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Some Thoughts on Internal Workplace Investigations

by Jennifer Shaw and Melissa Whitehead | | March 25, 2024

We’ve all been there. It’s a busy afternoon. You receive an employee complaint via email. You think to yourself, “What do I do now?” The short answer: If there are key facts you do not know, you need to investigate the complaint.

Once an employer is on notice of potentially improper work-related conduct, they have an obligation to conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation, and to take prompt and effective corrective action. In fact, the failure to promptly investigate can form a basis for a legal claim, so it is important that employers and supervisors know that there are no “off-the-record” complaints.

Although it may be tempting, employers should never determine that a complaint is without merit until they have investigated. Of course, not all investigations look alike – sometimes, it may be a quick conversation to resolve a misunderstanding. For example, if the allegation is that an employee circulated an inappropriate email, the investigation may be as simple as reviewing the email and confirming the sender’s identity. On the other hand, a complaint of a “hostile work environment” often requires numerous witness interviews. If the evidence is clear or the employee has already admitted to the alleged conduct, though, there may be no reason to do an investigation.

Finally, investigations should never end with a finding of “inconclusive,” or “it was a he said/she said.” Just like an umpire in a baseball game, investigators must call a ball or strike. The good news, though, is that the standard is only “more likely than not,” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And, even if the investigator ends up making the wrong call, there is no risk of liability if the investigation was conducted appropriately.

Need help? Join us for our upcoming three-day internal investigation intensive workshop, “Conducting Effective Internal Investigations.” This program covers investigation fundamentals and includes a mock investigation and interactive session on writing effective investigation reports. Click here to learn more and register.

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