Duties and functions

Inside information for internal investigators

Prior to joining Rubin Thomlinson, we both worked internally in large organizations overseeing workplace investigations. Internal investigations can be difficult to navigate; the risks of conflicts and breaches of confidentiality are increased when investigators work among the people they are investigating. But working internally also provides a unique opportunity to spot workplace trends and assess the effectiveness of organizational policies and processes.

As the legal requirements for conducting workplace investigations continue to expand, internal investigation teams are becoming even more integrated with the organizations in which they work, not only in terms of conducting investigations, but also in being able to alert the company when problematic trends are identified through their investigative work.

We have reflected on our experiences and identified what we believe to be important considerations when conducting internal investigations.

Watch out for conflicts

To avoid allegations of bias, there should be a good degree of separation between an investigator and those involved in the investigation. For example, an investigator should not investigate members of his team or a person for whom he is responsible, as this may affect his neutrality. As a general rule, a person should not investigate someone who has the ability to influence the investigator’s employment within the organization. Those overseeing investigations should be sure to select the investigator carefully and consider the parties involved and the chain of command. Additionally, if the investigation team typically investigates a certain group of employees, efforts should be made to separate the investigation team from that group (for example, by ensuring that they are seated different places in the office).

Carefully manage workload issues

It is not uncommon for internal investigators to have other tasks than conducting investigations (we know, for example, that this is common among human resources professionals). The problem is that with a heavy workload, it can be difficult for investigators to conduct timely workplace investigations. As our colleague Alexandra Oli explained in her recent blog, internal backlog is not a valid excuse for delay. This means investigators need to be highly organized and keep track of their cases, to ensure that investigations do not fall through the cracks or experience unnecessary delays. Investigators should work closely with their managers to prioritize work and brainstorm solutions to bring their cases to a speedy conclusion. When assigning investigations, managers should also consider the workload of their investigators to avoid investigation delays.

Keep things confidential

Internal investigators have a challenge that external investigators don’t have: navigating among their colleagues when conducting investigations. When working internally, investigators should be as unobtrusive as possible. They must carefully determine who needs to be told about the investigation and which witnesses are relevant. A lack of confidentiality can undermine the integrity of the investigation, seriously damage the reputation of those involved within the organization and deter others from complaining when they have issues to raise. Additionally, internal investigators should be mindful of the confidentiality of their electronic and physical records. these should be separated so that those not involved in the records do not have access to them.

Internal investigators also need to find a way to discreetly obtain evidence (and advice, if needed) from within the organization. To maintain confidentiality, investigators should find trusted sources within the organization to assist with their investigations. Certain functions within the organization can be good sources of information and understand the need for confidentiality – including departments such as internal audit, human resources and legal. This ability to work cross-functionally and build relationships with these departments can also help resolve complex issues that may arise during an investigation.

Spot the trends

As external investigators, we conduct investigations for many different clients, so we are not necessarily able to spot trends within an organization unless we have been specifically asked to do a workplace assessment. Internal investigators who handle many investigations for the organization can gain valuable insight into issues within the organization. Those managing investigations should actively monitor these trends and ask their investigators about them; it is a good tool for proactively solving problems within the organization. Internal investigators should also come forward when they notice these trends, as the information may be useful to the organization. It may also be helpful to implement a formal process for tracking trends (eg, recording data on each case when the case is closed).

Managers and investigators can determine if there are patterns of behavior (eg, fraud or sexual harassment) or trends in certain departments or regions. Such trends can signal to the organization that more needs to be done to prevent wrongdoing in the workplace, such as training and implementing or updating policies.

Overall, internal investigators have an important role to play in their organization and are well placed to identify issues so that these can be proactively managed by the organization. They must, however, be aware of the complexities inherent in their work as internal investigators.