| Read Time: 3 minutes | Workplace Investigations

Conflict is an unavoidable part of any working environment. However, some employers can’t dismiss workplace disputes as part of the typical cost of doing business. When serious violations of company policy or potential legal misconduct arise, organizations need to be prepared to protect themselves and their employees. The workplace investigation process aims to establish the facts and help employers make informed decisions in response to a grievance or report of wrongdoing. 

In this blog post, we’ll explain what happens in an employer investigation process in the workplace. We’ll walk through the steps and offer tips for ensuring an investigation runs smoothly.

What Is a Workplace Investigation?

Workplace investigations uncover information about a dispute, complaint, or incident of wrongdoing. An internal investigation isn’t a legal proceeding, but it’s an important step for employers to take whenever an employee faces allegations of legal misconduct. Investigations are also often used to help address workplace conflicts that don’t rise to unlawful activity. 

Other common issues that can trigger workplace investigations include:

The investigation process allows employers to learn the facts behind an allegation of misconduct and make a fair and well-reasoned decision about how to respond. 

Why Are Workplace Investigations Important?

Workplace investigations allow organizations to address and resolve grievances fairly and effectively. The investigation process can help uncover the root causes of conflict and misconduct in the workplace. When employers understand what’s driving certain issues, they’re better able to take corrective action to prevent them in the future.

The workplace investigation process also shows employees that employers take their concerns seriously. A transparent, well-managed investigation demonstrates an employer’s commitment to protecting employee well-being and maintaining a positive work environment.

On the other hand, mishandling workplace investigations—or ignoring them altogether—can have serious consequences for employers. Choosing not to address misconduct often comes with the cost of employee trust and productivity. A poorly managed investigation can escalate a dispute and put an organization at risk of litigation.

What Does the Workplace Investigation Process Look Like?

The exact process involved in investigating a workplace incident depends on the following:

  • The circumstances of the dispute,
  • The number of employees involved, and
  • The amount of evidence to review.

For example, imagine female employees accusing an executive in an organization of sending sexually harassing messages for several years. This workplace harassment investigation process will likely involve different steps than an inquiry into a single employee’s illicit substance abuse on the job.

Although workplace investigation steps vary depending on the situation, most employer inquiries have three distinct stages:

  1. Preliminary Investigation Stage
  2. Fact-Finding Stage
  3. Conclusion Stage

Preliminary Investigation Stage

First, an organization must determine if the issue requires an investigation. Review the complaint and report of wrongdoing and consider whether internal dispute resolution methods are appropriate. If not, select an investigator to lead a formal inquiry. 

An ideal investigator is a neutral party with the skills to fairly and thoroughly collect the facts of the incident. Investigators can be representatives from HR, internal legal counsel, an outside legal professional, or an independent consultant. It’s essential for the investigator not to be connected to the dispute in any way—this is a conflict of interest that can compromise the credibility of their findings.

Once appointed, the investigator meets with the employer to define the scope and purpose of the inquiry. This includes determining relevant evidence, which witnesses should be interviewed, and how the investigator will present their conclusions.

Fact-Finding Stage

When the investigation roadmap is ready, it’s crucial to start gathering evidence immediately. The more time passes, the greater the risk of losing evidence or witnesses’ memories.

Interview and collect statements from employees, including the person who is the subject of the complaint, the person who reported the complaint, and any witnesses involved. Each employee should explain in detail their memory of the incident, covering the who, what, when, and where of the event. 

Identify and review any documentary evidence related to the dispute, such as letters, emails, memos, receipts, attendance records, pay stubs, and employment contracts. Ensure you comply with any internal policies and federal laws regarding data privacy.

Conclusion Stage

Once the investigator has reviewed and evaluated all relevant facts in the case, it’s time to reach conclusions. Sometimes, an investigator’s findings will be limited to just the facts, i.e., determining whether an employee misbehaved. An employer may also ask an investigator to recommend disciplinary actions or revisions to company policy. However, following through on the next steps is the responsibility of the organization, not the investigator.

Shields Petitti & Zoldan, PLC: Legal Support for Fair Investigations

No employer is happy to hear about harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct. However, ignoring problems or employee grievances risks fueling the fire—and opening your organization to potential liability. Employers can’t afford to cut corners when legal or ethical misconduct occurs. 

The attorneys at Shields Petitti & Zoldan, PLC, have spent decades helping Arizona businesses keep their organizations safe and compliant under federal and state laws. As experienced litigators, we have the skills and deep legal knowledge to conduct investigations into workplace wrongdoing efficiently, impartially, and sensitively. Contact our office to speak to an attorney to learn more about how we can support your investigation process.

Author Photo

Attorney Michael Zoldan provides legal counsel to individuals and small businesses throughout Arizona. Mr. Zoldan’s practice is based on aggressive and detail-oriented representation, focusing on employment discrimination, wage and hour disputes, harassment, and wrongful termination. Prior to forming Shields Petitti & Zoldan, Mr. Zoldan worked for numerous law firms where he had an opportunity to hone his litigation skills by working on multiple litigation cases at a time with some of the most skilled litigators in the state.

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