A workplace investigation into organizational culture is an increasingly common scenario. At some point, nearly every organization faces investigating employee conduct such as bullying, harassment, expense fraud, or policy violations. 

It’s critical to conduct these investigations systematically and without bias. Otherwise, the organization won’t receive valuable insight into underlying causes while mitigating their risk.

When is an external workplace investigation required?

But conducting a thorough, impartial workplace investigation is a skill that requires training and experience. There are some instances where external investigators are always recommended. These include issues involving senior leaders, those where an internal investigator will not be seen as impartial, or any that are likely to result in legal action.

Most organizations don’t have internal full-time investigators. When not utilizing an external investigator, the responsibility often falls to employees in the Human Resources or Safety departments. If an organization chooses to use employees to conduct workplace investigations, it should ensure those employees receive proper training and mentoring.

Common mistakes in a workplace investigation

But, even with training, there are 5 common investigation mistakes made during workplace and safety investigations. Even the most experienced investigator can be susceptible to these mistakes if they aren’t vigilant.

1. Looking for one “cause”

When setting out to conduct an investigation, there is often a desire to find ‘the’ cause or ‘the’ problem. This links to our natural human desires to simplify and find closure.

But it’s extremely rare that there would ever be a singular cause to an incident.

Generally, there are many issues leading up to an incident. For example, in the case of bullying, it would be easy to stop at the cause being the poor choices of one individual.

But you could ask these questions instead:

  • Were there other employees around who were also modeling the behaviour? Or who saw what was being done and didn’t intervene? Click here to find out if your employees are competent to spot and address harassment and bullying. 
  • Is there a culture of bullying?
  • Does management turn a blind eye or also participate?
  • Is there a policy on bullying, a safe reporting mechanism, and are complaints effectively responded to?

When an investigator goes in looking for ‘the’ cause, they will often stop the investigation or the questioning before all the other relevant potential causes are identified.

2. Looking to identify fault rather than facts

The purpose of any investigation should be objectively identifying facts and building an understanding of what led up to the incident under investigation.

Investigators often go in looking to identify a fault. While it may be appropriate to determine culpability after the investigation is complete, the investigation itself needs to be focused on facts.

Looking for fault is often akin to looking for one cause and results in the same problems listed above.

There is a more insidious way that fault-finding can affect investigations: there’s a tendency to blame people and their characteristics rather than situational factors.

When we only fault individuals, we miss out on identifying important system and culture issues that also contributed to the situation. If those aren’t identified, they can’t be addressed.

Interestingly, we also do the opposite and blame the situation if we like, or can relate to, those who are implicated. This can also result in inadequate or inappropriate responses to situations.

Investigators need to be vigilant to stay impartial.

3. Not preparing or documenting adequately because the situation seems cut and dry

It’s often the case that when a situation comes in, it seems very straightforward. An easy investigation trap to fall into is assuming that you can predict the outcome.

Some of the most complex investigations I have conducted seemed to be simple in the beginning. But often the results of an investigation didn’t align with the originally anticipated outcome.

Adequately preparing for any investigation is critical, no matter how direct it seems.

Here are some ways to prepare:

  • Reviewing all relevant documentation and evidence before any interviews.
  • Identifying appropriate people for interviewing.
  • The investigator must also be nimble during the investigation as new information comes to light or the situation increases in complexity.

Proper documentation is critical in all investigations. And even more so when things go in an unanticipated direction!

Don’t miss these 5 steps for preparing for a workplace investigation. 

4. Falling prey to natural human cognitive biases

There are many cognitive biases all people naturally have. These can affect your role as an investigator.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret ambiguous information so it fits with the original assumption of what happened. This places more weight on information supporting the original theory and subconsciously discounts information that doesn’t fit the theory.

Similar to this is the “as if” bias. This is where investigators treat all information as if it is equally important, rather than giving more importance to the information which is most relevant.

Recency bias is the tendency to place more weight on things that happened in the recent past or that have been discovered most recently. 

Representative bias is when we assume a situation is the same as a similar one we have experienced before. This leads to not fully exploring the current situation.

There are others such as hindsight bias where we overestimate what someone reasonably should have understood in a situation and the halo effect where our impression of a person affects our interpretation of their character.

Essentially, investigators have many natural human tendencies in interpreting information. These can work against them if they aren’t aware of them and take extra precautions not to succumb.

5. Inability to stay impartial

This can happen to anyone. Usually, we see it during investigations by internal investigators.

While it stands to reason that anyone conducting a workplace investigation will try to ensure they’re impartial, there are instances where this is difficult or impossible.

An obvious example is when the employee doing the investigation knows those involved well. Less obvious situations may be when the investigator has:

  • Themselves, been in the situation of the complainant.
  • Where they may have something to gain by the outcome going in a certain direction. (e.g. do they want that person’s job)
  • Where the investigation involves someone that has potential influence over the employee such as a senior leader – whether they’re in their direct reporting stream or not.

In most cases, the investigator may feel they are being impartial but are subconsciously affecting the questions they ask and the interpretation of answers. Take care to identify potential biases upfront during an external investigation. Having two investigators involved can help lessen the effects of subconscious biases.

Putting programs and policies in place, (and improving workplace culture), helps you avoid the need for a workplace investigation. Do you currently have a policy that specifically speaks to the prevention of bullying and harassment in the workplace? If not, now is the time to put one in place. Here’s how.

What’s next?

If you do find yourself in an investigation situation, consider hiring a professional workplace investigator. Or, take steps to avoid the common mistakes above.

Visit our Workplace Investigation page to learn more about our investigation services. Or, contact ACTivate HR today to learn how we can help you with your workplace investigation needs. Info@activatehr.ca

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Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

Acting ‘Reasonably’ in your Workplace: 5 tips to help you avoid harassment claims
The Worst Has Happened. Now What?
Effectively Investigating Workplace Bullying and Harassment Hazards and Incidents

This article was originally published on March 14, 2017, and has been updated.