First of two parts
From time to time, every employer will face the need to investigate the actions of one or more of its employees. As difficult as workplace investigations can be, those employers that have been consistent and appropriate in the application of a workplace investigation will tell you that they were not only the right thing to do, but were also an important tool in discovering problems and preventing the reoccurrence of these problems in their workplace.
Time and again, employee opinion surveys will indicate that one of the primary needs of employees is a safe and consistent workplace. And yet, despite this information, a large percentage of employers will allow inappropriate employee behaviors to go unchecked until the situation manifests itself in a legal claim or a lawsuit. A work environment that is anything but safe and consistent often results. The biggest obstacle to conducting an investigation comes from a lack of knowledge about the situation, as well as how to go about conducting an investigation.
Let's start with the basics - know what you are dealing with. A number of different situations can lead an employer to start an investigation, and the most common are: harassment and sexual harassment (to include hostile work environment or bullying); discrimination; workplace violence; theft; violations of policy; performance and behavior. The type of investigation applied to each is different, but there are certain similarities to conducting all types of investigations.
Here are the rules: know the state and federal laws that apply; maintain the privacy rights of employees and others through confidentiality (although this cannot be a guarantee); conduct a thorough yet timely investigation; maintain objectivity; and understand the ultimate goal of any investigation, i.e., discovering the underlying reasons for the problem so that management can take corrective action.
The process begins with knowing when to conduct an investigation. The most obvious reason is when an employee makes a complaint and/or files a claim based on actions against them or others that they have witnessed. These are generally a result of perceived harassment, whether sexual or bullying; an environment that the employee considers inappropriate, unwelcome or threatening and unsafe, or some type of violence that is occurring in the workplace.
Other investigations are born from performance or behavioral lapses in the workplace where management has not been overly proactive, resulting in the need to identify both sides of a story before taking corrective action. Lastly, financial records or inventory may show inconsistencies indicating the possibility for theft or embezzlement.
In all of these cases, it is the duty of the employer who either knows or should have known about a discrimination, harassment, threat, or safety problem faced by an employee, to take prompt and effective remedial action to put an end to the problem. In order to know what action to take, or to find out whether action is even necessary, the employer has to investigate the situation and ascertain the facts. Employers that fail to investigate such situations usually lose any claims or lawsuits brought by the employee in response to the problem. In Part II of this article we will explore the components of an investigation.
aul H. Hutter is vice president of Management & Safety Development with Associated Employers in Billings, a private employers association that provides business and human resources expertise to its members. To learn more, please visit us at www.associatedemployers.org.