The keys to an effective and impartial workplace investigation

Nobody enjoys a workplace investigation: discrimination, harassment or retaliation complaint are never fun. People’s jobs and reputations are on the line, and the pressure to carry out a prompt, fair and complete inquiry is intense. So if you’re tasked with conducting a workplace investigation, you want to do it right. Central to any investigation are the interviews you conduct with the alleged victim(s), the alleged perpetrator(s) and any witnesses.

Here are five suggestions for conducting an effective, impartial and legally sound interview:

  1. Choose the location carefully.
    An interview should never be held in, say, a windowed office where passers-by may get an idea of what’s happening. Close the door but don’t lock it, to avoid any claim of false imprisonment from a balky accused or witness.
  2. Two corporate reps.
    The company should have at least two people present, so the interviewee can’t make false claims later about what was said. If the interviewee is a union member, or risks criminal exposure, they may need to be represented by a co-worker or a lawyer. You may want to allow an interviewee to bring a co-worker along in any case, to underline that the process is fair.
  3. Make everyone’s position clear.
    The victim may assume you’re on his or her side. Conversely, an accused may assume you’re against him/her. Start the interview by stating explicitly that you’re representing the company during this workplace investigation, and while you will be fair and impartial, you’re not any person’s advocate.
  4. Ask open-ended and hard questions.
    You’ll need to ask some “yes” and “no” questions. But then dig deeper with open-ended ones. Asking who, when, where (also who else? what else? where else?) is effective. And don’t shy away from tough questions. Example: In a sexual harassment probe, don’t hesitate to ask if there was ever a consensual relationship.
  5. Take verbatim notes.
    You won’t always have recourse to a tape recorder – the interviewee may not consent, and even if she does, a recorder can chill conversation. So you’ll have to take notes. Don’t paraphrase, but write down the person’s exact words. You don’t have to take down everything – just key words and phrases.

Source: “Complaint Investigations,” a Rapid Learning Institute webinar with Daniel P. Westman, Morrison & Foerster law firm.

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