After a very busy week, you finally have a couple of hours to get to that big stack of “to do” items. Right as you begin to dig in, an employee enters your office and asks if you have a few minutes to discuss a matter concerning a group of coworkers that has made her very upset. You desperately want to tell the employee to come back tomorrow. What should you do?
Ask the employee to come in and conduct an initial fact-finding meeting. And, no matter how busy your are, or what kind of mood you’re in, do not let your “go away instinct” be known, warned attorney Lisa Lavelle, of Patton Boggs, LLP.
The initial meeting with an employee who brings a complaint is a critical stage of the investigatory process, explained Lavelle, who along with attorney Doug Mishkin advised HR professionals on how to effectively handle workplace investigations.
Three goals of the initial meeting
Even the first few seconds of the initial meeting are crucial as they set the tone for the entire investigation, advised Lavelle. Therefore, when an employee comes to you with a complaint, you must be prepared to respond appropriately. To do so, you must understand these three goals of the initial meeting:
Instill confidence. The first interaction with the employee is the time to instill confidence in your ability and that of the company, to address the employee’s concerns, advised Lavelle. Therefore, before questioning the employee, confirm that he or she feels comfortable that you can reach an impartial resolution. Ask, “is there any reason why you feel I cannot be fair and objective?”
Be ready to respond if the employee expresses doubt over your ability to be fair. You may decide to assign the investigation to someone else. Or, at the very least, you can explore the employee’s reasons for feeling this way. Starting this dialogue may make the individual feel more comfortable.
Identify all issues. The second goal is to identify the issues raised by the employee’s complaint, stated Lavelle. This will help you determine whether the issues can be resolved informally or if an internal investigation will be necessary. You must listen carefully, as the real issue will not always be what the person bringing you the complaint says it is. For example, an employee could tell you he has a complaint about his recent performance review, and, in response to your questioning, reveal that he and his manager were in a romantic relationship, that he broke it off, and now the manager gave him the bad review as punishment. The issue initially sounded like a performance review problem but is really a sexual harassment problem.
Gather the evidence. The initial meeting is often when the employee will be most likely to share all the facts, suggested Lavelle. Therefore, the third goal of the initial interview is to find out the facts. Ask the “who, what, where when and why” questions. Use open-ended questions as opposed to yes or no inquiries. And inquire as to whether the employee has any documentation that would be helpful to resolving the issue(s) raised, or if the employee knows of any documentation that you should obtain.
A note on documentation . . .
Once an employee has brought a complaint to your attention, all relevant documents should be identified and obtained quickly, advised Lavelle. These documents may provide information that will help verify facts, as well as help identify who should be interviewed and what questions should be asked. Throughout the investigation, repeatedly ask those involved whether or not they have any documentation that would be helpful in the investigation.
Who can view documentation? Access to documents involved in an investigation should be limited exclusively to those who have a legitimate business need to know, according to Lavelle. For example: information that is necessary for decision-makers to make a decision; information that is necessary for people to conduct the investigation or to take action as a result of the investigation; and information that needs to be shared during the investigation in order to obtain more information.
When an employee raises an issue meriting investigation, you should encourage the employee to provide a summary of the issue(s) in writing. But never force the employee to do so, warned Lavelle, as such a requirement is intimidating and may discourage employees from coming forward with complaints in the future.
If the employee agrees to provide a written summary, ask that it include:
- a list of all the employees’ issues/concerns/complaints.
- the relevant facts and dates the employee believes support his or her concerns.
- the names of people the employee thinks may have information relevant to the investigation.
- and suggestions for obtaining relevant documentation (such as memos, performance reviews, etc.).
Lavelle also suggested providing a memo or letter to the employee summarizing the issues raised. This document will provide both the person responsible for handling the investigation and the employee raising the issue with an opportunity to make sure that all of the issues are clearly understood before starting the investigation.
The confirmation memo should:
- identify the issue(s);
- identify the facts provided by employee to support issue(s);
- confirm these are all issues raised.
- identify the person investigating the matter and confirm his or her impartiality and fairness.
- identify a roadmap for investigation; and outline the company’s expectations for the employee raising the issue.
The memo should normally be prepared within several business days. Because it will not always be practicable to prepare this document before proceeding with the investigation, it is not a mandatory step.