My daughter is 5 now, and by the time she was 2, she started to develop an understanding of what “fairness” is.  I think the desire to be treated ‘fairly’ is inherent to our human nature.  And as a member of the ethics and compliance community, whether your department is legal, compliance, human resources, or something else, you have a responsibility to your constituents to create an investigation process that is as fair, transparent, consistent and unbiased as possible.  I’ve found that even if your employees do not like the outcome of the investigation or the answer to their question, they are far more likely to respect it if they know they are treated like everyone else.

Here are some HR investigation protocol tips to help you create a consistent investigation process and ultimately build a culture of trust.

  1. The Investigators Role
    As an investigator, your main role is to assess whether or not the reported concern is valid or not. Meaning you gather the necessary evidence to determine what really occurred. During the evidence collection process, it is important that you:
    • Be unbiased and not favor one outcome or another.
    • Seek evidence that supports the concern as well as evidence that contradicts it.
    • Do not jump to conclusions or assume you know the outcome, even if you have seen similar facts previously
    • Let the evidence reveal what occurred
    • Be unbiased as well as appear unbiased… Remember reality is based on perception
    • Always act within the law and consistent with your company’s policies and procedures.
  1. Create an Investigation Plan
    If you set up a compliance hotline and promote it effectively, they will call so be prepared and have an investigation plan in place. If you do not have an investigation plan take the time to think through the potential sources of evidence and be mindful of the order in which you might seek it. A proper investigation is built on solid planning and greatly increases the chances of reaching an accurate conclusion.  To help get you started, here’s an outline for creating an investigation plan:

Review - It is essential that you review the specific language in any relevant policies, procedures, and/ or laws to make sure you understand what is permitted or prohibited. Knowing precisely what the law/policies says will help you determine what evidence you may need to collect.

Brainstorm - Think about potential sources of evidence.  Write your ideas down and remember that no idea is a bad idea. 

Organize – Once you have finished brainstorming, organize your thoughts in an outline. For example, you can organize your ideas using the following categories.

    • potential witnesses (people you might interview)
    • site visits
    • potential physical evidence and documents 
    • electronic evidence/data/communications 
    • potentially relevant policies
    • dialogue with the reporter, known or anonymous
    • past relevant reports and/or cases

Prioritize - Identify the actions that will be the most advantageous to take at the beginning of an investigation. For example, is there any hard evidence such as email messages, pictures, video footage or badge data showing when a specific person entered or exited a building?  Also, try to gather as much information about your witnesses as possible before meeting with them, so you know what you are walking into.  You want to be the most informed person in the room. And of course, do not forget to enter the evidence you collect as you collect it into your Case Management System.

  1. The Case Management System Role

During an investigation it is important to leverage a centralized repository, ideally some sort of Case Management System (CMS), to log and track not only the documentation collecting stage of the investigation but also the conclusion and the resolution. Things to remember…

    • Your CMS allows you to efficiently track, follow-up on, and analyze all questions and concern raised through your hotline as well as issues received through other channels.
    • Data entered accurately and promptly will help you be more efficient and, potentially, to identify actions that can help prevent similar issues in the future.
    • If you are lucky enough to be more than a team of one, make sure to assign a case manager as soon as a question or issues comes in, so it’s clear how has responsibility for the concern. 
    • Always make sure a “thank you” message is sent to the report. For example, “Thank you for sharing your concern, we take all reports seriously and will be conducting a thorough investigation. Please check back within 72 hours for an update and or follow-up questions."  It is important that the reporter know that their concern or question is acknowledged and not lost in a black hole.
    • Most importantly, your CMS will help you ensure a consistent and unbiased approach to investigation and resolution

 As you build trust and promote your ethics and compliance hotline, your employees will start to share their questions and concern either through your hotline web portal, over the phone, directly to you or directly to management.  Remember regardless of how the concern comes in or whom it is reported to you should have a consistent process in place to document and manage the investigation.  I think Brit Hume said it best, “Fairness is not an attitude. It's a professional skill that must be developed and exercised.” 


Stephanie Jenkins is the Chief Compliance Officer of ETHIX360.  At ETHIX360, our goal is simple, to provide an affordable, flexible and comprehensive answer to employee communication and case management on issues related to corporate ethics, code of conduct, fraud, bribery, environmental, health & safety and workplace violence.  To learn more about ETHIX360, please visit ethix360.com, or follow us on twitter @ethix360 and LinkedIn.