Six indicators that warrant a workplace investigation
By Audra Hedberg, PHR, PHRca, SHRM-CP, Senior Compliance Consultant at Trüpp
and Elizabeth Berg, eLearning Program Manager at Trüpp
As a business owner, manager, or human resources professional, it is important to recognize “red flags” that could result in company or even personal liability. Defining the indicators that initiate a workplace investigation not only prevents costly fines and lawsuits but can also protect your organization’s reputation and position in the marketplace. Employers are required to investigate after receiving an allegation of discrimination or harassment; however, several areas should trigger a workplace investigation, including the following:
1. Unofficial and official reports of misconduct
A workplace investigation should always occur when an employee, customer, vendor, or other person brings a claim of misconduct to the company. Reports can come in through a formal pathway, stem from a casual conversation, or even arise from gossip or social media comments. It is essential to be vigilant when reports or concerns are brought forward. Claims that may seem insignificant or petty on the surface may lead to substantial issues when looked at more closely.
2. Whistleblower and anonymous reports
Individuals may conceal their identity when reporting misconduct, often due to fear. Generally, these reports are received through an anonymous reporting pathway such as a hotline, email, employee survey, or concern box. Although these reports can be beneficial, they also have limitations such as unverified source credibility and an inability to clarify. These reports can expose misconduct and should be investigated and documented carefully regardless of perceived credibility.
3. Suspicion of misconduct
Events may occur where unusual or suspicious activity is brought to the company’s attention. Observant employees and managers might notice behaviors or changes in the workplace that raise concern. When something seems awry, an investigation can confirm or refute suspicions and prevent an issue from escalating.
4. Accidents or incidents
Accidents and incidents should be documented and, if warranted, trigger an investigation. These triggers may include an undesirable event that damages property or results in potential injury or harm. If these situations cause or could lead to health and safety concerns, they should be investigated regardless of the severity.
5. Findings from an audit or during routine operations
Organizations may learn of misconduct, wrongdoing, or ethical lapses in the workplace during daily operations or through an audit. For example, reconciliations may identify ongoing financial discrepancies that should trigger an investigation.
6. Government agencies or a lawsuit
A concern may be brought to a company’s attention by a government agency or even the threat of a lawsuit. These notifications should be taken seriously and investigated promptly.
After defining the triggers that initiate an investigation, it is essential to train your HR team and supervisors to monitor for them and follow up when they occur. It is equally important to document the preliminary research, even if a thorough investigation does not result, to ensure there is a chain of custody. If an investigation is merited, see our step-by-step guide for conducting a workplace investigation. If you decide to proceed with an internal investigation, ensure that your internal investigators are trained or certified to conduct an objective and legally sound investigation to reduce employer risk.
In some cases, it may be advantageous to consider contracting a third party to conduct a workplace investigation. An external inquiry is especially helpful in an investigation where it will be challenging to avoid bias or the appearance of bias.