When an employee makes a complaint about a co-worker or supervisor, it's crucial to get to the truth. After all, employers must take reasonable steps to protect employees from discrimination and harassment, which are among the most common complaints. At the same time, both the accused and the accuser have reputations and careers to protect. Ideally, the employer is a neutral arbiter on the issue.
As a leader of your organization, you set the tone for investigations. How should your HR professionals proceed?
Time is of the essence; notice is not
Your complainant has a right to expect that the matter will be addressed right away, and that's usually best for the company, as well. Given enough time, rumors could start and factions could be created. This could lead to bad feelings and retaliation claims.
Once HR has identified the witnesses (including the accused) they wish to speak with, interviews should be scheduled as soon as possible. Ideally, notify each witness's supervisor that they will be missing from work for a time, but try to give the actual witness as little notice as possible. This limits their opportunity to discuss the situation with others or to plan in advance what to say.
Note of caution: Unionized employees typically have the right, upon request, to have a representative present whenever they reasonably believe a discussion might result in disciplinary action. If you can't assure the employee that they are not going to be disciplined, consider that they may request a union rep. If they do, you should bring in a manager in addition to Human Resources.
Keep things friendly but dig into specifics
So far, the process may seem adversarial, but you may learn more from the witnesses in a more collaborative process. Meet in a private location and sit next to the witness, not across a desk. If the witness is not in any trouble, say so up front. Explain that their statements will be kept as confidential as possible. Reassure them that retaliation for participation in an investigation is prohibited.
Try to ask questions with specific answers, and tailor them to each person to avoid giving out unnecessary information. One lawyer interviewed by the Society for Human Resource Management recommends being vague about the specific allegations, as this can elicit more honest responses.
Begin with broader questions and work toward narrower ones. Ultimately, you are seeking hard facts, not rumors or statements of support.
Quality employment law attorneys are also a good choice for performing internal investigations. They can lend an air of neutrality while getting to the bottom of the complaint and making any necessary recommendations for how to address it.