An employee has complained about a colleague’s behavior.  It’s time to start an investigation into what happened.  Where do you begin?

In any workplace investigation, it is important to move quickly and ask questions that drill down to the truth of the matter.  Here are some tips on conducting a successful workplace investigation.

Where and When

 An HR professional investigating a complaint should schedule interviews for each witness at a convenient time and place and in a private location.

In some organizations, meeting in HR’s office might offer the most privacy and confidentiality.  But meeting in a neutral location like an out-of-the-way conference room or the employee’s office, if the worker has a private one, might make the interview less stressful for the witness.

Try to avoid having a large desk or table between the interviewer and the employee.

Notice About Interviews

 If the employee being interviewed is the complainant, don’t worry about giving him or her short notice of the interview. The complainant will appreciate speedy action.  As for potential witnesses or alleged wrongdoers, HR should provide them with as little notice as possible.

The HR staff member should notify the witness’s manager in advance that he or she will need to talk to the witness and that the employee will be away from work for a period of time.

How an interviewee is notified about the interview can vary.  HR could send a short e-mail or stop by the employee’s office asking for a few minutes of the employee’s time without saying anything about the reason.

What the Employee Should Be Told

 If there is no suspicion about an employee and he or she is there only as a witness, the HR professional should tell the employee right away that he or she is not in any trouble.  This should put the employee more at ease immediately.  Reassure employees that retaliation against those who participate in an investigation is prohibited.  Finally, stress to all witnesses the confidentiality of the situation.

Weingarten Rights

If requested, a unionized employee may have a union representative present during an investigatory interview.  An investigatory interview is one in which an employer questions an employee to obtain information which could be used as a basis for discipline against the employee, or asks an employee to defend his/her conduct.

These rights, referred to as Weingarten rights, currently don’t apply to nonunion employees.

Employers also should have two employees from management—such as HR and a manager or HR and employment counsel—present during investigatory interviews.