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Tips for HR Investigations

An expert describes the steps HR leaders should take when heading up and conducting internal investigations.

This article accompanies To Find the Truth.

Friday, September 2, 2011
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If you remember only one tip when you either perform or review an investigation conducted in your organization, remember this question: How do you know?

In today's volatile business environment, businesses, both large and small, are seeing an escalation in the number of allegations of workplace misconduct or wrongdoing in their organizations. Typically, fact-finding is assigned to an HR professional to sort out the issue.

But how do you know if the investigation is comprehensive? How do you know if your HR professional has the right skills or asks the right questions? How do you know if the most appropriate determination is reached? And how do you know if the fact-finding process will be defensible if it's ever challenged in court?

If those questions make you shiver, they should. So here are three suggestions to help ensure that you really do know:

1. Don't assume that just because someone is an HR professional (no matter how many certifications they have next to their name), that they possess the proper skills and experience to conduct a thorough investigation.

This is somewhat of a Catch-22, however, because the way you get experienced in investigations is by actually conducting them.

Assess your investigators. Review their case files from previous investigations and/or sit in on one of their interviews. What you find may surprise you.

Once assessed, consider partnering your most experienced investigators with one or more junior HR professionals so they can receive some valuable on-the-job skills training. Building a stronger team of investigators is just plain smart.

That's exactly the way in which I got my best training and I still thank those who showed me the ropes. (And if you don't think you have the experience or skills to conduct a complete investigation, ask for help!)

Until you are confident that your HR professionals possess the necessary investigation skills, stay involved and continually ask them, "How do you know?"

2. Whenever I consult on in-house HR investigations, seldom do I hear or see HR investigators who are willing to make a judgment of credibility when no smoking gun (or even smoke, for that matter) exists.

The more common outcome is that the complaint is inconclusive. While that very well might be a possibility and it might feel safer, it should not be the default.

Most HR professional have the appropriate skills required to make solid credibility assessments; after all, they do them frequently as part of their job function -- every time they make a hiring decision.

The next time you are conducting an investigation, assess the credibility of involved parties in the exact same way you assess a candidate in the staffing process.

* How many times have you commented that a job candidate never looked you in the eye, was fidgeting in his/her seat or answered questions too quickly? How did you assess their credibility?

Or maybe the candidate answered questions with too much bravado and swagger. Did you buy it?

During an investigation, record examples of this same body language and relevant demeanor as you interview the parties involved.

* During a job interview, you'll ask your candidate about a three-year gap in employment. Do you believe what she tells you? Does what she's telling you make sense?

Consider the same when an involved party in your investigation explains how they couldn't possibly have behaved in the way that was alleged. Is the explanation consistent with your other facts? Is it logical or even plausible?

* We seek out references and conduct background checks when making a staffing selection to back up what candidates tell us in interviews.

There should be no difference in an investigation. Find the documents or the individuals that can corroborate, or in some cases, contradict, what you have been told.

* If you are interviewing a candidate and you ask them to describe some specific tasks they supposedly performed in a previous role and they can't remember any details ... makes you wonder, doesn't it? Funny thing, those sudden memory lapses.

It's no different from when an involved party in an investigation "forgets" to tell you about a recent and relevant conversation or email.

* And finally, we always look at records of successes or failures when evaluating candidates for open positions. Don't forget to do the same thing as part of your investigation. Look at employment history, previous issues and warnings.

3. Your assessment of credibility (and its supporting documentation) should be used as the basis of your final analysis of the facts.

Lastly, how will you (or an outside party) determine that the investigation is complete and comprehensive? Take the time required to write a comprehensive investigation report.

In my opinion, the investigation report is the most critical part of any investigation; however, it's the hardest to write and frankly the most neglected.

The investigation report creates a record of your investigation process (how the situation arose, who you interviewed, what documents you reviewed, etc.), the allegation (what are you trying to determine?), the facts you uncovered, your analysis (i.e., How do you know?) and your conclusions -- was there merit to the complaint?

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The report takes time, it's typically lengthy, and as an HR professional, you have 25,000 other issues to attend to that piled up while you were conducting the investigation. (That's usually the cause of the neglect in the first place!)

This is the wrong time to drop the ball. Write a sloppy report, an incomplete report or no report at all, and you may find a plaintiff's attorney asking you, "How do you know?" while you're sitting on the witness stand.

So here's what I do. Start writing an outline of your report before you finish your investigation. The general framework of the report is going to stay the same.

Leave blank areas as you go along and fill them in as you uncover new information. It will force to you ask, "How do I know?" It will force you to credibly document how you came to your conclusion.

Be sure to have another person read your draft report (and it's best if they know nothing about the situation ... but typically that is not possible for confidentiality reasons) to poke holes in it and ensure that you have covered all of your bases.

Only then can you truly say with any degree of certainty that you really do know.

Deborah J. Muller brings more than 25 years of human resource and investigation experience and expertise to her roles as founder and president of HR Acuity a firm that specializes in employee relations and workplace investigations. A frequent speaker and trainer on investigation skills, Muller has been instrumental in leading fact-finding cases involving a wide range of complex investigations, including sexual harassment, discrimination and inappropriate use of company funds. Muller earned a bachelors of science degree from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a masters of arts degree from the University of Maryland. Additionally, she has completed training on The Reid Technique of Interviewing & Interrogation and is listed on the Cornell University Institute for Conflict Resolution's Roster of Neutral Fact-Finders. For more information, call 888-598-0161.

See also:

To Find the Truth

The Data Hunters

Need-to-Know Basis

False Accusations Sent to Renault

The HR-Legal Partnership

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