How to Conduct an HR Investigation: Everything You Need to Know

Feb 28, 2024 | HR Trends

Josh Rust

Marketing Manager

Ever find yourself stuck in the sticky situation of having to conduct an investigation at work?

It can feel like diving into a deep pool of paperwork and drama. Not to mention the office chaos, legal headaches, and a tarnished company rep.

A poorly handled investigation can snowball into a full-blown disaster. It’s a mess that’s tough to clean up, both inside and outside the company.

That’s why we created this guide — to help you through HR investigations, and come out on the other side unscathed. 

We’re breaking it down step by step, making sure everything is legal, fair, and thorough. With the right framework in place, HR investigations don’t have to be painful. They can be an opportunity for organizational growth and integrity.

What is an HR Investigation?

When there’s a problem at work, an HR investigation is a way to figure out what’s going on. It typically involves interviewing employees, gathering evidence, and reviewing documents to determine whether any policies or laws have been violated. 

An HR investigation gathers information on workplace issues or complaints to determine policy or law violations and allow for appropriate decisions. 

Some situations that may prompt an HR investigation include: 

  • Harassment complaints: Claims of sexual, racial, or other forms of harassment in the workplace must be investigated to make sure there hasn’t been any illegal discrimination. This means investigating any behavior that’s inappropriate or hostile.
  • Policy violations: Allegations of policy breaches such as safety violations, absenteeism, inappropriate conduct, or theft should be thoroughly checked through an HR investigation.
  • Discrimination: Accusations of discrimination based on protected characteristics like race, religion, gender, or disability need to be evaluated to avoid legal liability.
  • Whistleblower complaints: Reports of illegal activities or ethical violations fall under whistleblower laws and require careful investigation by HR.
  • Workplace violence: Threats, bullying and any signs of potential violence in the workplace should be urgently investigated. 

HR investigations must follow specific legal and ethical guidelines. This means sticking to the EEOC guidelines and other work laws. It’s not just to dodge trouble but also to keep our workplace integrity intact.

On the ethical side, it’s important to treat everyone involved with respect, make sure their rights are in check, and handle the investigation with total honesty. This ethical approach keeps things clear, fair, and straightforward.

How Long Does HR Have to Investigate a Complaint?

While there are no legal requirements dictating how quickly HR must investigate complaints, it is best practice to resolve issues as quickly as possible. 

If investigations take too long, it can make things worse at work and make the problem worse. Here’s our suggested HR investigation timeline:

  • Within 1-3 business days of receiving a complaint: Initiate the investigation by notifying relevant parties, securing evidence, and conducting initial interviews. 
  • Within 1 week of initiating the investigation: Interview key witnesses and involved parties. You can ask for any additional evidence that may be needed.
  • Within 2 weeks of initiating the investigation: Conclude interviews and evidence gathering. Start evaluating your findings.
  • Within 3 weeks of initiating the investigation: Finalize the investigation report and analyze if any policies were violated to improve compliance efforts.
  • Within 1 month of initiating the investigation: Communicate results to the complainant, respondent, and relevant stakeholders. Take corrective actions if needed.

To solve complex cases, it’s important to follow consistent timelines to avoid bias, negligence, or willful ignorance. Setting clear expectations upfront for efficient investigations and timely follow-up also shows that allegations are taken seriously.

Our HR Investigation Process: 5 Steps to Investigating a Complaint

When it comes to HR investigations, everything needs to be by the book. 

This is where a documented standardized process comes in handy. It ensures consistency, accuracy, and efficiency, saving both your time and resources. 

So, for a start, here’s a step-by-step process that we recommend for conducting a good HR investigation.

1. Document the Initial Complaint

When someone complains or reports misconduct, the investigation process kicks in. The complaint can be formal, like an HR complaint form, or informal, like a verbal complaint.

