Employee Relations: 8 Tips for Conducting an HR Investigation

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Apr 06, 2023
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When suspected wrongdoing, misconduct or accusations of either one raise the need for an HR investigation into employee relations issues, companies find themselves in the difficult position of playing detective, judge and jury. Company leaders have to act fast to conduct an investigation that prevents a bad situation from getting worse. 

An internal employee relations investigation and its outcome could save an employer from having to pay thousands of dollars in fines or legal costs for retaliation, harassment, discrimination or other claims. So, it’s important to understand how to properly investigate employee allegations of misconduct.  

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HR Investigations: A Guide

Companies should act promptly, thoroughly and as objectively as possible. Following this eight-step process will yield the best results: 

Don’t Delay

Management’s failure to intervene quickly invites the escalation of problems. Taking proactive, timely action leads to the resolution of the issues and helps your company avoid litigation. It also instills trust in the organization’s leadership by ensuring employees that company leaders care about doing the right thing. 

Get the Facts

Gather evidence and any information that can help determine the full picture of what happened. That means: 

  • Reviewing relevant records, emails, texts and company policies; 
  • Identifying and interviewing people with knowledge of the situation; and 
  • Ensuring the investigation is conducted by a person or team of people who are experienced in the process. 
  • Ensuring impartiality of the investigator or investigating team. 

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Ensure Integrity  

Vigilantly protect the witnesses and the investigative process from manipulation and retaliation. Members of the investigating team, in particular, must be able to enter the process with open minds, setting aside any preconceived perceptions and maintaining impartiality. 

Emphasize Confidentiality  

Avoid promising absolute confidentiality of the complainant, alleged perpetrator or witness statements, because the parties involved may leak details despite being told not to. However, in no uncertain terms, make clear to witnesses, interviewers, management and anyone else involved in the investigation that information is to be disclosed only to those who need to know it and that sharing it with anyone else is not permitted.   

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Don’t Go It Alone 

Seek counsel from HR professionals like those at Axcet HR Solutions. These experienced consultants have helped guide dozens of small businesses through HR investigations. They can prevent you from making missteps that could come back to hurt your company, as well as advising when it’s time to bring in legal counsel.  

Conduct Interviews 

When you talk to people with knowledge of the situation, explore the witness’s version of the facts or circumstances, identify critical details and confirm your understanding of the information they share. 

Chase the Truth

Remember that the ultimate investigative goals are to give people a fair opportunity to respond, arrive at the probable truth and resolve the situation as quickly and effectively as possible. To accomplish that, keep in mind the consistency and plausibility of all the evidence. Consider any possible bias or motivation to lie, as well as the overall weight of the evidence. 

Do not rush to a non-determination finding, where you decide you are unable to conclude what happened. Because, unlike in a court of law, the key question an investigator looking into workplace misconduct has to answer is what conclusion is more likely true than not based on a review of the available evidence.  

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Complete Post-Investigation Analysis and Follow-Up 

Based on what the HR investigation shows is appropriate, take action to address the misconduct that prompted the process in the first place. Schedule periodic check-ins with the parties directly affected by your findings to ensure the corrective actions are working. Also, take time to evaluate how the company handled the investigation. Learn from any missteps. Identify and implement changes that will help prevent similar issues going forward. 

As an employer, using this nine-step checklist for workplace investigations will help limit your organization’s legal exposure while promoting the equitable treatment of everyone in the workplace. These recommendations will guide your small business through a natural progression of the investigative process to a fair and accurate conclusion. 

Keep this eight-pronged approach close at hand to minimize liability, protect employees and preserve your organization’s reputation.

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