The Strategic Human Resource Management Center was joined by Ann Houser on October 2nd to discuss workplace investigations. Ann is a UW-Madison alumnae and former Medtronic Human Resources VP in their global cardiac and heart rhythm business, and previously held roles at General Mills and IBM. Ann is now a private HR Consultant, Executive Coach, and Workplace Investigator. In a wide-ranging conversation, Ann discussed the basics of workplace investigations and shared takeaways from her experience conducting them.
Our conversation began with a current workplace investigation in the news. McDonald’s CEO was ousted and the CHRO recently left after a workplace investigation revealed behavior by the CEO that violated company policies on workplace relationships. In addition, McDonald’s is now suing its former CEO to claw back compensation after continued investigation revealed even more policy violations and an attempted cover-up. Even though the CEO’s behavior wasn’t illegal, his policy violations had real consequences for himself, the company, and other employees.
As with the McDonald’s case, workplace investigations typically involve determining whether behavior that violates organization policy or the law has occurred, and then responding appropriately if it has. They may start from anonymous tips, work conflicts, seemingly minor financial or managerial discrepancies, or even other on-going investigations. Ann emphasized that once you’ve received information about a workplace issue that might violate policy or the law, it’s usually a good idea to err on the side of investigating. Ann views workplace investigations as lagging indicators of organizational culture. By not investigating, companies may be missing the chance to nip bad behavior in the bud and steward a safe, ethical workplace culture. They might also miss the chance to avoid the monetary and reputational consequences of a lawsuit.
Once a decision to investigate has been made, an investigator will be chosen – typically someone from the HR or legal department of a company, or a third-party – and an investigation scope agreed on. Next, the investigator will generate a plan for gathering evidence. Interviews with individuals involved are standard, but some investigations call for gathering digital or financial evidence. For that, the investigator might rely on support from finance, IT, or outside forensic specialists. Once all the evidence has been gathered, the investigator prepares a report that includes the timeline of the investigation, their actions, and the evidence gathered. It’s important that this document be clear and detailed, and only provide analysis of findings and a determination if requested. The result of the investigation will then be used by decision-makers within the organization to determine appropriate disciplinary steps, if any, for individuals involved.
Because workplace investigations can lead to serious consequences for employees and their companies, it’s critical that they be as tight and thorough as possible. Communications about the investigation should be limited and concise. For Ann, the best workplace investigations are the ones that no one knows about except the parties involved. In most cases, the only individuals who will receive detailed communication about the outcome are a small circle of leaders and the subject(s) of the investigation.
Challenging assumptions and bias as much as we can is another key to conducting a strong investigation. This starts with the choice of best investigator – Ann noted it’s not unheard of for a leader to conduct an investigation in which they’re implicated. (Clearly this should never occur.) The investigator should be someone without a direct or close indirect relationship to those involved. If the organization is too small for this to be feasible, a third-party should be contracted. Making assumptions about what has or hasn’t happened can also get in the way of investigating. Ann says that asking open-ended questions, listening carefully, and making people feel comfortable are helpful strategies for getting a complete picture of what’s happened. Being open-minded can also lead the investigation in unexpected directions that might expose more widespread issues, if this is deemed warranted.
As future HR leaders, Ann’s valuable insights will help us conduct ourselves professionally if called on to lead workplace investigations. These investigations are one part of ensuring that a company’s culture matches its policies and values. When bad behavior isn’t addressed, it impacts the effectiveness of the organization and can lead to reputational and financial harm. As such, conducting tight, high-quality investigations that can lead to a clear resolution is paramount. That means planning and executing well, avoiding conflicts of interest, and doing our best to check our assumptions at the door. We’re grateful to Ann for her time, and hope she’ll be back to share her experience with future SHR classes!