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10 traits of an effective workplace investigator

by Ryann E. Ricchio

Workplace investigations are of critical importance to employers for many reasons. Done correctly and thoroughly, an investigation can, among other things, resolve ongoing and future workplace problems, mitigate your organization’s liability, prevent third-party intervention, demonstrate good faith, and preserve evidence that may be needed in the future. Of course, a central key to an effective workplace investigation is a good investigator. This article provides guidance on how to select a qualified person to handle your workplace investigation. 

What to look for
Ability to invest time and attention in the investigation. For better or worse, workplace investigations often require a significant amount of time away from the investigator’s regular duties as well as significant company resources. An effective investigator must be able to commit to the time and attention necessary for all steps of the investigation, from planning to the final work product. The investigator must also have the capacity to expand her work if the investigation grows beyond its original scope.

Strong planning and project management skills. In short order, an investigator will need to develop a working timeline for the investigation, determine the relevant documents and other evidence that may aid in the investigation, consider a necessary interim action (such as a suspension), decide whom to interview and in what order, and develop interview questions and plans. The investigator must also be open to reviewing and revising her plans as the investigation develops.

Forward-thinking mindset. An effective investigator must think through how his investigation can affect operations and create further issues for the company. For example, the investigator should consider the likelihood of the rumor mill running rampant (and whether that should affect interview order), how to minimize employee morale issues caused by the investigation, and how to minimize potential legal problems and losses from the way the investigation is conducted.

Aptitude for multitasking. An investigator must be skilled at listening, observing, and taking notes at the same time, which is easier said than done. (Note, however, that if an investigation involves particularly complicated allegations or significant risk, you should consider enlisting two investigators, which can be helpful in a number of ways.) To avoid lost opportunities, the investigator should consider how he can most effectively multitask well in advance of the first interview.

Willingness to seek outside help. Additionally, an effective investigator is willing to seek outside assistance, from another investigator or a person with specific expertise, at any point during the investigation. Perhaps even more important, an effective investigator is able to identifywhen outside assistance is needed. For example, the investigator may solicit legal or compliance assistance if a legal violation is alleged, obtain risk-management assistance if a workers’ comp or insurance issue presents itself, or involve local law enforcement if an allegation has potential criminal implications.

Ability to establish rapport. An effective investigator is able to quickly establish a rapport so the interviewee is willing to share what he knows. The investigator must also establish a rapport with the accused but must be mindful of communicating in ways that suggest she has lost her objectivity and is taking sides.

Respect for others. Regardless of the nature of the allegations, the investigator must always show respect for the speaker and his expressed opinions and impressions about the incident. Failing to do so, particularly at the beginning of an interview, may compromise the investigator’s ability to solicit information from the interviewee.

Objectivity. Although many investigations quickly reveal that they are leading toward a particular conclusion, an effective investigator maintains objectivity throughout the entire process. That allows the investigator to review all the evidence with impartiality and prevents erroneous and cursory conclusions.

Ability to listen carefully. In addition to being a skilled multitasker, a good investigator reads between the lines and listens to what is being said as well as what isn’t being said during the interview. An experienced investigator may craft follow-up questions based on what someone doesn’t say in an interview. The investigator should incorporate her more nuanced observations into her written findings if they’re significant.

Ability to assess credibility and draw conclusions. Last, but certainly not least, an effective investigator is able to make solid credibility assessments during interviews with witnesses and document his assessments. That may include evaluating the interviewee’s memory, comparing the interviewee’s stories to others’ stories, watching for potential cues that indicate deception, and observing physical attributes during the interview, such as demeanor, manner of speaking, and body language. The investigator must avoid relying on his own assumptions and biases during the assessment process. Additionally, a good investigator understands and appreciates that his job at the end of the day is to reach a conclusion, and he isn’t afraid to do that.

Bottom line
Think through the traits listed in this article the next time you are tasked with selecting an investigator for your workplace investigation.

Ryann E. Ricchio is an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a member of the Employers Counsel Network. If you have questions about this issue or any other employment concern, you may contact her at ryann.ricchio@faegrebd.com or any of Faegre Baker Daniels’ labor and employment attorneys.

Need to learn more? Join us November 15 at the 2017 Advanced Employment Issues Symposium where Employers Counsel Network attorney Charlie Plumb will present Workplace Investigations: Your Action Plan for Probing Complaints, Interviewing Witnesses, Reaching Reasoned Conclusions, and Taking  Action. HR is legally required to thoroughly investigate every complaint of unlawful or potentially unlawful conduct that crosses your desk, even when it seems without merit.  The secret to conducting a successful inquiry is to get your complete investigation plan in place before the complaint ever hits your desk—because as you well know, in HR it’s never a question of if, but when. This 3-hour pre-conference workshop will bring you up to speed on how to conduct efficient, effective, legally compliant workplace investigations.  For more information, click here.