Workplace conflicts can cause major issues for any company, from low employee morale and high turnover to cash-intensive legal problems and bad press. When employee complaints arise, the human resources department is responsible for immediately leading investigations into the reported issue, then recommending and implementing any corrective actions that are needed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 72.7 percent of HR managers were women as of 2012, which means a large number of women will likely take part in these investigations.
Corporate HR departments usually offer phone hotlines and email addresses where employees can start the complaint process. Unfortunately, employees don't always feel comfortable approaching HR with personal conflicts. HR might learn of an issue from the employee's manager, co-workers, or even an anonymous tip. Regardless of the source of the complaint, any claim of illegal or inappropriate behavior, such as harassment, discrimination, violence or bullying, or any violation of company policy must be reviewed immediately so the HR department can determine if further investigation is required.
Conducting an unbiased investigation into the issue starts with identifying the right fact finder. The lead investigator often comes from HR, but may be a manager or even an in-house or outside attorney. Whoever is in charge, she must be objective and fair, be able to maintain confidentiality, and have a thorough knowledge of the laws or policies involved. She should be a respected member of the organization and comfortable conducting interviews, potentially with multiple people at different levels. If possible, two investigators should handle the complaint, suggests HR compliance tool company Business and Legal Resources in an article entitled "10 Steps to an Effective Investigation." Multiple investigators allow one person to take notes and serve as a witness while the other conducts the interview.
Any investigation includes one or more complainants and one or more accused employees. Since a complete investigation takes time, HR should decide what measures to take to ensure employees are safe from the issues that triggered the investigation, as well as any potential retaliation. Temporary measures can range from a shift change or department transfer, so that the employees involved in the conflict no longer work together, to a leave of absence with or without pay. The Society for Human Resource Management suggests working with the accuser and considering legal advice before determining the best interim solution.
The investigation phase is complete when all interviews are complete and any available evidence -- such as emails, voice mails, video and eyewitness accounts -- has been gathered. At this time, the investigator reviews the information and recommends a course of action based on the findings. Severe or repeat offenses may result in suspensions or employment termination, while less severe or first-time offenses may require written warnings or education, such as harassment training. Actions are not necessarily limited to the accused. Review existing company policies to ensure expectations and punishment are clearly stated.
Ilene Tatroe has worked in the technology industry since 1996, with more than 10 years as a product manager for human capital management and workforce optimization applications. She has an MBA in marketing from Bentley University, as well as a Masters in journalism from New York University.