Whoever receives the initial complaint should document all relevant details in writing, including:

  • Name, department, and position of the complainant
  • Name, department, and position of the accused 
  • Date, time, and location of the alleged incident(s)
  • A detailed description of the misconduct or policy violation
  • Names of any witnesses or other parties involved

Just a quick note here: it’s important to keep everything about the complaint confidential. Sharing any details with others could cause issues for everyone involved and complicate the whole complaint process.

2. Review the Allegations

Start reviewing the allegations to decide if they need to investigate as per company policies. If the allegation doesn’t need investigation, the complainant will be told about the same.

But if you consider that an investigation is otherwise necessary, create an investigation plan. This includes:

  • Defining the scope of the investigation 
  • Identifying involved parties
  • Creating a timeline for interviews and evidence-gathering

3. Notify the Parties

Both the complainant and the respondent (accused) must be notified that an investigation is happening. The respondent should know what they are being accused of and get to see the written complaint.

It’s also important to emphasize confidentiality and outline the expected investigation timeline. If needed, you can also guide the parties on how the investigation process works.

4. Conduct Interviews

It’s time to speak to both parties and any witnesses in a private setting. Here are some tips for conducting these interviews:

  • Ask open-ended questions and allow parties to give their full recollection of events
  • Avoid leading questions or influencing the response
  • Take detailed, written notes of responses or record interviews with consent
  • Review key details back with interviewees to ensure accuracy

Sometimes, you may have to interview people more than once to get all the information you need.

5. Gather and Analyze Evidence

To investigate a complaint, you need to gather some evidence like emails, texts, files, performance reviews, or security footage. Keep in mind to preserve evidence in its original form. Don’t alter it, and keep copies for analysis.

Once you have evidence, review it objectively. Try to find out what’s true and what’s not. Take notes on your findings and how they relate to company policies. Don’t leave out any important details.

What to Do After an HR Investigation

After an HR investigation is done, you still have to take some important steps to wrap up the process properly. Here are some things you should keep in mind for post-investigation procedures:

1. Communicate Findings

Give a summary of the investigation findings to the complainant and the accused party. Then, schedule separate meetings with each party to discuss the next steps. 

More importantly, confidentiality is still important here. Only share general findings on a need-to-know basis with senior leadership, legal counsel, or external investigators.

2. Take Corrective Actions

Once you’ve finished investigating the issue, take appropriate action like giving warnings, coaching, policy changes, or extra training. 

Be fair and consistent with how you’ve dealt with similar issues before. If you’re somehow unsure about the situation, it’s best to consult legal counsel. Make sure to update workplace policies and procedures so the same issue doesn’t happen again.

3. Prevent Future Incidents

When analyzing a problem, it’s important to look for any patterns or systemic issues that may have contributed to it. If you find any, make changes in the organization to address them.

And if you haven’t encouraged your employees to report any concerns early on, it’s time to do it. Consider giving access to anonymous reporting channels, harassment hotlines, and HR contacts. This helps them feel comfortable sharing any concerns they may have.

What Legal Issues Can Arise During an HR Investigation?

Yes, conducting a workplace investigation with legal implications can be overwhelming for HR professionals. But, you have to be aware of the laws and regulations that guide workplace investigations to keep your company safe from liability issues.

Understanding Legal Complications

It’s important for HR professionals to know the laws like Title VII, FMLA, ADA, and the requirements of agencies like EEOC. Investigations that don’t follow legal guidelines around discrimination, harassment, and reasonable accommodations can cause lawsuits, government fines, and damage to the company’s reputation.

Working with Legal Counsel

When it comes to complex or sensitive cases, it’s always wise to have a legal expert by your side from the very beginning of an HR investigation. 

Having a knowledgeable attorney on board can provide the right guidance on legal requirements, help evaluate evidence in an unbiased manner, and advise HR on the best course of action based on investigation findings. 

With legal counsel on board, you can be assured that every aspect of the investigation is handled with the utmost care and professionalism.

Handling External Investigations

Did you know that the EEOC has the power to investigate your company, and HR has to fully cooperate with them? That means providing access to all records and employees and implementing any corrective actions they require. 

