Investigations Are Tricky—These Sample Questions Will Help

HR Policies & Procedures
by Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR

Misconduct investigations are never easy for any HR manager. But they’re necessary and no one’s going to escape that duty for long. To make the job a little easier, attorney Jennifer Brown Shaw offers her suggestions for how to brief and question the complaining employee, the accused employee, and witnesses.

Shaw is a partner in the law firm of Shaw Valenza LLP in Sacramento. Her comments came during the Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference and Exposition held in San Diego. Here are her tips:

What to Tell the Complaining Employee(s)

  • Our company is committed to compliance with the law and its policies, and will conduct a prompt and thorough investigation to determine whether inappropriate conduct has occurred. If so, the conduct will be stopped and appropriate corrective action will be taken.
  • The purpose of the interview is to obtain a thorough understanding of what has occurred, and to identify all evidence and witnesses who may have knowledge of the incident.
  • Your name will be used in the investigative process only as and/or if necessary.
  • There will be no retaliation against you for making a good-faith complaint. Notify management or HR immediately if you believe retaliation has occurred or is occurring.
  • Keep the matter confidential to protect the integrity of the investigation.

Note: Depending on the nature of the complaint, the employer may want to consider options to separate the complaining employee and the accused employee during the investigation.

Questions for the Complaining Employee(s)

For each allegation that the complaining employee raises, the investigator should ask him or her:

  1. What occurred?
  2. When (include the date, appropriate time period involved)?
  3. Where did it happen?
  4. How did it happen?
  5. Who did or said what? In what order? Was anything else said or done?
  6. If there was physical contact, describe the contact in detail. Demonstrate the physical contact.
  7. How did you respond?
  8. Have you ever reported this incident before? If so, to whom? When? Response?
  9. Did you discuss the incident(s) with anyone? If so, who? Where? When? What was said?
  10. Are you aware of any other incident(s) involving this person? If so, who? What? Where? When?
  11. Do you know why it happened?

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  1. What is your relationship with the respondent?
  2. Why are you coming forward now?
  3. Are there any notes, documents or other evidence to support your claims? Did the respondent give you anything in writing, or any gifts or other items?
  4. Were there any witnesses? Who was nearby? Within earshot?
  5. Who else may have relevant information?
  6. Was your work affected? How?
  7. How did the situation make you feel?
  8. What outcome would you like to see from this process?

What to Tell the Accused Employee

We are investigating a complaint of alleged inappropriate conduct involving you. (Inform the respondent of each allegation in sufficient detail to enable a full response.)

  • The purpose of the interview is to obtain a thorough and accurate understanding of what has occurred, and to identify all evidence and witnesses who may have knowledge of the incident.
  • Keep the matter confidential to protect the integrity of the investigation.
  • It is against the law and internal policy to retaliate against anyone who has filed a complaint or participates in the investigation of the complaint. Notify management or HR immediately if you believe retaliation has occurred or is occurring.

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Questions for the Accused Employee

  1. What occurred?
  2. If denied, what motive would anyone have to make these allegations up? Where were you at the time alleged incidents occurred? Who witnessed your presence?
  3. When did it happen?
  4. Where did it happen?
  5. How did it happen?
  6. Who did or said what? In what order?
  7. How did the complainant(s) respond?
  8. Are you aware of any other incidents involving the complainant(s)? If so, who? What? Where? When?
  9. Are you aware of any other complaints by the complainant(s)?
  10. Do you know why it happened?
  11. Are there any notes, documents, or other evidence to support your version of the facts?
  12. Who else may know relevant information?
  13. Did you discuss the incident(s) with anyone prior to this interview? If so, who?

In tomorrow’s Advisor, Shaw’s suggestions for interviewing witnesses, plus an introduction to a very practical collection of 10-minute training modules for your supervisors and managers.

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  1. Anonymous        
    January 5, 2011 8:00 am

    Practical and thorough advice.  However, I wonder if in addition to describing the incident as “inappropriate conduct” it makes sense to say you are investigating a violation of the Company’s policies. Tying the conduct to your personnel policies makes it clear what the rationale is for your investigation and what the consequences could be (assuming you’ve got good detail in your policies, of course!)