How to Investigate an Employee Complaint & Common Mistakes to Avoid

How to Investigate an Employee Complaint & Common Mistakes to Avoid.

How to Investigate an Employee Complaint: If an issue or concern has come up at your business, a thorough investigation will help you find out what happened — and what to do about it. It will also help the company escape responsibility for employee misconduct, but only if you move quickly and take immediate steps to fix the issue.

How to Investigate an Employee Complaint

You will have to go deeper than performing a straightforward inquiry and using specialized forensic methods based on the sort of employee issue you are experiencing and its magnitude.

Basic Investigation Methods

If you witness some improper behavior or if one of your employees or customers informs you of inappropriate behavior on the part of one of your employees, you’ll need to check it out. While basic fact-finding might seem easy and obvious enough to do, it’s important to know what to ask and how to get information.

When employees or customers bring improper conduct to your attention:

  • Thank them (you want to encourage people to speak up and be open about these matters with you).
  • Ask them, in private, to describe exactly what they witnessed.
  • Ask them to give you a written statement, if the situation warrants one.
  • Assure them that you will treat the complaint with seriousness and confidentiality.
  • Be sure to follow up with them when the situation has been addressed (don’t divulge anything about the disciplinary action with the complainant – you must protect the confidentiality of the disciplined employee, too).

Getting the information you need.

Use these guidelines to help you get the information you need:

  • Ask for specifics. Get details. Do not assume anything.
  • Get names of witnesses. Interview all possible witnesses.
  • Review every file and document.
  • Visit the place where the incident occurred, if necessary.
  • Ask open-ended questions that don’t require witnesses to confirm or deny your stated or implicit conclusions.
  • Keep confidences and conduct the investigation in private.
  • Maintain your objectivity.
  • Watch the body language of individuals. For example, somebody language enthusiasts believe that if people fold their arms across their chests, avoid eye contact, scratch their noses, or turn their body away from you, they may be lying or not telling the full truth.
  • Respect the privacy of those involved.
  • Take good notes for documentation purposes.

Highlights of the Employee Complaint Process

  • Be clear when describing the issue that prompted your complaint. Human Resources codes each case (discrimination, sexual harassment, etc), and it’s important that your case gets the right code so it gets the proper attention.
  • If you don’t feel you’re getting good service from your HR investigator, find out more about them, in a low-profile manner, and document your communications with him/her. With sufficient reason, you may request another investigator.
  • Ask upfront for an estimate of how long the case should take to resolve and arrange for periodic updates. If you don’t hear anything, check-in.
  • Watch the tone and content of emails you send to investigators. They are likely to keep records of their communication with you. Be responsive to questions and don’t change your story.
  • Ask clarifying questions if the company tells you to keep your matter confidential, particularly if you are a nonsupervisory employee. Who are they specifically forbidding you from discussing the matter with? (The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that companies cannot automatically request that employees refrain from discussing the matter with other employees.)
  • Keep documents, details, and witnesses to support your claim.
  • If you have a lot at risk related to your complaint, consider consulting an attorney.
  • Your relationship with the HR investigator is a business one. Treat it as such. They are not there to be your friend.

Read Also: Employer Farewell Message to Employees.

How to Investigate an Employee Complaint

how to investigate an employee complaint

Decide whether to investigate

Before you put on your detective’s hat, take some time to decide whether you really need an investigation. In a few situations — for example, if all employees agree on what happened or the problem appears to be minor — you may reasonably decide that a full-blown investigation is unnecessary. Usually, however, it’s best to err on the side of conducting an investigation.

If the problem is more serious than it seemed, failing to investigate can lead to legal trouble — and continuing workplace problems. And sometimes, you just can’t tell how widespread or substantial a problem is until you do a little poking around.

Take immediate action, if necessary

You might have to act right away — even before you begin your investigation — if a situation is volatile or could otherwise cause immediate harm to your business.

If an employee is accused of sexually assaulting a coworker, stealing valuable trade secrets, or bringing a weapon to work, you’ll probably want to suspend the accused employee temporarily — with pay — while you look into the matter. But be careful not to prejudge the situation or lead the accused employee to believe that you’ve already made up your mind.

Choose an investigator

You’ll want an investigator who is experienced and/or trained in investigation techniques, is impartial and perceived as impartial by the employees involved, and is capable of acting — and, if necessary, testifying in court — professionally about the situation. If you have someone who meets this job description on your payroll, you’re in luck. If not, you can hire an outside investigator to handle things for you.

Plan the investigation

Take some time upfront to organize your thoughts. Gather any information you already have about the problem — such as an employee complaint, a supervisor’s report, written warnings, or materials that are part of the problem (such as X-rated emails or threatening letters). Using this information as your guide, think about what you’ll need to find out to decide what happened.

Whom will you interview and what will you ask? Are there additional documents that employees or supervisors might have? Is there anyone who witnessed important events — or should have?

Conduct interviews

The goal of every investigation is to gather information — and the most basic way to do that is by asking people questions. Most investigations involve at least two interviews: one of the employees accused of wrongdoing, and another of the employee who complained or was the victim.

Sometimes, you will also want to interview witnesses — others who may have seen or heard something important. When you interview people, try to elicit as much information as possible by asking open-ended questions.

Gather documents and other evidence

Almost every investigation will rely to some extent on documents — personnel files, email messages, company policies, correspondence, and so on. And some investigations will require you to gather other types of evidence, such as drugs, a weapon, photographs, or stolen items.

Evaluate the evidence

The most challenging part of many investigations — especially if witnesses disagree or contradict each other — is figuring out what actually happened. There are some proven methods of deciding where the truth lies — methods all of us use in our everyday lives to get to the bottom of things.

You’ll want to consider, for example, whose story makes the most sense, whose demeanor was more convincing, and who (if anyone) has a motive to deceive you. And in some situations, you may just have to throw up your hands and acknowledge that you don’t have enough information to decide what really happened.

Take action

Once you decide what happened, you’ll have to figure out what to do about it. If you conclude that serious wrongdoing occurred, you will have to take disciplinary action quickly to avoid legal liability for that employee’s behavior and to protect your company and other workers from harm.

In deciding how to handle these situations, you should consider a number of factors, including how serious the actions were and how you have handled similar problems in the past.

Document the investigation

Once your investigation is complete, you should write an investigation report that explains what you did and why. This will not only give the company some protection from lawsuits relating to the investigation but will also provide a written record in case of future misconduct by the same employee(s).

Among other things, your report should explain how and when the problem came to the company’s attention, what interviews you conducted, what evidence you considered, what conclusions you reached, and what you did about the problem.

Follow up

The last step is to follow up with your employees to make sure that you’ve solved the problem that led to the investigation. Has the misconduct stopped? Has the wrongdoer met any requirements imposed as a result of the investigation — for example, to complete a training course on sexual harassment?

If the investigation revealed any systemic workplace problems (such as widespread confusion about company policy or lack of training on issues like workplace diversity or proper techniques for dealing with customers), some training might be in order.

Common Investigation Mistakes

how to investigate an employee complaint

  1. Failing to plan.
  2. Ignoring complaints.
  3. Delaying investigations.
  4. Losing objectivity.
  5. Being distracted during interviews.
  6. Failing to create a written report.
  7. Using overly aggressive interview tactics.
  8. Not conducting a thorough investigation.
  9. Failing to reach a conclusion.
  10. Failing to follow up with those involved.

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