HR Management & Compliance

Workplace Investigations: Another Critical Duty in Your HR Hat

As an HR professional, one of your many duties may include conducting a thorough investigation into various issues that arise in the workplace. Whether the issue involves a claim of harassment, a claim of discrimination or a claim workplace misconduct, it is critical that you take steps to conduct a thorough investigation by interviewing all the necessary witnesses, documenting your steps and gathering the necessary information and documentation to support the company’s decision. This article will assist you with walking through that process.

Don’t Wait Long

When you learn of an issue, you want to start the investigation immediately. There are several benefits to doing so. First, it helps to preserve the evidence. For instance, when you quickly interview witnesses about the issue, their memories and recollections should be fresher, which will lead to more accurate information. The longer you wait to begin the investigation, you increase the chances of memories and recollections beginning to fade.

Second, quickly beginning the investigation allows you to gather documents or video recordings before that evidence is mistakenly misplaced or deleted through an automatic deletion program.

For example, while some employers have video surveillance of certain parts of their facility, that surveillance could be subject to an automatic deletion program after a certain time period. If there is relevant video surveillance, you will want to make sure you quickly learn about it so that it can be preserved. You don’t want to be in the position of learning about potentially relevant video surveillance after it is no longer available.

Determine Whom to Interview, What Documents You Need

Since the purpose of the investigation is to gather information, you must make sure you gather all the relevant documents and determine everyone who needs to be interviewed. The number of people to interview will vary based on the allegations that led to the investigation. As a general rule, you should interview any individual who was present when the incident occurred. If the incident concerns comments that were made, you should also interview any individual who may have overheard the comments.

With regard to gathering documents, you should gather any written statements or notes that have already been made by those involved in the incident. Additionally, if there are emails that have been exchanged that either led to the incident or that are about the incident, you should gather those as well.

Whom Do I Interview First?

If the investigation arises due to a complaint made by an employee, you should interview that employee first. This will allow you to determine every complaint the employee has and will allow you to determine every topic, comment, or incident that needs to be investigated. Interviewing the employee first will also help you identify other individuals you need to interview. Next, you should interview the various individuals who witnessed and/or overheard the alleged misconduct or incident.

If, during the course of your investigation, you learn of other individuals who may have relevant knowledge, you should interview them as well. While you may have an initial list of people to interview, it’s important to be adaptive and add individuals to the list after you learn they may have some relevant knowledge.

After you have interviewed everyone else, you should then interview the individual who has been accused of the misconduct. As with any other interview, this interview may lead you to learn additional information and may create the need to interview additional witnesses. To ensure you conduct a thorough and fair investigation, you must follow up on the additional information and take the time to interview additional witnesses identified by the accused employee.

Ultimately, your investigation may result in disciplinary action against the accused employee. If the accused employee later challenges the disciplinary action, you will want to show that you followed up on what you learned from the accused employee.

What Do I Document?

In short, you will want to document everything you did in your investigation. If a lawsuit is later filed because of the incident or because of the disciplinary action taken after the investigation, that lawsuit could be filed several years later. By the time you have to present evidence at a deposition or trial, another year could have potentially passed. Having complete documentation of your investigation will help refresh your memory—and the memory of other witnesses—regarding what happened and what was said during the investigation.

Your documentation should include typewritten notes of the various interviews you conducted, a copy of all documents you reviewed during the investigation, and, if applicable, a copy of any relevant videos of the incident. You should also document the findings of your investigation and what action, if any, was taken as a result of the investigation. For example, if you determine the employee’s complaint had merit and required disciplinary action for the accused employee, you should document the disciplinary action taken.

Get Some Help

When conducting the interviews, it would be helpful to have another management-level individual in the room to assist with taking notes. The purpose of the interview process is to gather complete and accurate information. After the interviews are completed, both of you can compare notes to make sure you both heard the same information. Also, the second individual could assist you with determining additional questions to ask.

Please be aware the incident you are investigating could eventually lead to a lawsuit. As a result, any individual you ask to assist you with the interview process could potentially become a witness in the lawsuit. You want to make sure this individual is comfortable with offering testimony in any potential lawsuit that may be subsequently filed.

Reach a Conclusion, and Make a Decision

Once you have interviewed all the witnesses and gathered all the documents, you will need to determine the results of your investigation and decide what steps need to be taken. If the investigation shows improper conduct occurred, you will need to decide what disciplinary action to take.

Follow your normal disciplinary procedures for determining what discipline to issue. For instance, if you involve others in your facility when making a disciplinary decision, you should provide them with the information from your investigation. As noted above, once you decide what action you will take, if any, you need to document what you decided to do.

Bottom Line

Conducting a good and thorough investigation is important. If there is an employee misconduct issue, a good investigation into the incident will help you gather the information you need to support any disciplinary action. Additionally, conducting a good investigation shows you take employee misconduct issues seriously and they will be properly investigated when raised by your employees.

Jeffrey M. Cropp is an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC in Bridgeport, West Virginia. You can reach him at

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