After the investigation: What do you do when you are done?

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MericCraigBloch_webBy  Meric Craig Bloch
From Compliance Today, a publication for HCCA members.

Many workplace investigators assume their work is done once they have uncovered the relevant facts, prepared the investigation report, and reported their findings to management. This is a mistake. The completion of a workplace investigation also gives investigators and other compliance professionals an opportunity to promote the compliance process and reinforce its relevance in the organization.

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Follow up with participants

So what do you do when you are done? The easiest way to look at this opportunity is to consider your investigation’s participants. (We should assume that the implicated person will have already been informed directly about the findings and any personal consequences as a result.)

The reporter(s)

Let’s look first at the person who made the report. When the investigation is complete, you will need to say something to the reporter. In some cases, the reporter will be an employee of your company, but the reporter may also be an outsider. Either way, you will have to explain that the investigation was completed in a commercially reasonable way, and that the process is done. Unless you do something, the perception will likely be that the initial report was not investigated, swept under the rug, or that it fell down some operational black hole in the corporate bureaucracy. A proper response instead closes the process, reinforces its fairness, and it may anticipate (or preempt) the contact by a dissatisfied reporter to your executive management, a regulator, or the media.

However, please remember not to breach your confidentiality obligations or disclose anything that could be construed as your (inadvertent) admission of company liability. The easiest approach is usually to tell them (a) thanks for reporting the matter to you; (b) the investigation is now complete; (c) a report will be made to management, and (d) that any corrective action, if necessary, will be promptly taken. Don’t disclose whether the allegation was substantiated or specifically what disciplinary action may be taken against employees. The reporter only has a reasonable expectation to be informed that their concerns were handled appropriately.

The witnesses

The next group to consider is your witnesses. In a typical investigation, the witnesses are co-workers of both the reporter and the implicated person. Consequently, the witnesses are likely to learn indirectly about the outcome of the investigation—they will draw the appropriate conclusions if the implicated person doesn’t arrive at the office the following Monday—but you haven’t done anything to reinforce the effectiveness and relevance of the compliance process to these people. Many investigators forget that today’s witness can be tomorrow’s reporter if the situation is managed well.

As part of your closing steps, consider asking each witness the following questions:

  1. Do they believe that the investigation was conducted in a thorough, independent, and objective way?
  2. Do they currently have any concerns regarding possible retaliation or breach of confidentiality?
  3. Are they aware of any actual or suspected misconduct which was not covered by the investigation? (I am thinking of the possibility that there may be something else out there that their confidence in what the investigator did now encourages them to report.)
  4. If you learn of something in the future, would you be willing to report it to the company through one of the reporting channels, including the hotline?
  5. Have you been advised that the investigation has been concluded?

If the answers reveal any areas of concern for the investigator, further discussions are needed immediately.

By asking these five questions, you can ensure that the reputation of your process is protected, you might learn of other issues, and you can help encourage future reporting. At a minimum, this step helps you re-establish the organization’s ethics and values, and demonstrates that the organization is serious about maintaining a safe and productive workplace.

The decision-makers

Let’s look now at those who will act on your findings. The decision-making team should use your findings to determine an appropriate response to the incident. If your duties involve recommending corrective action, verify that the actions were taken. If the discipline falls short of termination, confirm that the implicated person actually was disciplined. If the employee was told to complete a training program, has it happened? If you recommended a change in reporting relationships, has that taken place? I suppose there is no requirement that management must follow an investigator’s recommendation, but unless the file reflects an informed management decision to take a different approach, it will appear that the findings and the underlying problem were ignored. (For those who fear that investigation reports create road maps for liability, this is a perfect illustration of the problem.)

After a short interval of time, say two weeks, consider checking with the reporter to confirm that the misconduct (if proven) has stopped, no retaliation has taken place, and the relevant co-workers consider the matter resolved. If you learn of any problems during these conversations, take action right away.

Future considerations

Some investigations reveal larger problems that should be addressed. Did your investigation identify confusion or uncertainty about a specific company policy? Are there managers who need some additional guidance about handling workplace behaviors correctly? Did you discover that management had been aware of the problem—or at least had a nagging suspicion that there might be one—but swept the problem under the rug? If the answer is yes to any of these, you need to take further action.

A professional investigator knows that once they become involved in handling a report, they own the process through to completion and are responsible for almost everything that happens. As fiduciaries for our organizations, we should not want it any other way.

Meric Craig Bloch (meric.bloch@adeccona.com) is the Compliance Officer with Adecco Group North America, in Livingston, NJ.

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