When to Launch a Workplace Investigation

Mar 16th, 2010 | By | Category: Human Resources

Guest blogger Marcia Martinez-Helfman, president of ZIA Business Partners, Inc., discusses some of the legal challenges companies can face when dealing with inappropriate employee behavior. “Investigations,” she says, “are a valuable management tool that inform appropriate corrective action, mitigate legal risk and support healthy employee relations.”

Because the workplace is comprised of people, with all of our human flaws and foibles, it is inevitable that from time to time the employer will have to contend with individuals who act in ways that are inappropriate in the work environment. Disrespectful treatment of a colleague or customer, arrival to work under the influence, abuse of technology resources (e.g., personal use of social media, illegal downloads, improper solicitations) – human resources professionals who have been in the business for a while will tell you that they have pretty much seen it all.

When people behave badly . . . Employers have various tools to address these incidents, most notably progressive discipline procedures, counseling and training. But is that always enough? What if the circumstances involve not just bad behavior, but actually present a risk of serious harm to others and exposure to legal liability? When that line has been crossed, what are the duties of the employer who is legitimately concerned that the action of an employee now potentially threatens the wellbeing of others and exposes the company to the real possibility of a lawsuit?

What kind of problem do I have? Organization leadership and its HR team need to be able to evaluate the behavior in the first instance to determine its exact nature. Disrespectful treatment of a colleague can come in various forms and from different directions. When an individual is snarky all the time and refuses to demonstrate the slightest modicum of civility toward his peers, counseling may produce some relief. It is a very different matter, however, if a manager is accused of making a pass at a subordinate, or an employee is alleged to have transported a client after several beers at lunch. In those cases, the organization is vulnerable to legal liability due to potential risk of harm to others, and management must spring into action to determine the true facts, prevent any possible further harm, and take appropriate action against a violator. A formal investigation provides the foundation for such a response, and the greater the risk the more essential a thorough internal investigation becomes.

Mitigating legal exposure. If the circumstances suggest that laws or regulations are implicated, the company must demonstrate that it has made and will continue to make every effort to be compliant. The investigation serves this purpose in addition to providing a blueprint for remedial action by organization. Here’s how:

  • Fact finding The investigator conducts interviews, reviews the documents pertaining to the matter, and prepares her findings and conclusions based on the totality of the available information. The final report provides the employer with an objective description of the facts as best as they can be determined, which then serves as the basis for an informed and legally compliant company response.
  • Due diligence A prompt investigation not only provides the basis for corrective action, but serves as evidence of due diligence in light of allegations of egregious and possibly even illegal conduct. In the litigation context, the investigation reflects the employer’s good faith effort to promptly and thoroughly respond to allegations, and to prevent any future occurrences.
  • Informed response With a thorough factual assessment, the employer is able to determine the appropriate next steps. This may be disciplinary action against an offending employee, education or other suitable measures. It also may make it clear that the advice of a lawyer is needed. The company is able to move forward with confidence, knowing that it has made a comprehensive effort to seek the complete truth through an investigation.

Investigations are a valuable management tool that inform appropriate corrective action, mitigate legal risk and support healthy employee relations. Employers should avail themselves of the investigation process when employee behavior may be creating a risk of harm to others, impeding the healthy functioning of the organization or undermining efforts to ensure legal compliance.

MARCIA MARTINEZ-HELFMAN is President of Zia Business Partners, Inc., a full service human capital management consulting practice. Ms. Martinez-Helfman has over twenty years experience in human resources and employment law in broad range of business settings, including financial services, telecommunications, technology, healthcare, manufacturing and non-profits.

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4 Comments to “When to Launch a Workplace Investigation”

  1. Employee relations should be given more importance in an office environment as well as on any other business establishment -,.

  2. i think that employee relations should be prioritized first because it is the foundation of a good company”-*

  3. Leon Murray says:

    the boss and the company should always maintain good employee relations to have a more efficient environment~”-

  4. Julia Mason says:

    employee relations is very very important in the business setting.

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