Workplace investigation

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This is the first in a series on workplace investigations, an effective tool to uncover – and deal with – problems that threaten to undermine your business.

Somewhere along the line as an employer, you likely will have to conduct a workplace investigation to evaluate allegations of improper or illegal conduct in your business. Inevitably, employees have problems and conflicts, and the employer has a duty to find out who’s at fault and to mete out discipline.

How do you learn of the allegations? It might come directly from an employee making a complaint about a coworker or supervisor. You might receive an anonymous tip, or hear about it via rumor, hearsay or third-party statements. You might become aware of troublesome situations on your own.

As an employer, you are legally obligated to investigate complaints of harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and safety and ethical violations. Other potential problems that merit an investigation range from money missing from employee lockers to workplace accidents and employee theft or sabotage.

A full, proper investigation is vital. A less-than-thorough investigation could lead to a negligent employment practice claim or other action against you and your company.

You should have policies and procedures in place before an investigation ever becomes necessary – policies that discuss improper conduct such as harassment, discrimination and retaliation. The investigation will probably require access to materials stored electronically, so the policy should cover email and computer use, as well as surveillance of computers in the workplace. Procedures for making complaints should also be included.

The procedures should explain that an investigation may be conducted, that employees have a duty to cooperate with the investigator, and that an employee can be suspended with pay during an investigation. Of course, these policies have to be disseminated to all employees.

Properly conducted investigations are simply good business, for a variety of reasons:

  1.  To ensure that managers, supervisors and employees are complying with employment laws, company policies and any other applicable guidelines
  2.  To minimize the risk of disciplining or terminating an employee wrongfully for something he or she hasn’t done
  3. To satisfy the employee making the allegation that the situation was handled appropriately – and perhaps stop a lawsuit from being filed
  4. To demonstrate to your staff that the company is committed to objective and fair treatment of its employees
  5. To provide an affirmative defense in the event of a lawsuit
  6. To uncover other, previously unknown problems that could lead to a separate lawsuit or complaint with a government agency

The investigation must be prompt and impartial. It should be treated as a priority, and the investigator must weigh the evidence, come to a conclusion and submit a written report. If the finding indicates wrongdoing, a decision-maker should determine the appropriate punishment. Ultimately, the goal of an investigation is to halt improper or illegal activity.

The final step is to follow up. Has the problem been solved? Has the misconduct stopped? Have changes, if needed, been implemented?

Next: How Do You Know You Need a Workplace Investigation?

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