How to Conduct an Effective Investigation
Advice for professionals who need to establish what happened in a situation requiring review.
Wed, June 06, 2007
CSO — Editor's note: At many companies, small security staffs mean other departments—commonly human resources or legal—necessarily help conduct investigations. John Thompson’s Corporate Investigations for Nonsecurity Professionals, published by the CSO Executive Council (which is affiliated with CSO), aims to ensure that information is collected in a reliable and legally responsible manner. The following is an abridged excerpt on the planning phase of an investigation.
The objective of an investigation is to get the facts so that a resolution of the complaint and situation can be achieved. At the same time, it is possible that some day a jury or attorneys outside the organization might scrutinize every aspect of any investigation conducted. For example, the organization might have to turn over to outside attorneys every note the investigator has written about the investigation, and the investigator might have to recount every conversation he or she had involving the investigation. Moreover, someone’s job or well-being might depend upon the quality of the investigation. Thus, an investigation is not something that should be done haphazardly or without a clear plan in mind. Many investigators have declared their embarrassment to me when I have reviewed their investigation file two years after the investigation in preparation for a deposition or trial testimony. The investigator’s memory naturally is poor about the investigation because it is years later and numerous investigations have come and gone in the interim.
Worse, the investigator’s notes often are cryptic, undated and virtually useless. What seemed like a perfectly reasonable investigation plan at the time is impossible to decipher later. Because every part of an investigation might later be subject to scrutiny, every part of the investigation should be documented, including the up-front planning process. The following considerations should help the investigator plan an investigation. This, in turn, should lead to more accurate and complete information obtained and greater legal protection for the organization.
Minimize witness intimidation.
As the investigator begins thinking about how to conduct the investigation, he or she must confront the possibility that certain witnesses to the investigation might feel intimidated by the alleged wrongdoer, even by the simple fact that the alleged wrongdoer is in the workplace. Even worse, the alleged wrongdoer (and even the complainant) might intimidate, harass, or retaliate against witnesses in an attempt to influence the outcome of the investigation. It might be necessary to remove the alleged wrongdoer, the complainant or both individuals in order to maximize the information obtainable from other witnesses. On the other hand, removing an employee from the workplace during an investigation is a serious human resources matter. If the investigator believes that removing an employee from the workplace is necessary to remove possible intimidation, he or she should consider consulting with the need-to-know group to obtain a consensus on such an action.