Workplace investigations are difficult for everyone involved, whether you are the accused, the complainant or the HR professional charged with making sense of conflicting reports. However, it’s critical to get to the bottom of the issue by asking the right questions. Within the process, one of the most challenging aspects is speaking with the employee being investigated.
The accused employee needs to be treated with respect — after all, there are times where accusations may turn out to be false. Also be aware that the employee is likely to feel some emotional distress at the prospect of being investigated in the first place. Let’s explore some ways to make sure that the process, and the individual in question, are handled with the utmost care.
BEST PRACTICES WHEN INTERVIEWING THE ACCUSED
Interviews are the most critical piece in collecting evidence during an investigation. It is important that they are held in a private location to minimize speculation by co-workers. While not always feasible, it is a good practice to have an observer attend as a witness and note-taker, freeing the interviewer to be fully present as an active listener. If the interviewee is represented by a union, they have a right to a union representative, who can attend as an observer only.
Introduce all attendees and generally explain the purpose of the interview without revealing details, as specifics may lead the accused to change facts or identify a complainant. Make sure they know the investigation will be fair, that the interview is simply to collect information and that all of the particulars are confidential and will only be shared with those who need the information.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE ACCUSED
Within the investigation process, asking questions of the accused can be challenging. Talking with witnesses or the complainant is one thing, but they are not having to defend themselves and their jobs in the process. The interviewer must be respectful but impartial and cannot allow prior experiences with the individual to affect questioning. The goal is to collect facts, keeping questions short and open-ended while allowing the interviewee plenty of space to do the talking.
- Start with broad questions, such as “Did anything unusual happen on Monday?” Continue to focus questions until the interviewee hones in on the specifics of the incident and can fill in details. Work toward a chronological timeline of events from the interviewee’s perspective.
- Remain objective so the subject feels comfortable providing as much information as possible. Ask if there is any way someone may have gotten a false impression that they behaved improperly.
- Ask for the names of any witnesses who could corroborate their version of events. Is there any tangible evidence that the accused or witnesses could provide, such as notes or documents?
- Ask the tougher questions at the end of the interview. Once the accused is on the defensive it may limit their cooperation. You should also make sure they’re fully aware of the allegation(s) against them and allow them an opportunity to respond.
- If the allegations are denied, ask what motive someone might have for making up the allegations and whether the person has an alibi for the time in question.
- End by asking if there is any other information that the company should be aware of. This is an opportunity for the interviewee to provide relevant information that you may have missed.
- Clearly explain that retaliation is not allowed against anyone, including those who may cooperate with the investigation.
- Above all, be respectful. Those affected are less likely to retaliate or seek legal alternatives if they feel the process was handled fairly and all sides were given due consideration.
BEST PRACTICES IN HANDLING THE ACCUSED EMPLOYEE
Workplace investigations are challenging for those involved and a charge resulting from an investigation can be particularly alarming for the accused. They may be worried about their reputation, their job security or even legal ramifications. Many work in at-will states where the employer is free to terminate for any reason, so long as it is a reason not prohibited by law.
Still, a good employer will work hard to find the truth. The key is to ensure the accused understands the allegations and has an opportunity to rebut the claims, is treated fairly and respectfully and is provided as much confidentiality as possible. In “Best Practices for Questioning Employees Accused of Workplace Misconduct,” Richard Kass says an internal investigation serves multiple functions, including compliance with corporate policies, promoting fairness and enhancing morale. A sound investigation serves everyone well when employees trust that incidents are handled fairly across the board.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
It is likely that you’ll need to reinterview the accused after your initial meeting to follow up on information uncovered from witnesses or your document review. Regardless, it is good to keep in touch. While you won’t be able to share information on the investigation itself, letting the employee know you are still working on the investigation will send a signal that a fair process is taking place.
Workplace investigation interviews, particularly when speaking to an employee accused of wrongdoing, can be challenging and sometimes a bit uncomfortable. It’s important to be prepared and ask questions that both keep the interview fair and work to uncover the facts behind what happened. When executed correctly, an interview can be central to a comprehensive and compliant investigation practice.