Just the Facts

The truth will set you free.

Recently I sat in on an investigation – I wasn’t the lead – and was impressed with a couple of points. I thought I’d share them with you in case you ever find yourself in a position where you’re being questioned about a workplace incident. No, its not a lot of fun, but its another thing we do in HR.

First, as an investigator its essential to be objective, understand what the alleged issue is and to pre-think your questions. Yes, you can ad lib a little during interviews building on answers you receive but going in with no game plan is a sure way to sink the credibility of the interview. Also, the objectivity is paramount: if I had a nickel for every time a manager had already determined what the problem was (and usually the solution as well – often “firing” the employee!) I would retire and blog no more.

The HR pro has to stay open-minded about the incident until they’ve gathered enough facts to consider. Yes, this is tough when you are potentially the only person trying to be objective but that’s our discipline: its what we do. Weenies need not apply for the HR role.

Now, if you happen to be questioned about an incident, let me give you two pieces of advice.

First, decide if you are willing to talk about things before you have a conversation. There are all kinds of “investigations” in the workplace ranging from silly to serious – some may even have civil or criminal liability potential. Ask the investigator exactly what they want to talk about and why they are including you. Depending on the issue, you may want to get advice from your union rep, a personal friend or even a private attorney. If you need help, ask for it. Most reasonable employers will allow this, and if they don’t, they may not be reasonable.

And don’t forget that if you are the subject of the investigation (i.e, youre not just a supporting character) you may be able to bring someone with you to the discussion. The Weingarten rule allows this whether you’re a union member or not, but know that the NLRB often goes back and forth on the applicability of the rule depending on its Dem/Rep makeup. Something you may want to look into.

On to the second and final point. Tell the truth.

You may feel like there is little risk in discussing workplace incidents and that you want to be a part of that conversation if asked. I applaud you, but want to remind you your employer is taking notes (depending on state law these conversations may be taped as well): this is no time to freelance or make things up. Answer questions to the best of your knowledge and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. An investigation may have serious impact to others: don’t surmise, editorialize, guess or pontificate. This is a good time to be like Joe Friday: just the facts ma’am.

Workplace investigations are not fun, they’re serious business with serious ramifications. Whether you’re the lead, subject or participant, think about what you’re about to step into and get it right. People’s careers can depend on it.

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