HR Investigations . . . This post isn’t for the O.G.*, pearl and cardigan wearing, HR lady. Nope, it’s for the newbies who still need a bit of direction. Although hopefully, I can remind everyone of the basics for Employee Relations= HR investigations.
Inevitably, there will be a time in your HR career when you will complete an investigation. HR Investigations are an important part of being a generalist and need to be handled in a prim and proper way. If they are good, investigations can ensure a safe and happy workplace. We always want our employees to be comfortable when they are at work. We want them to know that the company is committed to being fair and consistent. Plus, the legal team will appreciate it if you follow the best practices I outline below.
Where can an HR investigation originate? Investigations can be triggered by an employee complaint or accusation (or even rumors that need action), a notice from an outside organization (NLRB, EEOC), or from a lawsuit.
Take it seriously. If you receive a complaint, please make sure that you listen and take notes. As HR professionals, we have a duty to investigate when a complaint comes in. Even if it is the 55th time the employee has complained about an issue, we need to listen and take it seriously.
Create a plan. Once you receive the complaint, decide who will investigate. Also think through what interviews need to occur. What are the most logical steps to make sure you hear from everyone involved? What questions need to be answered by each witness? This will usually help to determine the order of interviews. Someone involved in the activity might need to be spoken to before someone who was a witness. Mapping it out will help with the best approach.
Be objective. While you are speaking to each person involved, and you will determine credibility. Remember to listen to every witness objectively so you can come to a good conclusion. You will start to determine who is telling the truth as you speak to folks and ask for clarification on events. You may not ever get to the exact story but being able to sift through the conversations is important. Dig in and ask probing questions, even if they are uncomfortable, to make sure you get good details.
Go Quickly but Take the Time You Need. This may seem tricky but it is not. Move quickly while you are talking to witnesses. Take the time you need to meet with each witness. Don’t delay in getting to each person. You want to speak to each witness before they forget the details of the event. You also don’t want to drag an investigation out. Come to a conclusion as soon as possible, once you meet with everyone.
Keep it Quiet. Only involve people who have been identified as need to know. Depending on your organization, this means someone from your legal team, the head of the business unit (if they are not involved), and your head of HR. That’s it! If you have to interview anyone who is a leader, remind them of your retaliation policy if you have one. As you meet with those involved, please make sure to remind them of the need to keep the investigation & your conversation confidential. Be thoughtful about this and follow the guidelines set forth by the NLRB.
A note on your notes. Whether you are a notebook or an iPad using note taker, make the notes count. This means capturing date/ time/ location/ names of participants for every conversation. This may seem like overkill sometimes but believe me, it matters. This also means if you are a written note taker, you need to transcribe the notes quickly to typed notes. I tell folks to type up their notes the same day so they remember the conversation and fill in the blanks. You won’t be able to capture every word, but try to capture as much as possible.
Once you have spoke to all the witnesses, you will need to come to some conclusions and determine next steps. There are some states that require investigation outcomes in your notes or in your investigation tool. Your outcomes may be reflected in the actions you take. For example, if you find that a sexual harassment claim has merit there will be a termination document.
Follow Up. You don’t need to inform those involved about what actions were taken, but you should let them know that the HR investigation has concluded. This is common professional courtesy.
Also know that out of every HR investigation, there are usually learnings for the organization. How to do things better. That’s okay. No organization is perfect. Take the lessons and make your organization better.
Now go put on your cardigan and get to work!