any of these employment laws could necessitate an internal investigation.

8 Steps to Conducting Workplace Investigations

Workplace investigations: injured employee talking to an investigator

The length and nature of a workplace investigation will vary based on the severity of the complaint. Still, it’s important to have a consistent process to ensure the integrity of the investigation. Here are eight steps to follow to conduct a workplace investigation and achieve a fair and impartial outcome for everyone involved:

1. Set Up a Complaint Process

Ensure you have a system in place for receiving complaints and outline that process in your employee handbook. Employees need to feel comfortable making complaints and be confident that their concerns will be addressed. Provide an option for anonymous complaints for employees who don’t feel comfortable going directly to HR.

You may also have an obligation to launch an investigation if you observe or suspect misconduct, even if no one makes a formal complaint.

2. Decide Whether to Open an Investigation

Not all complaints require an investigation. Minor violations of company policies, such as dress code violations, may be resolved with a warning or disciplinary action. Some safety hazards can be addressed with a corrective action plan.

When do you need to launch an investigation? In short, any time a complaint entails serious misconduct or breaches of employment law.

3. Inform the Respondent

If the complaint has been made against an individual, you’ll need to inform them that they’re the subject of an investigation and explain the investigation plan. For serious accusations, consider putting them on leave while you conduct the investigation.

Don’t reassign the complainant — this may give off the appearance of retaliation. Assure both parties that the investigation will be conducted with discretion and that any documents will be stored separately from their personnel files.

4. Choose an Investigator

Next, decide whether to conduct the investigation in-house or hire a third-party. If you conduct the investigation in-house, choose an investigator with sufficient experience and certifications and who doesn’t have a working relationship with either party.

If you don’t have a suitable investigator or there’s too much at stake, hire an outside investigator or law firm to ensure impartiality.

5. Collect Evidence and Witness Statements

Now, it’s time to begin the investigation itself. Start by collecting relevant documents, including emails, receipts, social media posts, and anything else related to the case. Even phone records and CCTV footage could contain relevant information.

Obtain statements from the complainant and respondent. Interview witnesses who were there when the incident happened or have insight into the case.

6. Assess the Evidence

Once the investigative interviews are complete, review all of the evidence and attempt to reach a conclusion. In some cases, the outcome will be straightforward, but in other cases, you may need to weigh one person’s statement against another.

According to the EEOC, you should use factors like plausibility, demeanor, past record, and motive to falsify in order to determine a claimant or respondent’s credibility.

7. Deliver an Investigation Report

An investigation report sums up the outcome of the investigation and explains how you reached the conclusion you did. Include a summary of the evidence, a list of witnesses, and any recommended actions or policy changes to put in place.

For sensitive internal investigations, the report shouldn’t be widely distributed, but only delivered to the parties who are directly involved.

8. Take Follow-Up Action

Once the investigation is complete, implement any follow-up actions to ensure that the incident doesn’t happen again. For workplace behavior issues, this could take the form of disciplinary action or a referral to counseling or mediation.

For legal issues involving discrimination or defamation, you may need to consult with a law firm. In some cases, there may be no follow-up action needed at all.

Standardize Workplace Investigations With Pulpstream

3 employees looking at a laptop

Workplace investigations range from accident investigations to cases of abuse or sexual harassment. Some investigations can be handled internally, but others may require you to liaise with regulatory bodies. Although each investigation is different, it’s important to maintain a consistent, standardized process to avoid bias and ensure impartiality.

You can stay on top of workplace investigations by using Pulpstream to automate your incident and investigation process. Our cloud-based platform allows you to gather and store documents all in one place — including witness statements and security camera footage — and access them from any of your devices at any time.

Whether you need to file a workers’ compensation claim or conduct a workplace safety audit, Pulpstream can speed up your investigation and facilitate follow-up actions. 

Request a demo to see how Pulpstream can fast-track your investigations today!