Pattie Hunt Sinacole explains the process of a workplace investigation

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Q:  I was just asked to participate in a workplace investigation.  I was asked this by my direct manager and then our VP of People called me their office.  I am not sure what this is about.  How should I respond?  Am I required to participate?  What should I be prepared for?

A: The goal of a workplace investigation is to better understand the facts and details around a workplace complaint.  Usually an employee, or a vendor, has filed a complaint.  An employer has an obligation to ensure that their employees, customers, contactors, vendors and others are provided a safe environment.  If someone is being subjected to harassment or other inappropriate conduct, then the employer has to take action.  Often, depending upon the circumstance, an investigation will take place.  The first step in an investigation is usually data collection.  Who filed the complaint?  What was the nature of the complaint?  Who may have observed the complaint?  The investigator may also want to review documents related to the investigation.  These may include employee files, policies, handbooks, org charts as well as contact information for each person who may be involved in the investigation.

Often each individual is interviewed, and this typically includes the complainant, and any observers.  Sometimes the list of interviewees expands as one interviewee may share that someone else may have input or observations.  There is a balancing act between completing the investigation and the number of interviews conducted.   There may be several individuals interviewed, and usually this is part of the investigator’s role.  In short, who should be interviewed and in what order.  The length of the investigation may vary, based on the seriousness of the complaint and the number of interviewees.

When I am hired to conduct a workplace investigation, most of my investigations are completed within a month, but there are a number of factors which could impact the timeline.  As an example, a key interviewee may be on a leave of absence or a vacation.  This may extend the length of time to complete all of the interviews, and present and/or write the report.

The workplace investigator is often selected based on their related experience, as well as the ability to remain impartial and independent.  Sometimes an investigator, outside of the organization, is selected.  There are times when an employer will request a verbal summary of the investigator’s conclusions. It is also common for an investigator to submit a written report to the employer.

You may be asked questions about your observations, including what you may have seen or heard.  You may not know even the individual or the behaviors being investigated.  You should be honest and forthcoming, to the best of your recollection.

Employees are required to participate in an investigation.  If they refuse, they could face discipline or even be terminated.  It is best to cooperate in an investigation, and be candid with your responses.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.