HR investigations can be complex and are most certainly emotionally charged for both those making the complaint and for the accused. If you or someone you know has ever made an official complaint to HR, I will try to give you a general overview of what is involved.
First, we evaluate the complaint. Depending on the seriousness of the accusations, we will make the decision whether there needs to be a full-blown investigation or not. Descriptive words like “hostile work environment,” discrimination,” “harassment,” and “retaliation” will likely turn into an investigation.
Second, we will develop a plan. We will decide who needs to be interviewed, what questions we will ask, and create a timeline. Actions should be swift and more often than not, completing the investigation will take top priority. There should be a high sense of urgency in responding to serious allegations. Witnesses should be interviewed as soon as possible so they can best recall what they saw or heard.
When interviewing, we will ask open-ended questions, listen quietly, and take notes. Any judgments or comments are to be avoided. Follow-up questions to clarify certain points will be asked. We will ask for specific dates and times of events. We will compile any relevant documentation including e-mails.
Third, a formal report is written. This report will compile all the key notes from the accuser, the accused, and witnesses. A recommendation for action will be provided in the summary. In “he said/she said” cases, the complaint may be unfounded based on witness accounts and testimony of all involved. Or, there may be enough evidence that the belief is that the event actually happened. In this case, disciplinary actions will be taken, which could include an official written warning, a final warning, suspension, a demotion, or even termination. The report is usually reviewed by legal counsel and also by the highest level of HR in the company before any action is taken.
Fourth, we will follow up with the person who initiated the complaint to communicate that the investigation has been completed. Due to confidentiality, we may not be able to share much detail, but as I noted above, this does not mean no disciplinary actions have been taken. If the complaint is unfounded, we will share this data. We will thank the employee for bringing up their concerns and to let us know if anything new happens in the future. We will also follow up with the accused to advise of the outcome.
Be aware that we cannot always keep complaints confidential. We will need to share some details in our investigation with witnesses and the accused in order to question them. However, we will keep the information on a need to know basis and will also ask the witnesses to keep the investigation confidential.