Fishbowl Investigations: Conducting Internal Investigations

It can be difficult to conduct an internal investigation in a fishbowl environment with employees watching.
It can be difficult to conduct an internal investigation in a fishbowl environment with employees watching.

Corporations that have seen a decline in their corporate culture are turning to investigation and risk assessment firms for help in 2020, particularly with conducting internal investigations in a fishbowl environment. The discourse around corporate culture has evolved significantly over the last few years, with employees voicing their desire for work-life balance and how corporate culture directly impacts their decision to stay with a company. Leadership is better-educating themselves on how their actions feed into the cycle of corporate culture, and how they can improve employee retention by making meaningful changes that grease the wheels of success in their business or organization. However, many corporations have their anxieties about conducting internal investigations in a fishbowl—where employees are able to see the methodology in motion—and how this will impact their workforce and their business.

Corporations can find themselves open to scrutiny from both their employees and their customer-base when they announce an impending internal investigation. Some corporations, for a myriad of reasons, opt to have internal investigations under a cloak of classification in order to protect the integrity of the investigation—however, in the interest of transparency, many corporations opt for a visible investigation, warning employees, shareholders, customers, or all of the above, of an impending internal investigation. This means that the investigating bodies will be under a microscope of scrutiny within the corporation, as their methodology, decorum, and their practices will a source of debate around the proverbial watercooler.

Regardless of who is contracted to conduct the internal investigation, or under what level of declassification, if there is visibility of an investigation, there is a delicate balance of transparency and professionalism needed in pursuit of the truth. One of the most difficult tasks an internal investigator has at the inception of the investigation is establishing a rapport with relevant parties, such as leadership and the workforce in order to garner frankness from persons who will be crucial to the fact-finding process.

Investigators must establish credibility with the client and relevant subjects in the case. This means ensuring those individuals are aware that the investigator shares their values and is only interested in identifying problems to improve the business—not damage it—indicating a high level of accountability that will have a ripple effect throughout the corporation or organization.

In tandem with establishing credibility, investigators must be straightforward about their objectives, outlining what the client hopes to achieve and their proposed methods of reaching that goal. Investigators must never make promises they cannot keep by making declarations before they know the facts. Corporate investigators must always pursue a resolution to a business’s problem that does not impair their long-term goals—by the same token, it is imperative that the investigator informs the client that there might be some negative consequences as the result of their findings, such as turnover, further inquiries, or bad publicity.

Objectivity is key in any internal investigation. It’s one of the reasons some companies elect to have a private investigator or risk assessment firm conduct their investigation, as opposed to an in-house investigator or member of house counsel. No employee with a stake in the outcome of the investigation, even indirectly, may be 100% objective in identifying pervasive issues in an organization. In addition to that objectivity, an independent investigator—unknown to the corporation or organization—investigators can move through a workplace undetected. This will take the edge off of the “fishbowl” factor that is common with internal corporate investigations. Private investigators can adopt a persona and conduct their investigations without the eyes of concerned coworkers; interviewing employees, collecting evidence, evaluating the location, and reviewing internal communications can all be conducted in plain sight.

Internal corporate investigations with a “fishbowl” factor can be an inherent challenge for corporations. Above all, it’s important to remember that employees are your greatest asset, as they feed into a cycle of corporate culture that can successfully stimulate your business or organization. An appropriate level of trust and care must always be taken when subjecting your workforce to an internal investigation. When employees feel valued, they will become empowered and engaged to give their best to the benefit of your organization.