Investigating employee complaint

An employee has come to me to report an incident that took place over the weekend. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that she is accusing a co-worker of  sexually harassing behavior.

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In order to get to the bottom of what did/did not take place, I’m going to need to interview a handful of employees. This is the first real workplace “investigation” I’ve been tasked with, and before I begin I had a few questions to throw out there to anyone with experience in such matters.


First, I’m planning to tape record all interviews so that I know nothing I report back on can be misrepresented or is open for misinterpretation. I plan to notify interviewees that I’ll be doing this.  I’ve read that it’s best to have a witness with me anytime I conduct interviews. Is this a necessary practice even if I choose to record these interviews?


I’m also concerned about maintaining as much confidentiality and privacy as possible.  I’ll be meeting with each person as discreetly as possible—but I’m also aware that this has the potential to be a distraction for a majority of the workers once they know witnesses, etc. are being interviewed.  Anyone have any advice on how to keep the rumors/speculation flying before the investigation is complete?


Any advice here ( or any other do's and don'ts  based on experience) would be a great help.


  • 6 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • I think using a tape recorder might be very intimidating to employees that you interview.  They may be nervous to start with, and the tape recorder might keep them from feeling comfortable enough to give important information.  And if the complaining employee sues the company later on, the company will have to turn over the recordings as evidence.

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    As far as keeping the lid on rumors, it’s pretty tough to do once the investigation has started, but you can try to limit the information flying around by reminding interviewed employees about the confidentiality of the investigation. Another thing you might want to do is tell the witnesses that they can contact you if they have questions, or remember something else that's important, or want to talk to you for any reason.

  • I have conducted a few investigations and have never used a tape recorder. I agree with KLeede that this might make people less likely to talk openly. When we have an investigation like this, we usually try to have two people do the interviews together. In most cases, we have a man and a woman so that those interviewed will feel comfortable and we also have different perspectives. This might be overkill if the situation is pretty minor.

    When we interview employees, we tell them the following up front:

    • Our role in the investigation and that we are conducting the investigation on behalf of the company
    • That the information the employee provides will, to the greatest extent possible, be kept confidential and that the employee should not discuss the investigation with other employees
    • That the employee is responsibile for cooperating with the investigation as part of his or her job
    • That the employee will not be retaliated against for participating in the investigation and if he or she feels that retaliation has occurred, who to report it to

    I agree with KLeede that letting the employee know who to contact if he or she has questions, remembers something else, or needs to talk about the situation should help as well.



  • I've been involved in a few of these as well and here are my suggestions based on that experience:

     1) Write up your questions that you want to ask before each interview. This will not only keep the interview organized on your part, but, if you get sidetracked,  you won't lose focus/track of what you intended to ask about.

    2) When you're finished with an interview (and I agree they probably shouldn't be tape recorded) you should verbally re-cap the important/significant points your witness/interviewee makes, to ensure that you and he/she is in agreement with what they told you. And you should write up your notes for each interview in legible form right after you complete each one while it's fresh in your mind!

    3)  Among her good advice, Barbie W mentioned telling the interviewes/witnesses, etc. that they won't be retaliated against.  Sometimes when accusations are made (like in the case of sexual harassment) the accused (who is usually the person or people you interview last) quickly becomes aware that something's going on throught the grapevine. You really need to keep a watchful eye on the situation to make sure neither the accused or his (or her) friends at work aren't retaliating against the accuser. 

    One last thought--it's important to make sure that the person who made the complaint knows you are doing your best to determine whether you can substantiate her complaint. If you have to come back to her and say that you weren't able to verify what she said you want her to be convinced that you conducted a thorough investigation.  If she's left with the impression that not much was done, that's when you might find yourself battling a lawsuit. So following up with the alleged victim is really important. Good luck!

