One of the thorny process questions that eventually arises in any workplace investigation is whether and how to memorialize the findings and conclusions from the investigation. Is it sufficient just to save the notes from the investigation interviews in a file? How about a letter notifying the key parties that the investigation has been closed and the concerns raised were or were not substantiated? Perhaps an executive summary would be helpful to memorialize the concerns raised, the process followed, and the final conclusions? Or should you also capture the factual information considered and assessed in reaching those conclusions?
Yes, the notes should be saved from all investigation interviews. So should any other documents, photos, data, recordings, video or other electronic communications that may have been considered. All those items are important to reflect what issues were raised, what information was gathered, and what support exists for the concerns.
Notifying the Parties
Yes, you should notify the key parties whether the concerns raised were or were not substantiated. It is even more helpful if you inform all the parties – not just the complainant(s) and respondent(s) – that the investigation has been closed. Those communications may be verbal or written, depending on your organization’s practice and best determined with the guidance of legal counsel.
What is most important is that the communications actually occur. It provides closure to the parties and those involved in the investigation. That way they know that the issues were considered and appropriate actions have been taken. You thereby enhance confidence in your process — that concerns raised do not fall into a “black hole.” You also stem the tide of gossip.
When there is no follow-up, people wonder whatever happened with the matter that x person raised. Worse still, people conclude that because they heard nothing further it must mean that the organization did nothing with the information that those individuals had provided. All your hard work to investigate becomes for naught.
Drafting an Executive Summary
It often is helpful to prepare at least an executive summary of the investigation that was conducted. The executive summary should:
• Outline the concerns raised and when they were brought to the organization’s attention;
• Identify who was interviewed and their job titles;
• Identify what documents or other information was reviewed; and
• State the conclusions with regard to each concern raised and the key findings in support of those conclusions.
The executive summary serves essentially as a road map. Decisionmakers can reference it as a basis for considering appropriate responsive action. Should a concern arise in the future involving one or more of the same parties or work group, a subsequent investigator can similarly reference the executive summary to understand the scope of the prior investigation.
While helpful, an executive summary by definition lacks detail. It does not summarize the information provided by each interviewee, it includes limited information about where conflicting accounts were provided and how credibility was assessed, and it most certainly cannot “stand on its own,” should the underlying complaint proceed to an adversarial posture. For that level of detail, you need a full written report.
Advantages of a Written Report
A written report should start with an executive summary and offers all the benefits of that as a road map to the issues, process followed, and conclusions. The written report should go further, though, and tell the full narrative of what concerns have been raised, what the interviewees said in regard to those concerns, where documentary or other evidence was relevant to the concerns, what conclusions were reached, and how those conclusions were derived. In contrast to the executive summary, the written report should provide sufficient detail such that it is not necessary for the investigator to provide any additional information.
A written report thus reflects the investigator’s findings and analysis, and thereby supports the conclusions reached. It memorializes a considered process and demonstrates due diligence by the organization. The report also allows decisionmakers to carefully consider appropriate action, consistent with the investigator’s findings.
Not every workplace investigation results in the drafting of a full written report. Cost and time often are significant factors, as a written report is not something that can be knocked out in a few hours. Where an investigation has found sufficiently serious violations of policy that the organization has decided to terminate the respondent’s employment, some organizations conclude that no written report is necessary. The termination itself is viewed to demonstrate the seriousness with which the issues were considered and addressed. Other organizations in that same situation will conclude that a written report is very much needed to memorialize why the respondent’s employment was terminated. That is particularly so if the terminated individual would have been eligible for some severance package, stock award or bonus, or is to be stripped of a prior award, based on whether employment was terminated “for cause.”
A written report offers other benefits. Sometimes an organization may disclose portions or all of the report to a complainant’s attorney and can use the report to further settlement discussions. Other times, the persuasion is internal, and the report may be impactful in garnering support from senior leaders for changes within the organization.
Ultimately, whether to request or prepare a written report is an individualized determination. Workplace investigations, done properly, take time and care. Organizations that commit that level of effort would do well to ensure they have memorialized their efforts in some fashion. That written record can inform future actions relevant to the individuals and group involved and the organization as a whole, and it can protect the organization in the event a matter proceeds to litigation.
In this periodic Workplace Investigations blog series, I will be exploring considerations that arise from our firm’s experience conducting workplace investigations and my work as an educator with Cornell University ILR school’s professional certificate programs on conducting effective workplace investigations.
By Tracey I. Levy