It’s important to involve legal counsel right away to protect your company’s interests while still fully cooperating. Remember, cooperating fully is crucial for a successful resolution.

3 HR Investigation Best Practices

1. Leveraging Technology

Using technology can make HR investigations a lot easier. There are some cool software tools that can help you manage cases, collect complaints, interview notes, evidence, reports, and other important documentation in one secure place. They can also send you reminders, use templates, and workflows to make things more consistent and less stressful for HR staff. 

With cloud-based systems, you can easily work with people in different locations. You can use video conferencing to interview people or have meetings and share documents with everyone in real time. You can even analyze the data from investigations and use it to improve policies and practices. 

Let’s take a look at Lyft, a sharing economy service provider that offers ridesharing, bike sharing and delivery services. In 2020, they revamped their Employee Relations program by bringing in a software called HR Acuity. 

This tech upgrade turned their investigation process from relying on scattered spreadsheets to a well-organized hub. Now, Lyft’s ER team provides accurate and detailed data, making investigations more effective and resolving issues with solid documentation.

Overall, technology improves accuracy, efficiency, and communication and ensures investigations proceed fairly and according to plan.

2. Embracing Diversity and Inclusion

Fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion can enhance the fairness and effectiveness of HR investigations. To cultivate this healthy culture, companies can provide bias mitigation training to investigators. Additionally, organizations can actively recruit investigators with multicultural backgrounds to further combat bias.

During investigations, HR should use interview practices that encourage objective fact-finding from diverse perspectives. It’s important that workplace policies and investigatory procedures also promote equitable treatment.

Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Google, like many tech companies, initiated programs to support Black employees. By 2021, they’ve achieved a 30% increase in leadership representation for Black+, Latino+, and Native American+ Googlers, with plans to double Black+ representation in U.S. offices by 2025. 

Their commitment extends beyond hiring, as they work with internal groups like the Black Googler Network for hiring, and expand their efforts through internal mentorship initiatives like Stay and Thrive.

By prioritizing diversity and inclusion in HR investigations, organizations can create replicable outcomes and promote a culture of fairness in the workplace. So let’s work together to make sure that investigations are conducted with impartiality and inclusivity.

3. Training for Investigators

Proper training transforms HR staff into skilled investigators adept at interviewing, evidence-gathering, documentation, and assessing credibility. Look for programs that teach:

  • Legal compliance – Investigators must adhere to employment laws and regulations to minimize corporate risk. Training covers statutes like Title VII, FLSA, FMLA, ADA and OSHA.
  • Impartial questioning – Investigators need open-ended, non-leading interview skills to uncover facts without prejudice.
  • Documentation – Meticulous note-taking and report writing ensures nothing gets missed or misconstrued.
  • Assessing credibility – Investigators should watch for deception and inconsistencies without making assumptions.
  • Confidentiality – Training stresses the vital importance of discretion when handling sensitive information.
  • Investigation workflows – Step-by-step protocols optimize efficiency, consistency and fairness.

Proper training gives HR teams the confidence and expertise to conduct accurate, unbiased investigations that withstand scrutiny.

Meta’s Employment Law team is setting an awesome example with their anti-harassment training program. Their main focus is to educate supervisors on how to prevent harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. 

This initiative shows Meta’s dedication to making the workplace free from such issues. They provide valuable tips and strategies for supervisors to tackle these issues effectively.

Mastering HR Investigations Is Just One Way to Level Up Your HR Game

Effective HR investigations are crucial for a healthy workplace culture and to protect your company. They must be thorough, impartial, legally compliant, and timely.

Think about it: when employees feel that their concerns are being taken seriously and that their company is committed to addressing any issues that arise, they are more likely to be engaged and productive. 

On the other hand, a lack of transparency or accountability can lead to a toxic workplace culture, with negative consequences for morale, retention, and even legal liability.

So, if you want to create a workplace that fosters trust, respect, and collaboration, make sure you prioritize the importance of effective HR investigations.

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