Workplace Investigations: How Much Inquiry’s Necessary?

 

When an employee raises a concern about workplace misconduct – even when it may not directly involve him or her – good employers will conduct some kind of follow-up on the concern.  This “initial review” often is a preliminary discussion to get enough information to make some assessment as to how significant the problem could be – is it a pervasive issue, is it an interpersonal issue between only two individuals, can any of the concerns be corroborated by minimally invasive measures such as an email search.  

In some instances, this initial review may become the totality of the investigation because nothing further was needed.  On other instances, the initial review may be the tip of the iceberg and serve as a means to understand and clarify the issues sufficiently to turn over to an investigator.  

The rub for employers is when the initial review is the investigation, but this review is insufficient to address the concerns that were raised.  When the investigation is a cursory and incomplete review, the drawbacks, to name just a handful, involve:

  • the strong potential for employee perception that complaints “go nowhere”
  • the image that the employer does not take concerns seriously
  • the perception that complaints will not result in any real concern or change on the part of management
  • a lack of motivation for employees to raise future concerns because the belief that it is a futile proposition and
  • the risk of increased liability for torts and other claims that may exist that relate to the concern

Human Resources professionals can combat these longer-term, negative issues by articulating and following a clearly defined process with respect to addressing employee concerns in a manner that is commensurate with the concerns.  Notably, the fact that some follow-up has been done – even if results of the inquiry are not shared – should always be communicated back to the employee who raised the concern.  Acknowledgement that these employees have been heard and action occurred, as a result, is often overlooked and leads to unfortunate consequences with respect to morale.

 

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