The Lipp Law Firm, PC

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The Lipp Law Firm, PC

Internal Workplace Investigations

When an employee or manager is accused of wrongdoing, getting experienced attorneys involved who understand corporate legal exposure and offer legal advice is critical. Delegating the process can allow you to quickly shift focus back onto your business operations.

What Is an Internal Investigation in the Workplace?

An internal investigation in the workplace is a fact-finding mission into an allegation of wrongdoing. This potential violation may be one of discrimination (such as age, gender, race, or disability), fraud, sexual or other harassment, assault, or other illegal or inappropriate behavior by a worker or employee. 

The internal workplace investigation’s goals are to determine the truth of what actually happened, to protect the company from legal liability, and to keep the workplace safe. An investigation report may or may not be generated based on your organization’s investigation procedures.

Typically, an investigation begins when an employee or customer makes a complaint to someone within the company about alleged inappropriate behavior contrary to company policy. The process that governs an investigation will vary based on your company’s internal procedures for handling complaints.

In larger companies, the human resources or legal department will act as internal investigators, and sometimes, they will outsource the investigation to outside legal counsel to receive an unbiased report. In many organizations, the investigation will be conducted by a supervisor, board member, or administrator.

An investigation is normally triggered by a customer or employee complaint. If the company decides that an investigation of the allegation is warranted or required, then they will investigate whether the complaint is valid.

The investigation process involves speaking with relevant witnesses, reviewing documentation pertaining to the complaint, and then determining if corrective action or disciplinary measures are needed.

What Are the Steps of an Internal Investigation?

Step 1 – Complaint is Filed

The complaint is filed, typically with a supervisor or human resources manager, but sometimes the complaint comes through an anonymous hotline tip. The complaint can be written or verbal, although some organizations require a complainant to reduce their complaint to writing.

Step 2 – Determine if an Investigation is Required

The organization will determine if an investigation is necessary. In some circumstances, the organization has discretion in its internal procedures to not conduct an investigation, perhaps because it is unnecessary or because the organization can tell that a complaint does not have merit without conducting a formal investigation.

Step 3 – Choose Lead Investigator

The organization will assign a lead investigator. It is best to place one person in charge of an internal workplace investigation, because it saves time and resources. The investigator can be a human resources manager, supervisor, administrator, lawyer employed by the company, or private investigator, such as an outside lawyer, or professional employer organization (PEO).

Step 4 – Lead Investigator Determines the Scope of Investigation

The lead investigator will confirm the scope and procedure for the investigation with the company. It’s important to keep the scope of an investigation narrow, so that it can be limited to the allegations at issue, and not waste organizational resources. Also, the procedure for the investigation should be confirmed, typically by reviewing the employee or organization manual, or sometimes the organization’s bylaws, which may have requirements about the internal workplace investigation process. Previous corporate investigations can lend information about how an organization conducts its investigations, ensuring it’s a consistent process.

Step 5 – Investigators Reviews Relevant All Information

Fifth, the investigator reviews relevant evidence, interviews relevant witnesses, and prepares a summary of the relevant facts. Inquiring into the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of an allegation is helpful at the fact-finding stage.

Depending on the investigator’s and the organization’s preferences and policies, an investigation report or summary may be prepared.

This report includes:

  • Individuals involved
  • Incident being investigated and the dates
  • Credibility determinations and key factual findings
  • Witness summary statements
  • Specific conclusions
  • Employer actions
  • Name of person making the final decision
  • Issues that weren’t resolved or that were excluded from the investigation

Step 6 – Investigator Recommendations based upon Findings

The workplace investigator may make a recommendation for disciplinary action or possible corrective action, which will be up to the organization to adopt or alter. Ultimately, it is the organization’s decision on whether discipline or corrective action is necessary.

What Triggers an Internal Investigation?

An internal investigative process begins when a complaint of wrongdoing is brought to the organization’s attention. A complaint can come from an employee, vendor, customer, or member of the public. Generally, the complaint will come from an employee, and it will be based on the actions of a colleague.

An organization does not always have to conduct an internal investigation. The decision whether to investigate will be based on the organization’s policies and the severity of the allegations made. Some policies mandate an investigation whenever a complaint is made, but others allow for discretion regarding whether an investigation occurs.

It’s important to regularly conduct legal reviews of your organization’s investigation policies to ensure they are up to date and in line with your organization’s regular practices and applicable law.

Why Do Companies Conduct Internal Investigations?

Companies conduct diligent investigations to minimize legal exposure and to ensure a safe working environment. Since the organization is the one paying for and conducting the investigation, it will typically be conducted in such a way to ensure that the organization is protected and that the alleged wrongdoer or wrongful acts don’t happen again.

In some circumstances, an investigation will almost always occur, such as when there is a workplace injury, criminal activity, or a safety issue. It’s important to keep an open mind when receiving an initial complaint, and not jump to conclusions.

Lipp Law has seen many situations where a complaint at the outset seems unsubstantiated, but after a thorough investigation, the complaint is supported by tangible evidence, and requires corrective action, such as discipline or termination.

Contact The Lipp Law Firm

Each organization will have its own internal policies and procedures when it comes to the workplace investigation process. It’s important to regularly update and conduct legal reviews on employer policies for internal investigations to ensure they are a good fit for your workplace, properly protect your employees and organization, and comply with applicable law.

Old and outdated employer rules that no longer fit for your organization can make an internal investigation harder than it needs to be and can place your organization at risk.

If you need a law firm in the DC, Virginia, or Maryland area to conduct an internal workplace investigation, or to defend you if you are the subject of an investigation, contact Lipp Law for legal advice.

Kathryn Megan Lipp, Esq.

Call Lipp Law
(703) 896-7704
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