Conducting a Workplace Investigation: A Handy Guide for SME Owners

Corporate wrongdoing not only damages the reputation of a business but also brings down employee morale and productivity. If not tackled in time, sensitive disputes and issues like workplace harassment, violation of company policy, and cybersecurity issues among others can attract negative publicity, causing irreversible reputational damage to the business. What’s more? Firms mishandling such issues face legal actions, six-figure legal settlements, and heavy penalties. This can be catastrophic, especially for SMEs and startups that need to optimize their resources.

Hence, small and medium-sized business leaders should be aware of a workplace investigation best practices. An effective workplace investigation can help prevent such disputes in the future, improve organizational culture, and create a welcoming, just, and safe work environment for all.

Read on to know the key steps for conducting a successful workplace investigation.

1. Decide Whether or Not to Investigate

Carrying out a workplace investigation ties up a business’s time and resources and can prove to be expensive, especially if the issue was minor or could have been resolved at the team level. Hence, going for a full-fledged investigation without an initial report isn’t advisable.

On the other hand, if you let a complaint or whistleblower allegation pass without an investigation it can leave the complainant feeling disheartened and deprived of their rights. Therefore, it’s important to go on a fact-finding mission to assess whether or not the complaint warrants disciplinary action. Use these questions to make a suitable decision in this matter.

How serious is the issue or conduct? For instance, a claim of sexual harassment deserves an immediate formal investigation. If a firm fails to do so, it can adversely affect the company’s culture and lead to legal action. Worse still, the act itself will be condemned as being discriminatory.

On the other hand, if a majority of your employees agree that an issue is minor and can be resolved internally, you can safely conclude that a full-blown investigation isn’t needed.

How many employees/ people are impacted by the alleged misconduct or wrongdoing?

Will not investigating lead to legal liability and continuing workplace issues?

At times, you simply cannot determine how serious and widespread an issue is until you poke around and collect facts. Before deciding whether or not to investigate a workplace issue or whistleblower accusation, it’s advisable to wear the detective hat and get to the bottom of the matter.

2. Preparing for a Workplace Investigation

If the allegation or complaint is serious and demands an investigation, go ahead with a formal investigation. Use the steps shared below to plan an effective workplace investigation.

Define the Scope of the Investigation

Defining the scope of the investigation will help you stay on course and successfully tackle the issue while making optimum use of the resources. During the planning phase, be clear on what you are investigating. Is it a violation of the company’s code of conduct, a criminal violation, or a case of bullying? Is the issue impacting your business’s or employees’ privacy? How frequently has this issue or complaint been raised?

Choose an Investigator

Corporate employee investigations deserve a skilled, experienced, and impartial investigator. Whether you are looking to involve someone in-house or from outside, choosing a suitable investigator for sensitive workplace investigations isn’t easy.

Consider the investigator’s domain expertise, legal knowledge, and experience before involving them. The type of investigation will also impact this decision. For instance, if it’s a sexual harassment investigation, the gender of the investigator will matter. Similarly, if you are involving an in-house investigator, you need to consider the perceived or actual biases that could impact the investigation.

Finally, when hiring an external investigator, consider this checklist to give them a complete overview of the situation without sounding biased.

Conduct Preliminary Research for the Interviews

As a part of your initial planning, you will need to jot down the people you will be interviewing and understand their background. Also, decide on where, when, and in what order will they be interviewed and the question you will be asking them.

3. Conduct the Interviews

Every workplace investigation warrants three types of interviews (in that order!) –

  • The complainant, victim, or the whistleblower
  • The witnesses who have critical information related to the case
  • The accused employee/s or the subject of the allegation

Make a list of the open-ended questions you will be asking each of them in order to extract as much information as possible. Further, in order to put your interview subjects at ease, you should –

  • Choose a neutral location for the interview
  • Build a rapport with the subject before the interview by talking about their interests or professional achievements
  • Offer water or a beverage to calm them down
  • Accommodate the subject’s schedule when planning the interview
  • Be open about the objective of the interview

4. Gather the Facts

This is one of the most time-consuming and tedious steps of a workplace investigation. At this stage, you need to carefully gather all physical (drugs, weapons, photographs, or stolen items) and digital (personnel files, email messages, and correspondence) evidence related to the issue, taking care not to miss out on any detail. Make sure all the evidence is stored securely, protecting it from being tampered with.

5. Take Action

A workplace investigation without a clear conclusion and action is not just a waste of resources but also an open invitation to legal hassles and bad press. Based on the information derived from the interviews and the evidence gathered, decide whether or not to take action against the complaint.

If no action is needed, document the decision, stating valid and defensible reasons for it.

Always assume that the decision will be challenged in court.

On the other hand, if an action needs to be taken against an employee, it may include the following –

  • Disciplinary action
  • Suspension or Termination
  • Counseling
  • Mediation between two or more employees
  • Involving law enforcement authorities in case of a criminal act

6. Write an Investigation Report

The final investigation report summarizes the entire investigation in an accurate and succinct way, allowing various audiences to get a complete picture of the issue raised and how it was handled. Though businesses need to document the workplace investigation at every stage of the process, this final report will summarize the investigation in an effective way.

Document the summary of all the steps with the interviews, the evidence, and the investigative findings at each stage, proving that the investigation was timely and fair.
Check out this video that offers effective tips on writing an effective investigation report.

(Source: i-Sight YouTube)

7. Follow Up

The final step is to check with the impacted employees whether or not the issue has been resolved. Has the misconduct or wrongdoing stopped? How has the action impacted the employees and the work culture? This is also a good time to assess whether –

  • The company policies need to be updated
  • Any training sessions need to be conducted to prevent systemic workplace issues like widespread confusion related to company policies


Workplace investigations are a part of all businesses, big and small. When an employee walks up to you with a complaint or an allegation, it’s important to handle it effectively. These investigations can be extremely stressful as they come with the risk of exposing your business to costly litigation and negative publicity.

Use the information shared in this post to successfully manage such tricky situations and create a healthy workplace environment for your employees.

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