Who should investigate an internal harassment or discrimination complaint?

December 5, 2019

Topics: Harassment Discrimination and Retaliation

State and federal laws require companies to investigate employee complaints of sexual or other harassment. Internal investigations of these complaints should be conducted by individuals who are trained to perform this important function and usually are members of the human resources department. There can be legal liability for the company as a result of the investigation, so it is prudent to choose the investigator wisely.

The investigator should have been trained in the necessary components of such investigations, should know what to look for to assess credibility, and should be well-versed in the company’s policies and practices. The investigator should have good people skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to listen and empathize while maintaining objectivity. The investigator may be called upon to be a witness in any arbitration or court proceeding and should be able to present the procedures and findings of the investigation clearly and succinctly. The investigator should not have any conflicts of interest, nor should there be an appearance of conflicts of interest and should not have any actual or perceived bias towards either a complaining employee or alleged harasser.

It is best if the investigator is not in the reporting chain of anyone who will be interviewed – which is why human resource professional are generally preferred. If the investigator either supervises or reports to a complaining employee, alleged wrongdoer, or even a witness, there could be an appearance that the investigator is biased in favor or against that individual—or had to conclude the investigation one way or the other to keep their job. The investigator should be considered to be more senior than anyone being interviewed so that the witness will not feel they can hold their seniority over the investigator.

If the alleged harasser is a high-level manager, or is the owner of the company, then the company may choose to hire an attorney or outside investigator to investigate the complaint. This may also be done if the company does not have anyone within the organization who is trained in investigations.

Before starting an investigation, the company should check its handbook and policies to determine whether they designate a particular person or persons to investigate harassment complaints.