  • I agree with everyone else. Unfortunately, I've had to handle more than a few of these type complaints. I would NEVER use a tape recorder. If you do, you'll be lucky if they say anything other than, "I don't remember," "I don't recall," "I wasn't really there the whole time," etc.  You want the interview to be a conversation.  Not an inquisition.  Even though it is a serious interview, I have always allowed employees to wander a bit, you never know what you will find out.  You will find that silence is your friend in these instances.  Ask your question and let them answer.  If they answer but are a little hesitant, don't say antyhing, just sit there.  It is human nature to fill the silence, they will start talking.  Let them talk.

    Does your policy state that employees must cooperate in investigations?  If not, that would be next on my agenda.  Though I don't believe it is mandatory, I want my employees to know up front what their role is.  Do you do harassment training? 

     I always make my first interview with the accusor.  Even if I've talked with them before, when I start the interviews I like to talk with them again.  They may have remembered something or something they say may jog my memory.  Then I move on to the person who may have the most knowledge.  And on down the line.  Finally, I interview the person accused.  Often times I may call back one or more for clarification, or if something new developed that I need to ask them about. 

    I always begin the interview with what I have come to call, My Disclosure Statement.  I first tell them that I am investigating an incident that they may have been witness to.  Our conversation is confidential between me and them but I may have to reveal some or all of our conversation but only on an as needed basis, and as legally required, what they tell me will not be part of the rumor mill.  Since this is a (sexual, racial, etc) investigation, our policy requires that they cooperate and that they maintain confidentiality with everything they tell me and anything they may hear during our conversation.  Our policy also sets disciplinary actions if they breach that confidentiality, if they are not truthful in their comments to me, or if they refuse to cooperate.

     Then I get into a very brief summary of events . . . "back on March 1st, I understand that you were present during a conversation between Mr. Smith and Ms. Doe.  What do you remember about that?"

    I try to make all my questions open ended so they can't just answer yes or no.  If they do, then I sit there and wait for them to volunteer more. 

    You may learn of other people that have, or could have, information about the incident, especially if there were several instances of the harassment but the most recent event was just the "final straw". 

    Although I do write out questions before hand, I always come up with more along the way.  I take a LOT of notes. 

    Don't feel pressured to write fast.  If you're writing while they're speaking, go ahead and ask them to repeat or expand on what they said. 

    Best of luck to you!

  • I also agree with everyone else and have had to handle a couple complaints.  Just wanted to put a few thoughts out there.  In addition to all the suggestions there are a couple things that I believe are very important.  Having a person in the room with me during interviews protects both me and the employee being interviewed especially in the case of the accused.  It is easy to get into he said she said arguments if things escalate, its much harder when theres another person that witnessed the whole interview.  I do this for employees needing corrective action too.  It also keeps me straight.  I encourage the witness, after interviews, to give me constructive feedback as to how I handled it, if anything I said or did needed attention and if they thought I was being fair and compassionate to both sides.  If need be I make adjustments in my techniques or whatever the case may be.

    Secondly it's very important that the whole company have Sexual Harrassment training BUT it is also very important to have the flipside training to supervisors and management.  They need to know ahead of time how to react, whats legal and not legal, what can open the company up to a lawsuit and basically how to handle the employee making the accusation or the accused, especially if they become aggitated or upset. You would not believe how many times I have heard a superviosor say "Oh you must have misunderstood what "Doe" said/did he/she is such a great person and would never do that."   That supervisor just opened up a whole other can of worms!  Proper training is the key to stopping what some may view as small things from growing into monsters.


     Good Luck!

  • Thanks so much to all of you!  You have been a tremendous help, especially in terms of how to (and not to) conduct the actual interviews. I've included a witness to be with me during the interviews and am taking copious notes. As you asked about, we do conduct sexual harassment training regularly, and each employee signs off that they received the training and understand our policy. So we have that going for us. And, thank goodness, I've got faith in every member of our management team to respond appropriately to employee complaints (but once this situation is rectified, I am going to put together an actual training session for them based on what bubbles4u35 suggested--excellent idea!) Regardle

     Anyway, things are progressing along and I feel more confident about it thanks to all of your advice/assistance. 

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