Step by step process employers should follow

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

  • a grievance about someone they work with,
  • a work-related incident,
  • harassment,
  • sexual harassment,
  • or discrimination.

Investigations are also warranted when an employer becomes suspicious that an employee is engaging in misconduct.

In this case, they will want more information before making a determination as to whether disciplinary action is necessary and requires an investigation into the issue to commence.

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

Where there is a complaint or grievance from an employee, and they wish for it to be formally investigated, it is important that the employer receives the complaint in writing from the employee

First Steps

If an allegation warrants it, you may need to take immediate action, such as separating the parties to the complaint, speaking to them individually or referring them for counselling, mediation or both.

Allegations of harassment, or sexual harassment, require sensitive handling and possibly immediate removal of one or both parties to another location. In the event of serious misconduct, it may be necessary to suspend an employee with pay pending an investigation.

When an organisation receives a complaint or report of wrongdoing, the organisation is obligated to take the report seriously and act on it quickly.

Depending on the type of complaint, the organisations policies will need to be reviewed in line with the complaint received. How the complaint is handled and the timeline for the workplace investigation and resolution will be outlined in the relevant policy.

The first decision to be made is whether the report warrants an investigation, and this cannot be taken lightly. Failure to investigate misconduct that should be investigated can have dire consequences for the organisation.

If you decide not to investigate, this decision needs to be documented thoroughly. State the reasons for the decision to decline to investigate and ensure they are defensible. Assume your decision will be questioned and make sure you have valid grounds.

The Investigation Process

Once the decision is made to investigate, there should be protocols for how to conduct an investigation, including a method for choosing the appropriate person to investigate the issue, the policies that apply and the timelines that need to be adhered to.

Any individual that is being interviewed as part of the investigation process has the right of representation. This can be an employee representative or a colleague, someone to support them during the meetings and process.
In general, the investigator:

  • Explains to all participants the importance of confidentiality.
  • Agrees terms of reference with both parties.
  • Explain the right of representation to both parties.
  • Determine the scope of the investigation ie pinpoint what you are investigating exactly.
  • 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.
  • Minute all meetings and agree minutes with all parties.
  • Prepares a report outlining their conclusions to go to the two parties.

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

Reaching a Conclusion and the Appeal Process

Consider every piece of evidence and how it contributes to the narrative of what happened. Remember that your job is simply to find out the truth, and weigh each piece of evidence against this requirement.

There are many types of evidence and each one can contribute to a successful workplace investigation.
It is your job to come to a conclusion, based on your interviews and the evidence gathered. Your conclusion is simply whether or not the allegation or report is found to be correct.

Based on the conclusion you reach in your investigation the company must decide whether or not to take action.

  • Action could include:
  • Disciplinary action against an employee
  • Counselling or professional assessment of an employee
  • Mediation between or among employees
  • Termination of an employee

If the company decides to not take any action, this should be documented, along with the reasons.

Once an investigation has been completed and depending on the outcome the parties involved have the right to appeal the findings and outcome. It is important that an appeal process is scoped out and communicated to the parties involved.

The appeal process needs to be led by another impartial person and the timelines for the appeal communicated to both parties.

It is also important to follow up after the investigation to gauge the effect that any actions taken have had and in particular if they have had a positive impact on those involved in the investigation and others affected.

If you would like further advice and guidance on any of the issues raised here please do not hesitate to get in touch.

About the Author: Maureen Heffernan is Head of HR Service Delivery at Corporate HR Ireland and can be reached at

Leave a Reply