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Need-to-Know Basis

This article accompanies To Find the Truth.

Friday, September 2, 2011
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Secrecy and privacy are keys to any investigation. Keeping an probe quiet in the beginning is important, especially because it might not uncover any wrongdoing. Experts recommend a covert phase, then an overt phase of investigating.

* Covert Phase. "The old cliché 'need-to-know basis' really holds true when you're talking about sensitive investigations," says Richard Plansky, senior managing director and head of the New York office of risk consultancy Kroll.

Keeping things initially quiet allows an investigator to go through electronic records, spreadsheets, emails, web traffic, phone records, Internet history and other record trails without causing too much of a stir.

"All these things can be done discreetly without tipping off anyone, or without embarrassing anybody," says Plansky. "It makes you a whole lot smarter and allows you to see if the initial allegations you've received hold any water."

If using third-party vendors, it's important to monitor their processes. If they just say "We'll get the job done" and don't have a plan -- beware. Their actions are attributable to the company.

In many jurisdictions, for example, it's legal to go through someone's residential trash -- but it's probably not consistent with the corporate culture of many companies.

"The company has to set the tone ... ," Plansky says. "Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should do it."

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* Overt Phase. After a while, letting the workforce know about the investigation could encourage an employee to come forward with valuable information, as well as help the employees learn from the situation.

After gathering initial information, it's important to make sure that the employee who initiated the investigation is kept in the loop, says Barbara Hoey, attorney at employment law firm Littler in New York. That might seem obvious, but if the company doesn't do it, it can mean big trouble.

"Just get back to them and say, 'We're on it.' Oftentimes, that's all an employee needs to hear," says Hoey. Armed with that information, employees will be less inclined to go to the police, media or others in the company with their complaint or sensitive information.

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