Employee misconduct in the workplace can have a toxic effect on morale and productivity, which often incentivizes employers to resolve the situation quickly. These days, there are clear benefits to getting out in front of any misconduct complaint as movements like #MeToo have employers scrambling to vet their workforce so they can identify predators before scandal or evidence of misconduct can become public. In a surveillance culture where both bad behavior and good behavior are fodder for a good viral news story, employers everywhere are starting to understand the value in properly handling a corporate crisis. But in their haste to resolve the situation, are employers handling internal investigations properly?
Regardless of the type of business and type of misconduct, (sexual harassment, drug-trafficking, theft, etc.) the first instinct where there is a whiff of employee misconduct is often to keep the information very close to executives. As with any investigation, the controlled release of information has an investigative advantage in identifying the true culprits of any misconduct. This is the beginning of employers remaining too close to the situation. It’s not unusual for a well-meaning employer to appoint themselves as the head of the investigation—but this presents a huge conflict of interest. As a person with a great deal to lose, the employer is, by their very nature, biased and an unbiased investigation is the foundation for anything built on an employee complaint. Without the use of an external investigator, the case loses integrity.
Hiring an external investigator, like a licensed private investigator, will bring a flattering layer of transparency to any workplace investigation. First and foremost, a private investigator is an independent third-party. Having no personal knowledge of the employees involved—and therefore having no preconceived notions about them—means they can truly approach the case from an indisputable place of objectivity. The employer’s personal knowledge of their employees disqualifies them from such objectivity. Whatever the misconduct du jour, they might never suspect their trusted personal assistant, their senior manager, or their business partner—all individuals with extensive access to company information and property. However, a private investigator will vet this list of possible suspects in search of the truth.
When an employer is unsure of how to proceed when investigating workplace misconduct, it seems like a no-nonsense solution to let the lawyers handle it. And it can often make sense, as they will be fielding any litigation that surfaces. In-house counsel might feel it’s under their purview for the same reasons, but this is very misguided. The lines of their capacities as both in-house counsel and investigator cross one another, thus creating another conflict of interest. While there are states like New York that allow attorneys to act as private investigators without a license to do so, this is still not recommended. Witnesses within the company will likely have anxiety about speaking to the company’s lawyer, and might not be as forthcoming with pertinent details. Leads suddenly begin pancaking into dead ends as nervous employees become less cooperative. Private investigators have the advantage in this situation, as they are not representatives of the individual’s employers in any capacity, and have no power to fire them. It’s the same advantage private investigators have over law enforcement because they have no powers of arrest.
The documentation provided by a private investigator is invaluable to workplace investigations. After all, many reports not handled to the satisfaction of the complainant often lead to legal action, the most common example being the more familiar story of sexual harassment in the workplace: An employee alleges sexual misconduct against another employee. Both parties are interviewed. The interviewer does not tape the interview nor take notes. After a shoddy investigation, the complainant decides to sue the company for negligence. Another common example is the case of an employee who is hastily terminated for FMLA abuse or malingering before the company conducts a thorough investigation.
Not only are paper and ink expensive, but filling out and preparing reports is time-consuming—time that would be better spent trying to improve your business. Private investigators keep meticulous records, just like law enforcement, of all witness statements, evidence, surveillance, and relevant information to the case. This will go a long way towards addressing the complaint after the PI has issued their solution. It’s a perfect package: The investigation is chronicled from beginning to end, all of the relevant information is accessible, and best of all, it was conducted, prepared, and presented by a completely objective, independent third-party. The same third-party can also offer testimony in any court case that might result from the investigation.
Whether you’re investigating sexual harassment allegations, drug-trafficking, theft, or any complaint of employee misconduct, make the proactive choice of hiring a private investigator. It’s the strongest first step you can take in any internal workplace investigation. From the beginning, the investigator will be an impartial, unbiased eye whose only loyalty is to the truth. This kind of due-diligence will go a long way towards demonstrating you, as an employer, have heard the complaint, taken it seriously, and are only interested in what actually occurred. The solution will not be based on pre-conceived notions of colleagues, or biased assumptions, but independent deduction and well-documented evidence. And even if the investigation comes to a less than amiable termination, the foundation laid by the private investigator will protect your business from litigation.