A Beginner’s Guide To Workplace Investigations

Workplaces work when people feel safe, included, and free to pursue opportunities based on their merit. They work when sound rules, processes, and procedures are followed — by everyone. Discrimination, harassment, exclusion, conflicts of interest, and other infractions create unsafe and/or unfair work conditions and may result in investigations. What do you need to know?

What Is A Workplace Investigation?

A workplace investigation commences when an internal HR professional or third-party investigator is tasked with looking into a workplace issue and coming to a conclusion of facts.

Investigations are most often initiated when an employee comes forward with a complaint regarding inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. In many cases, they involve harassment, sexual harassment, or discrimination.

Occasionally, an employer may become suspicious that an employee is engaging in misconduct and want more information before making a determination as to whether disciplinary action is necessary or the employee should be dismissed.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, it is important for employers to launch and complete an investigation in a timely manner.

The Goals Of A Workplace Investigation

The very word “investigation” conjures up images of our favourite police dramas. Often, our hardworking detectives employ the element of surprise to elicit evidence from suspected wrongdoers.

It makes for dramatic television, but in real workplace investigations, professionals provide respondents (i.e. those against whom the complaint was made) with details of the allegation so they can effectively respond.

There is no surprise, no ambush, and ideally, no drama. The goal of a workplace investigation is to collect evidence and reach an unbiased conclusion.

Who is Involved in Workplace Investigations?

Depending on the situation the investigation will be conducted by either an in-house HR professional or an external third-party, someone like us. Regardless of whether it’s an internal or external investigator, it is crucial that this individual has been trained in workplace investigations. This helps ensure that the process stands up to scrutiny and that the employer is are able to make decisions based on reliable information.

As an employer, for example, you do not want to terminate for cause based on flawed information. Nor do you want to continue to allow inappropriate/illegal behaviour to occur simply because an investigator does not thoroughly understand applicable laws.

Many HR professionals have received good training and are capable of conducting a solid investigation. That said, there are some situations in which a third-party is far preferable. These include those that deal with:

  • Serious or complicated issues.
  • Highly sensitive information that needs to be contained.
  • Senior people in the organization who may have undue influence over an internal investigator.

How Is A Workplace Investigation Conducted?

The specifics of a workplace investigation vary based on the complexity of the situation, how many people are involved, and other factors. In general, the investigator:

  • Explains to all participants the importance of confidentiality.
  • Provides the respondent with the particulars of the allegation.
  • Interviews the complainant.
  • Interviews the respondent.
  • Asks both parties if there are witnesses who may provide further relevant evidence. These individuals, if any, are then interviewed.
  • Reviews documentation (e.g. emails, files, etc.).
  • Assesses credibility and makes findings of facts.
  • Prepares a report outlining their conclusions.

Throughout the proceedings, the investigator must keep an open mind. Their job is to collect evidence in an impartial and fair manner.

How Should A Workplace Investigation NOT Be Conducted?

Investigators should not adopt a strategy in which they look for evidence to support an allegation rather than determining if that allegation has merit or can be substantiated.

If they go into the investigation with an opinion and seek evidence to support it, then the entire process is flawed — and this can lead to legal vulnerability for the employer.

To avoid this, consider engaging an employment lawyer. Through their practice, they are experienced in asking probative questions, weighing evidence, and assessing credibility. They can put this skill set to work to ensure your workplace investigations are conducted fairly and that you have reliable evidence with which to make decisions.

How Long Does An Investigation Take?

The best answer is, “it depends.” The complexities of the complaint, availability of the participants and witnesses (if any), number of interviews, and other factors influence the investigation timeline.

Why Do We Need Workplace Investigations?

It’s the law. The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to have processes in place for complaints to be filed and investigated. Bill 132 goes further requiring employers to investigate incidents of harassment even in the absence of a complaint and can assess whether an investigation was appropriately conducted given the circumstances.

In other words, you cannot simply go through the motions of an investigation. It must be conducted in good faith by an appropriate individual.

There are other reasons why workplace investigations are critical. They help ensure the workplace is safe and the culture is conducive to productivity and growth. It is also important to protect employees from unjust termination, as well as from suffering ongoing effects of misconduct.

If You’re an Employee:

Workplace investigations are intended to find the facts and provide parties an opportunity to be heard. They should never be about ambushing people or “building a case” against someone.

Regardless of whether you are a claimant, respondent, or witness, you should be treated respectfully and provided a full opportunity to tell your story.

If You’re an Employer:

Investigations are critical in responding to complaints of misconduct and must be taken seriously. Our job as a third-party investigator is not to demonize or disrupt: rather, it is to discreetly determine if there is merit to allegations.

Whether an employee or employer, fair, impartial investigations are in everyone’s best interest. Everything from the how to the who needs to be carefully considered to ensure that the results are fair and just.

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About Melanie Reist

Melanie Reist has over 30 years of employment law expertise.

With her strong employment law background, Melanie is also an effective mediator who can assist parties in resolving workplace conflicts as well as disputes which have gone to litigation.

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