Overview: In the event of litigation, an effective employee investigation can be extremely persuasive to fact finders like judges and juries. If the employer can show its investigation was prompt, thorough and impartial, it can reduce the employer's exposure. A proper investigation should demonstrate the employer's sincerity in addressing employee complaints, its wherewithal in fixing problems, and its objectivity in assessing the weight of evidence gathered from witnesses.
Employers should take prompt action in preparing for and during the course of investigations to ensure completeness and objectivity. It can accomplish these goals by quickly nominating the correct employee(s) to oversee various aspects of the investigation including interviewing key witnesses and making the final decision when the investigation is complete.
Trends: Employers often take measures to restrict employee activities during the course of investigations. In some cases, those restrictions are appropriate and relevant to the goal of the investigation. For example, if an employer directs employees not to discuss the details of an investigation, it may be justified in issuing such a restriction if it is important to maintain the confidentiality of the complaining witness(es).
However, employers may not issue unnecessary or overly broad restrictions that do not truly advance the goals of conducting the investigation. These types of restrictions undermine the objectivity of the investigation and may also run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) even if the employer does not have a unionized workforce.
Author: Michael Jacobson, JD, Legal Editor
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HR guidance on the importance of conducting thorough and objective investigations as a tool to guard against and/or defeat litigation.