Ethics investigations can be quite complex and fraught with potential risks. Taking care with them will allow the company to avoid pitfalls in both a legal and human sense. Conduct investigations discreetly and carefully by planning the entire process. Determine who you should talk with initially, prepare the questions and approach you will take with potential witnesses or suspected parties and be open enough to add other potential witnesses, add questions or change approaches based on interview answers. Asking appropriate questions will get the best results.
- Get help – At ethics program setup or whenever you need them, determine subject matter experts that you can use to help in an ethics investigation. Especially when something is outside your area of expertise, you will need assistance to understand principles, procedures, capabilities, etc. Example: if you are an HR expert but the investigation will involve going over complex financial reports, get the help of an accounting expert. Obtain an agreement (in writing) from the expert that they are to keep all matters of the investigation confidential including whether or not there even is an investigation.
- Ask open-ended questions – When interviewing potential witnesses or suspected parties, ask questions that will get them talking. Asking yes or no questions will get yes or no answers. To get better, more useable information, ask open ended questions such as, “Tell me about your relationship with the rest of your team members” or “What more can you tell me about what you saw” or “What else should I know about John Doe here at work”.
- Do not put words in the interviewee’s mouth – Asking a witness, “Did you see Bob put his hand on Gretchen?” presupposes that something actually happened and uses your words instead of theirs to describe something. In an investigation, the interviewer is not the witness so do not allow yourself to get involved in “pre-answering” the questions. A better way to ask for this same information might be, “What, if anything, did you see happen when Bob and Gretchen were in the stock room?” or “What happened yesterday around 3PM”.
- Don’t stop asking questions too early – Keep asking questions until you are assured you have as much useable information as you can get, and do not stop the investigation too early. If you believe there is something important that someone can tell you, keep asking questions that will get those answers until you are sure you have done as much as you can (in other words don’t waste time at dead ends either). Another great question is to ask, “Is there anything else you can provide me that would help me in this investigation?” This would allow a witness to produce documents, other witnesses, or other corroborating evidence of suspected incidents.
- Do not give a witness any indication that you do not believe their story – Witnesses want you to believe their story whether it is true or not. Do not give them an excuse to stop talking by indicating you do not believe their story. Any sign that you do not believe a witness or that you discount their story will give that witness an excuse to cease cooperating. In other words, badly handling a witness can make them dry up and you will get nothing further from them.
- Report facts only, not opinions – When writing the report after an interview, write only what the person said and be sure to report only facts the person witnessed. Including the witness’ opinions or what they heard from someone else can get you into trouble both in trying to determine what really happened and if the witness or the suspected party legally challenges your final decision. The more you write opinions, anyone’s opinions including your own, will create even more legal landmines. Writing the facts is critical to an ethical investigation.
- Verify statements as discreetly as possible – Whatever a witness tells you about what they saw or heard, attempt to verify it as discreetly as possible. Look at entry logs, sign-in logs, computer reports, other witness’ statements or anything that will help you corroborate statements.
- Look under every rock and in every crevice – Do not be bashful about examining any legitimate resource for information. Of course, ahead of time, you must have a clear policy stating what the company may search on company premises and what it will not search. Then you must stick to that policy. Look in computer files and email, check in desks, or store rooms, check voice mail and phone records, and review video surveillance tapes to find whatever you need to investigate a report of an ethics violation. Be prepared, because some of this can get legally sticky. Check with your in-house counsel about what is legal in your state and what is not, but look everywhere that is legitimate.
- Never, never, never play “Good Cop, Bad Cop” – or any game for that matter. This type of thing is simply Hollywood drama. It has nothing to do with conducting real investigations. An investigator’s best tool is his or her relationship with the interviewee and playing games destroys any chance of establishing a rapport with them. Leave this stuff to the movies and TV where it belongs.
- Never lie to anyone about what you know or do not know – Lying to a witness can be just as bad as playing other types of games with them, for it can destroy a solid relationship. If they ask how, who or why someone delivered a report or what someone else said, simply state that you cannot reveal anything about the investigation.
Getting to the truth about what happened can be extremely difficult. Often, one cannot substantiate a suspected ethical lapse and you must accept this as inevitable. If there is not enough evidence to convince you about what actually happened concerning an incident, let it go. One experienced investigator states that 50 percent of all reported incidents cannot be substantiated and remain questionable. What does that mean? Fifty percent of all investigations will go nowhere because not enough evidence can be obtained to make a determination.
These rules are about the practical measures to carry out in an investigation. There are many other considerations when attempting to determine if an ethics incident occurred and verifying the circumstances of that incident.
Once you substantiate an incident and its details, dealing with the suspected parties is the next step. Taking care with all the parties involved in an investigation and maintaining everyone’s dignity is important to maintaining a healthy ethical environment.
© 2002 – 2014, Bruce Hamm. All rights reserved.