ALL I GET IS COMPLAINTS!
Grumbling about anything and everything is a favorite pastime for some employees. While you may be tempted to ignore the squeaky wheel, it’s not in the company’s best interest to do so. A prompt investigation is important to resolving workplace issues. Additionally, the EEOC has an expectation that an investigation will begin within hours, not days. Although Investigating complaints can be time consuming there are tips to help the process go more smoothly.
Prepare for the Investigatory Interview
The benefits of preparing for an interview far outweigh the time it takes to pull the pertinent information together before you begin. Information you should pull together includes:
- Personnel files of both the complainant and the accused (including performance reviews)
- Relevant policy(ies) that may have been violated
- Notes about similar incidents that have been investigated
- Any emails, notes or other correspondence about the specific incident(s)
- Time cards/work schedules if relevant
- Job descriptions, if relevant
- Make a list of questions to ask the parties involved
- Make a list of people who will need to be interviewed
- Determine what forms need to be used or created to capture relevant statements and observations during the interview.
Asking the right questions:
As simple as it may seem, the standard questions apply.
- Who allegedly said or did what you're complaining about?
- Who else saw or heard what happened?
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- Why do you think it happened?
- How can this be corrected?
- What additional information can the interviewee tell me about this specific situation?
- Relevant follow-up questions as necessary
Sometimes the nature of the complaint can overwhelm us. However, there are simple steps you can follow to keep yourself on track.
1. Open the discussion by telling the individual being interviewed why you need to speak with them. You don’t necessarily need…or want…to identify either the person making the complaint or the accused. For example, instead of asking a witness “Did you see Tom touch Judy?” ask “Did you ever see anyone touch Judy?” Additionally, you don’t necessarily need to reveal the source of the complaint or information you’ve already reto the accused or other witnesses.
2. Do not promise confidentiality. You can, however, reassure the individual that you will keep the investigation as confidential as possible but that some information may have to be disclosed in order to get to the truth. Also, while you can’t specifically prohibit an individual from talking about the investigation, you can ask them not to discuss the nature of the interview in order to maintain the integrity of the investigation and to prevent evidence from being destroyed or information from being fabricated.
3. Take notes during each interview. Advise the interviewee that you will be taking notes in order to make an accurate report of the investigation. Keep your pad turned away from the person being interviewed and try to record statements verbatim as much as possible. Also, record your observations of the individual’s demeanor. For example, “Mary avoided eye contact and had trouble directly answering the questions. Make sure your notes are clear, legible and concise. Remember, these notes could be used in a lawsuit against the company. Sign and date each set of notes as you take them. Document only direct evidence….what you see, hear, taste, smell, or touch with your own senses. For example, if Employee A says he saw Employee B hit Employee C, do not write it as if this was a fact. Instead write that Employee A stated that he observed Employee B hit Employee C. Whether or not Employee A’s statement is true will be evaluated later in the investigation.
4. Interview the complainant. Confirm with the person complaining that they believe you will investigate the matter in an impartial manner. Make sure you ask all of the relevant questions to collect as many specifics as possible, including the context in which the incident occurred. Clarify timeframes with the complainant to make sure you have a detailed chronology of the incident. Does the timing of the complaint happen to coincide with a poor performance review, pay or transfer denial, etc.? Could there be any other motives on the part of the accuser? Find out what the complainant wants from the investigation. Reassure the individual that a thorough investigation will be conducted and that no retaliation will occur because s/he made a complaint. Do not make any comments about the accused’s character, job performance, etc. Ask for names of witnesses who may have observed the incident.
5. Interview the accused. Tell the accused that the interview is to determine facts and that no decision regarding guilt or innocence has been made. Ask the accused to provide their side of the story. Expect the accused to deny the charge and observe his/her reaction. Are they surprised? Angry? Disbelief? Take notes about how s/he reacted. Describe the details of the allegations and take notes regarding areas where the statements of both parties disagree. Ask the accused if there are any witnesses who can support his/her side of the story and whether or not s/he may have any other evidence such as letters, emails, voicemails, etc. to provide to you. Instruct the individual that s/he is not permitted to retaliate against the individual who brought the complaint forward nor anyone who participated in the investigation.
6. Interview the supervisors of the accused and/or complainant. Talk with the supervisor to learn of any discipline or behavioral problems on the part of either the accused or the complainant. Find out if the complainant brought the incident to the attention of either supervisor. Determine whether or not the supervisor has additional evidence (letters, emails, voicemails, etc.) to share with you regarding the incident.
7. Interview the witnesses. Obtain statements from any witnesses to the incident either supporting or denying the complainants accusations. Advise them that their participation in the investigation is important and will in no way result in adverse action or retaliation.
8. Carefully document your findings. Basically, you’re going to take all of your notes and summarize the nature of the complaint, information collected that support the complaint, information that refutes the complaint, and a determination of whether or not you believe the complaint has merit and if so what steps you have taken to correct the problem. When writing your report, make sure to state only facts and not opinions. Use the language of business when writing your report and remember the adage “don’t write or say anything that you don’t want published in the newspaper”.
Resolving the Complaint
Once you’ve completed your interviews and have summarized your findings, you need to make a determination whether or not the complaint had merit. This doesn’t have to be based on a “preponderance of the evidence”…it just has to be a reasonable determination based on the facts you’ve collected.
If there is merit to the claim, you should:
- Apologize to the complainant for the incident (if appropriate)
- Determine the severity of the complaint and decide on the appropriate level of discipline. This could range from an oral warning up to discharge depending on the specific circumstances. Additionally, anything short of discharge should be accompanied by a warning that if the behavior occurs again, it could result in additional discipline up to and including discharge.
- Provide additional counseling and training regarding the individual’s behavior to underscore the importance of changing this behavior.
- Meet with both parties to inform them of your findings. NOTE: You should not share the nature of the discipline that will be imposed on the accused. The complainant just needs to know appropriate action will be taken.
If you determine there is no merit to the claim, communicate that outcome with both parties, but reassure the complainant that s/he should continue to alert you if certain incidents or behaviors occur. The accused should not receive discipline but should be reminded about your relevant policy regarding the incident in question.
Follow up with the complainant a couple of weeks after the investigation has been completed to make sure no other incidents have occurred and that no retaliation has occurred. Additionally, you should follow up with witnesses to ensure they haven’t experienced any retaliation for participating in the investigation.
Sometimes, companies receive anonymous emails or voice mail messages alleging inappropriate behavior by one of its employees. Despite the anonymity, the company has an obligation to investigate as best as it can. If this is an email, respond to the email and ask the sender to contact you to provide more information about this serious matter. Interview those who may have been on the same shift and/or project as the accused to see if they observed any inappropriate behavior. Be careful not to harm the working relationships between the accused and the individuals you are interviewing. If you cannot substantiate the complaint, document your efforts to investigate and maintain a file. Use the situation as an opportunity to remind the department about workplace behavior and about the company’s complaint process.
Workplace investigations can be challenging. However, with careful planning, it can be done quickly and efficiently.
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