Many sizable organizations with mature Human Resources departments choose to conduct an internal investigation rather than hiring out.

And sometimes, this is the right path to take.

First, it creates consistency in approach. And confidential information and findings are housed internally, along with recommendations and next steps for resolution.

Sure, this approach may be simpler. But there are times when it’s better to outsource investigation work to a neutral, experienced third-party investigator.

When an internal investigation isn’t the right fit

Let’s look at a few cases that have been in the news recently where an external investigator would be the best choice.

School board investigation

In 2017, a review of the Vancouver School Board ordered by WorkSafeBC found the behaviour of individual trustees and the conduct of the board itself played a role in creating a toxic work environment.

Click here to read more about this story.

When dealing with investigation of senior-level employees, internal investigations can be filled with problems for both the organization and the investigator.

In this case, avoiding an internal investigation and opting for an external investigation would have been beneficial.

Here’s why:

  • The level of the accused, in this case, board members and trustees, were at the most senior in the organization. It would be nearly impossible for a team internal to the school board to investigate without a perception of bias, real or not.
  • Again, due to the senior nature of those being investigated, any outcome internally that pointed to misbehaviour would have long-lasting damage on the working relationships between the investigators and those accused of wrong-doing.
  • The serious nature of the complaints, which could result in an outcome of dismissal for those being accused, requires a high level of expertise and experience. When dealing with the potential loss of someone’s livelihood, utmost care must be taken to ensure all information is secured reliably. Not to mention, without error or misinterpretation.

We also share 5 signs a toxic workplace culture is poisoning you here.

Police investigation

Another story from 2017 discusses the challenges of having cops investigate other cops.

Even when police outfits are investigating another force, there remains a strong bias to officers accused of wrong-doing. This is true for complaints from the public and internal complaints such as bullying, harassment, and policy violations.

Here’s why an internal investigation wasn’t the right option:

  • The investigating officer is too similar to the accused (own-self bias) to be able to objectively view the investigation bias-free.
  • There are strong cultural norms established in these organizations that constantly reinforce the need to protect one another. This is essential in keeping everyone safe on the streets. But it becomes problematic when trying to view an incident without preconceived notions.
  • The investigating officers are under strong unspoken (and sometimes spoken) pressure to come to the ‘right’ conclusion. This is evident not only in the Don Dunphy case in Newfoundland, but we’re also seeing the same behaviour in numerous acquittals in police shootings throughout the US. This also becomes a factor with internal complaints, which makes it doubly risky for employees when lodging a good faith complaint against another officer in the organization.

Wrongful discharge investigation

In another example, an ex-employee claims Trump-backer Robert Mercer wrongfully fired him for expressing political views.

This case was ultimately a wrongful dismissal claim. But it paints a perfect picture of how misbehaviour in family-run businesses can run unchecked. As well as how difficult it is for non-family employees to receive fair treatment without retaliation in cases of bullying in the workplace.

Again, these reasons highlight how an internal investigation wasn’t the right way to go:

  • As the accused in this case was the owner of a family-run organization, an employee getting truly neutral and unbiased assistance from internal resources is nearly impossible. Any internal investigator fears facing retaliation or negative consequences if the accused was found to be in the wrong.
  • All employees would rightly be fearful of losing their jobs in retaliation for speaking out against the CEO during any interviews. Particularly one who has made it clear that there is little room for differing viewpoints.
  • Unfortunately, in many cases like this, legal recourse is the only option. Very often organizations get away with wrongful treatment of their employees. This is because people tend not to have the desire to risk everything to fight for their rights in court.

Here’s more information on how to make sure your good workplace investigation doesn’t turn bad.

The critical first step to an external OR internal investigation

Whether you choose to use your team to conduct an internal investigation or rely on external expertise, there’s a balance of both models to optimally deal with workplace misbehaviour and complaints.

The critical first step is education.

Ensuring the proper training and experience of your team saves you time cleaning up issues in the future. One of the best training courses for internal HR teams I’ve come across is put on by Workplace Institute and is available in many provinces.

Where there’s potential internal conflict, human rights violations, a high likelihood that the investigation will come under scrutiny in court, or some of the reasons listed above, we’d be happy to assist you in conducting workplace investigations. Please check out our services page to see how we can help.

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Did you learn a lot from this post? Here are three more to check out:

What is in Your Respectful Workplace Policy?
Effective Communication Techniques to Bring Your Workplace Harassment Policy to Life
Effectively Investigating Workplace Bullying and Harassment Hazards and Incidents

This article was originally published in 2017, but has been updated in 2020 just for you!