How to: Conduct an FBI-style workplace investigation

As former FBI director, James Comey, could probably tell you: Conducting an investigation is tricky business. Whether you’re leading the White House Russia Probe or leading a probe into sandwich theft from the work fridge, investigations must be handled with extreme care to ensure justice is served. Workplace investigations are less exciting than the Russia probe, however, it is essential to follow the right protocols and procedures to avoid unwanted attention (and Fake News).

A workplace investigation should ensue whenever allegations of misconduct are raised in the workplace, whether from a manager, a colleague or even the CIA. Investigations in the workplace are necessary for HR Managers or other authorities to establish what happened and why so they may take appropriate disciplinary action.

Below are our top three tips for conducting workplace investigations:

1. Maintain Confidentiality
Handle investigations with sensitivity and try to avoid disclosing information about them to any third parties including the remainder of your workforce, or any customers or clients. The process can be embarrassing or awkward for the employee in question, especially if he or she has not engaged in the alleged behaviour, and it would be unprofessional to share it with anyone who doesn’t need to know.
Additionally, consider what information you need to divulge to the parties who are involved in the investigation. While it is necessary to share some details in the interest of eliciting information – for example, you wouldn’t get very far if you said “someone has accused you of doing something on a particular date” – a large amount of information gathered during an investigation should be kept confidential.

2. Avoid Bias
On the back of confidentiality comes the second professional responsibility – be impartial. This can be difficult in the world of Labor and Liberal or Labour and National (or in Comey’s case, Democrats and Republicans), the same goes for office politics. And what’s more, you should also be perceived to be impartial. If any staff members are involved in the complaint, whether as witnesses, complainants or alleged perpetrators, they should not be permitted to conduct the investigation.
If you only have a small team such that you have no staff members unaffected by the complaint, we recommend you engage an external HR consultancy firm or Special Counsel, to perform the investigation on your behalf, reassuring your employees that you take impartiality very seriously.

3. Be Thorough
We don’t expect the FBI to cut corners when investigating crimes, and neither should employers. Avoid making any conclusions or decisions about the matter until all evidence has been analysed. This includes speaking to the alleged perpetrator themselves and allowing them to respond to the allegations.
Comey Tip: Record all communications, steps taken and findings of fact, as you may need it as evidence of your process later. The likelihood of a Senate testimony is slim, but you never know.

In Summary…
An unfair investigation may well lead to an unfair dismissal, and we all know how inconvenient and damaging those claims can be. As we’ve seen in the media recently, workplace investigations are a complex procedure and can be difficult to get right – Avoiding a political circus in your workplace is key. If you are not comfortable conducting your own, or would like assistance through the process, we encourage you to seek professional advice.

For more information on conducting workplace investigations,  contact us today for an informal chat.