When an employee raises a concern about discrimination or a hostile work environment, every HR professional knows that a prompt and thorough investigation needs to occur. It is tempting to respond to this organizational and legal imperative by immediately launching an investigation.
But STOP! First evaluate whether conducting the investigation internally is really the right decision. If any of the following four situations resonate for you, you may want to consider using an external investigator.
When you don’t really have time to make the Investigation a top priority
We never really know how much time an investigation will take before we have begun. However, if the allegations are serious and/or one or more of the following conditions exist, it is possible that it could be time-consuming:
- Multiple complainants
- Allegations of multiple incidents
- Multiple witnesses
- Multiple locations
The timely completion of the investigation is almost as important as its timely start and thoroughness. The longer the investigation drags on, the more negatively productivity and morale can be affected.
Since most people have day jobs with multiple priorities pulling at their time, the internal investigator will need to set aside all but the highest priority tasks until the investigation is complete.
When you may not be perceived as neutral and objective (even though you are)
We all believe that we can be objective. What matters, however, is whether the complainant and/or the alleged offender will believe that the internal investigator is objective. Carefully evaluate the reporting relationships, work friendships, work history and anything else that may affect others’ perceptions about the objectivity of the investigator. Are there any real or even perceived conflicts of interest for the investigator? Are there past interactions with the parties involved that might lead them to believe you won’t be objective?
The more senior the alleged offender, the more likely that any internal investigator will not be perceived as objective. Employees tend to believe that internal investigators can be influenced by fear of retaliation and potential impact on his/her own career if a negative conclusion is reached about a senior offender.
When you haven’t done this before
We all have to learn at some point. If there is a senior, experienced investigator or in house or external counsel who can mentor and guide a less experienced investigator, this may be a great place to learn. However, if the allegations are serious and/or complex, it will be important that the investigator have an appropriate amount of experience.