workplace investigations

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles and

Now that you understand what a workplace investigation is, let’s explore how to determine when an investigation is appropriate.

Essentially, you need to investigate whenever you receive a complaint or an allegation of behavior that adversely affects one or more employees or the company. That includes any violations of law or company policies.

Some situations can be resolved informally, as long as you reach a resolution, but others require a formal investigation. Remember that failure to act can lead to a lawsuit and that a thorough, timely investigation can be used as a defense in case of litigation.

Be especially aware of allegations about harassment and discrimination, which can violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), as well as state counterparts of these laws.

Other important areas that require investigations include:

Health and safety laws. In accordance with the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, employers must investigation allegations of an unsafe work environment and set up systems to prevent future problems. Employers also have a legal obligation to investigate threats and, to the extent possible, prevent acts of violence in the workplace.

Drug-free workplace laws. Employers must adhere to the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and Department of Transportation drug-testing regulations.

You’ll also want to investigate:

  1. Work-rule violations
  2. Violations of the law
  3. Retaliation
  4. Accident or injury on the job. An investigation can determine liability and also lead to systems that will prevent similar accidents in the future.
  5. Allegations that could result in an employee’s termination. An investigation could halt a wrongful termination lawsuit or provide a defense if the employee sues.

Don’t decide not to conduct an investigation because the complaint appears frivolous at first glance. You want to be able to show that you completed a proper investigation, rather than have an employee testify in a lawsuit that no action was taken to resolve his or her complaint.

An employee only needs to have a “good faith belief” that what he or she is reporting might be illegal.  For example, an employee alleges that the CFO is skimming money from the company. The CEO thinks this is a ridiculous complaint, but the employee reports multiple situations where the CFO appears to spend company money frivolously— and the employee sounds credible.

Some complaints will be anonymous, delivered via voicemail, email or a written note. That can make it more difficult to gather facts, but it’s not an excuse to skip the investigation.

Once you become aware of a complaint that could be a liability for your company, you have to act. That means you must conduct an investigation—even if the employee who complained doesn’t want you to. You can’t afford to be exposed to allegations of negligence or incompetence.

Bottom line: The purpose of an investigation is to make certain that you, the employer, respond and react to facts, not assumptions or speculations. The goal is to reach an objective resolution to the problem.

Next: What constitutes a neutral investigation?

If you have questions or concerns about workplace investigations, contact Johnson Employment Law for guidance, 949-238-8044.