Internal Investigations – Do You Have Proper Mechanisms in Place?
It is alleged, during a June 2016 flight an airline carrier found two of their employees had come to some type of disagreement that turned physical. On November 9, 2018 one of the people involved brought her case to the courts alleging negligence, dangerous work environment, breach of contract, and assault and battery. The suit seeks damages of up to $1 million.
Source: Fox News and The Dallas Morning News
The Plaintiff states, “she followed her employer’s procedures by reporting the attack to the captain, her fellow cabin crew members and the flight service manager, though her employer later failed to properly investigate the incident.” “I also reported the assault and battery to legal authorities after my employer failed to investigate and/or take action to ensure my safety.”
So, this bears the question, do you have proper mechanisms in place to follow-through with an internal investigation and that allows for you to perform your proper due diligence for reported incidents within your workplace?
Right to a Safe and Healthful Workplace
So, let’s first understand, under OSHA’s “Employers General Duty”, employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards. This is commonly known as the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act.
Do you have a communication channel to receive complaints?
In a smaller business you may have the luxury of employees bringing complaints directly to the owner or senior executive of the corporation but in reality, will this happen? You must consider the intimidation experienced by an employee that would be required to approach the President or CEO of the business, secondly, what if the President or CEO is the subject of the complaint or allegation themselves?
Having an open dialogue with employees is a must and you must consider having mechanism in place to receive information from those employees who are feeling subjected to threats. Additionally, it would behoove you to have communication mechanisms in place that will allow the reporting of wrongdoing within your organization for the protection of your assets and brand.
Some ideas that I could suggest include:
- A Third-Party Hotline with Realtime Reporting
- An Anonymous Email Form – available on your website or intranet
- In Person Complaint Receptionist
- Standardized Form for Filing a Complaint
Any method you use must allow for the person coming forward to be comfortable enough to come forward, they need to feel safe and not feel that they may be persecuted.
The two largely popular complaints we hear are, employees will not come forward when reporting on unanswered telephone voicemails or where the employee is not engaged with another person. The other complaint we hear from employers is of course the false claims made due to the unfiltered method of receiving these claims. Nevertheless, you must be willing to receive information regarding threats to your organization and your employees and respond in a timely fashion to their concerns.
Uncontrolled channels of communication, if you will, such as a voice mail extension in the Human Resources department wherein an employee may leave a message will make your need to investigate the claim challenging. The reason for this is simply, the employee does not know what information is important for you to validate the claim made. We strongly recommend trained individuals receive any complaints and who know what questions to ask, alternatively, a standardized form is helpful but not completely reliable.
Preparing for and following up to complaints
As an employer you must be prepared and have a plan to provide due diligence in complaints made by employees and even outside individuals who may bring light to an internal issue.
- What steps will be taken?
- Who will receive the complaint?
- Who will conduct the investigation?
- Who will review the final findings of any investigation?
- What training is available to your employees, managers and executive staff?
Detailed policies and procedures should be created in written form and communicated to the entire organization. Training should be provided for new hires with the availability of training opportunities and aides during and employee’s tenure.
Pronounced awareness of your policies and procedures should take place throughout your organization, such as, the policies and procedures themselves, what employees should be alert to and the lack of tolerance of certain behaviors within the organization. Visual aids such as posters and communication tools such as newsletters are very helpful in this regard. One of the reasons we find employees feeling unheard or neglected by employers is the fact there is no method in which an employer may notify the organization of the outcome of incidents that have been reported. Once again, newsletter articles discussing the findings and follow-through provided by the organization is very helpful. Of course, anything identifying the people involved or that would allow identifying other particulars should be withheld from these articles.
In your planning you should include a very strong mission statement regarding aggressive behavior of any type, physical or mental. A Code of Conduct that outlines the ethical standards established. This should include the organizational philosophy regarding substance abuse, theft/misappropriation, personal and business conduct while representing the organization. What is important to the success of the mission will be the buy-in of all senior executives and management, as well as the determination to follow-through with the statement made.
Objective investigation of claims made
Many organizations have internal compartments to investigate claims of injuries and the alike, with some organizations that will handle criminal complaints and other similar situations, of course this is all dependent upon the size and capabilities of the individual organization. Having said this, you need to consider your organization and its ability to be objective in carrying out any investigation internally. Some things to consider for yourself are:
- Do you have an objective fact-finder?
- Do you have the means to conduct an investigation and to what extent?
- Will your investigator be someone that will be full-time or as needed?
- If not full-time, what training and background will this person have?
Our organization carries out varying levels of investigations, from interviews of parties involved to placing undercover investigators within an organization. I am not saying that this is needed for everyone and depending on the structure of your organization and the depth of investigation required you may conduct investigations in to many matters yourself. A word of caution here, if there is any risk of the organization being looked upon or found to be subjective in handling a situation you may very well create a larger issue or place the organization at risk.
As illustrated by the reaction of the plaintiff in the matter provided above, you do not want to give the appearance of not caring, whether intentional or implied. Often organizations do not wish to spend the time or money in following through on complaints made or in the investment needed to be sure those believed at fault are truly guilty of wrongdoing. In either case, the cost can be substantial when you are found to be liable for improper termination or negligence. Take the time and the effort to protect your employees and your organization.
Bill Peeler is the Founder and CEO of Peeler Group International, an investigation and security organization.