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Analyzing Past Investigations: An Investment in the Future

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April 11, 2006

Workplace complaint investigations are a necessary part of every human resource practice. When the investigation is over, we breathe a sigh of relief and, all too often, put it behind us. If we never go back, however, we miss an important opportunity to analyze complaints and the resulting investigations for trends, potential process improvements, and results.

An Investigations Analysis

Useful information is gleaned by looking at the big picture of investigations within an organization. “Hot spots” of complaints may reveal themselves. Recurring issues or themes may become apparent. Even smaller organizations can benefit from an analysis of complaints and the response by the organization.

An analysis first includes gathering and reviewing all investigation reports or, in the absence of written reports, investigators’ notes. If not apparent from the reports or notes, discuss the conclusions with the investigator.

Next, correlate the information into meaningful data. Although the information an organization seeks to extract will vary based on its own unique goals, useful information to analyze includes:

  • Primary issue in an investigation
  • Secondary issue(s) in an investigation
  • Department or section of organization involved
  • Identity of investigator
  • Findings – supported by the evidence, not supported by the evidence, or inconclusive
  • Credibility determinations
  • Outcomes, including disciplinary action, training, communication, etc.
  • Quality of documentation and report
Investigation assessments commonly identify the primary and secondary issues in each investigation and tally the number of times a particular issue (age discrimination, for example) was the primary or secondary issue in an investigation. Examine the outcomes for each issue category, i.e., whether the allegations were supported or not supported by the evidence, or whether the evidence was inconclusive.

Beyond the obvious areas of focus in conducting an analysis, consider the following when reviewing the results of an investigation analysis:
  1. Are there are an inordinate number of inconclusive determinations? This might indicate a need for training investigators on techniques to enable reaching a definite conclusion.
  2. Are outcomes heavily weighted toward a lack of support for the allegations? If so, a review of the objectivity of the investigators is warranted.
  3. Do investigations stem from one department in the organization more than others or disproportionately to the number of employees in that part of the organization? It may be necessary to offer management training on effectively handling complaints, conflict resolution, or to present educational opportunities for the general employee population on anti-discrimination or communication skills.
  4. Are investigators consistent in determining how much evidence is needed to find that allegations are supported by the evidence? Some investigators may lack skills in making credibility determinations and steer clear of them.
  5. Is the documentation clear, thorough and complete? It may be the case that some investigators do a better job documenting the process and findings from investigations than others. Indeed, some investigators may have developed practices that are unique and new to the organization. Sharing these practices with other investigators becomes beneficial for the whole organization.

Key results of an investigation analysis reveal the more frequent issues employees are raising that lead to investigations, the variety of issues that are raised which are deemed to warrant investigations, and a number of other important strategic management issues. Use these results to manage and train more effectively.

An Investigation Analysis Case Study

My organization, Employment Practices Solutions (EPS), is a provider of investigation services for employers around the country. EPS recently conducted an investigation analysis of the investigations we conducted as independent parties for employers. Our own analysis showed that sexual harassment is the single most prevalent primary issue in investigations by a wide margin, appearing approximately 20% of the time as the primary issue. Other key primary issues were race, sex, and age discrimination, combining for approximately 15% of the primary issues. Largely mirroring their lower rate of incidence in charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, national origin, disability, and religious discrimination were less prevalent as investigation issues in our analysis than race, sex, and age discrimination.

There is good news and bad news in the prevalence of sexual harassment as an issue. The bad news is that sexually harassing conduct is still a problem. On the good news side, employees appear to grasp the range of conduct that is prohibited by policies and the need to report concerns.

In addition to the concerns that implicate employment law, there were many other issues that employers deemed to warrant an investigation:

  • Management practices/style
  • Favoritism
  • Improper relationship with fellow employee
  • Threats/physical aggression
  • Defamation
  • Disclosure of confidential information
  • Drug/alcohol use
  • Interpersonal conflict
While the above issues do not necessarily implicate employment law concerns, they raise important organizational and employee relations issues. Some have legal implications outside of the employment law area. These issues must be addressed and investigations are excellent tools to gather the information necessary to make informed decisions about the issues and how best to resolve them. As with the more “traditional” investigation-triggering issues such as sexual harassment, analyzing the occurrence of these issues provides important information benefiting the organization.

Take Time to Reflect

While reflection is always beneficial, it is particularly timely at the beginning of a new year. Although the hustle and bustle of the business day commands our attention, particularly when the organization is in the midst of an investigation, taking the time to look back at investigation triggers, practice, and outcomes is well worth the time and reveals useful information that impacts the future.

About the Author

Ginger McRae is a Senior Consultant with Employment Practices Services, a provider of services to assist employers in managing their employment practices risk. Prior to joining EPS, Ginger worked extensively in the area of employment and employee benefits law, first as an associate with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in its Atlanta office, and subsequently in an in-house capacity for Turner Broadcasting System and Southern Company. Ginger received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia. She heads up the Atlanta office for EPS. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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