Employers may need to conduct workplace investigations in order to protect their employees and reputation. A workplace investigation can also protect a company from civil or criminal liability. But, when is it appropriate to conduct an investigation? What steps should employers take to conduct a thorough investigation? When should you meet with an employment attorney in San Francisco? Here’s what every employer should know:

When Is A Workplace Investigation Necessary?

Employers typically launch workplace investigations after being notified of problems by their employees. There are many different types of employee complaints that can trigger a workplace investigation, including allegations of:

  • Discrimination 
  • Sexual Harassment 
  • Retaliation
  • Workplace Violence
  • Safety and Health Issues
  • Violations of Laws or Company Policies

Every employee complaint may not warrant an investigation, though. It’s up to the employer to analyze each complaint to determine how serious it is and whether or not an investigation is needed. Sometimes, an employer may resolve minor issues simply by talking to the parties involved. However, serious allegations should trigger a workplace investigation.

How Quickly Do Employers Need to Investigate Complaints?

If a company determines that it is necessary to investigate a complaint, the investigation should begin right away. Launching an investigation in a timely manner sends a clear message to employees that you take complaints seriously and will not tolerate certain behaviors. It also ensures that the parties involved will not have time to destroy evidence. In addition, witnesses can still be relied upon if the investigation is launched quickly since the memory of what happened should be fresh in their minds.

Some companies have established policies that outline how soon an investigation should start following an employee complaint. Companies that have not put these policies in place should launch the investigation as soon as it is possible to do so.

Certain complaints should be investigated immediately, meaning the investigation should begin on the same day the complaint was filed. For example, claims of physical harassment or threats of violence should not be taken lightly. As an employer, it is your responsibility to investigate these claims right away in order to protect your employees. 

Timelines can vary on a case-by-case basis. But in general, most companies try to launch investigations within two days of receiving a complaint and aim to conclude investigations within several weeks.

How Can Employers Conduct Fair Investigations?

There are several steps that an employer should follow to conduct a fair and thorough investigation. Every investigation should begin with an interview with the employee who is filing the complaint. This will give you the opportunity to learn as many details as possible and ask any questions you may have had about the allegations.

The employee may provide you with the names of people who witnessed the unlawful behavior. As an employer, it is your responsibility to determine which witnesses are relevant to the investigation. Relevant witnesses are those that can provide information that could affect the outcome of the investigation. These witnesses need to be interviewed as part of the investigation.

Employers will also need to obtain and review evidence that is related to the claim such as emails, pictures, videotapes, and written documents. Don’t rely on the witnesses or the complaining employee to provide all of this evidence—you may need to find it on your own.

It is important to conduct an interview with the accused party, too. This gives the accused party the chance to tell his side of the story and provide information that may clear his name. 

Keep the investigation as confidential as possible. The only parties that should know about the investigation are those that absolutely need to know because of their involvement. Employers should also remain neutral throughout the course of the investigation, so don’t make up your mind about what happened until you have had time to analyze the evidence. Following these tips will help you conduct a fair investigation into employee complaints. 

What Should Employers Do After the Investigation is Over?

Conducting an investigation is only half of the work. At the end of the investigation, employers must analyze the evidence and determine whether there is truth to the allegations.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recommends that employers focus on reaching factual conclusions rather than legal conclusions in harassment and discrimination investigations. For example, an employer that investigates allegations of sexual harassment should focus on determining what happened. Are the allegations true? What evidence supports this conclusion? The employer should not focus on analyzing the law to determine whether or not the accused party’s conduct was illegal.

Keep in mind that this is the best practice for harassment and discrimination investigations. However, employers may need to make legal conclusions if the investigation is related to allegations that an employee violated a law.  

Employers must also decide if it is necessary to take action against the accused party and if so, what type of action. Employers are legally obligated to prevent and correct inappropriate behavior, which means you must take action at the end of the investigation if the allegations turn out to be true. Some examples of penalties that employers can impose on the responsible party include:

  • Bonus Revocation
  • “Last Chance” Agreements
  • Counseling
  • Training
  • Termination 

The action that you take will depend on the nature of the offense and the employee’s personal record. For instance, an employee who has repeatedly engaged in inappropriate or unlawful behavior should receive greater penalties than first-time offenders. It helps to look at what the company decided to do in the past when faced with similar circumstances. Looking at these examples will ensure that the action you take is fair compared to what’s been done in the past.

When Should You See An Employment Attorney in San Francisco?

There is no room for error when it comes to investigating employee complaints. In fact, a single misstep could put your company’s reputation at risk and open the door to legal liability. Don’t take any chances—turn to a trusted employment attorney for guidance.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.