Organizations and employees alike want a workplace where everyone feels safe, respected, and empowered to voice concerns. But this ideal environment doesn't materialize by chance; it requires a proactive approach to addressing issues.

This is where fair and impartial HR investigations become crucial.

These investigations go beyond simply resolving disputes. They foster a culture of trust and accountability. When employees know complaints will be taken seriously and investigated fairly, they're more likely to speak up about inappropriate behavior, safety hazards, or other workplace concerns.

This not only protects individuals but also helps companies identify and address issues before they escalate. Ultimately, conducting fair HR investigations contributes to a healthier, more productive work environment for everyone.

When Is an Investigation by HR Needed?

First and foremost, any allegation or complaint of misconduct or violation of company policies should be investigated by HR. This includes issues such as harassment, discrimination, retaliation, ethical violations, safety concerns, and other inappropriate behaviors.

Several key federal laws mandate investigations in specific situations, reinforcing the need for fair and impartial HR investigations. These include:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Any complaints regarding discrimination or harassment under these categories warrant an investigation.
  • The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities. This act also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, making complaints regarding discrimination or failure to accommodate under the ADA grounds for investigation.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects employees and job applicants who are 40 years of age or older from discrimination based on age. Allegations related to age discrimination necessitate an HR investigation.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Complaints regarding safety violations, hazardous conditions, or health risks should be thoroughly investigated.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage, overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor standards. Violations of these standards, including unpaid wages and overtime, warrant an investigation.

Understanding the scope and requirements of these laws is crucial for HR professionals. It ensures that investigations are not only compliant with federal regulations but also uphold the principles of fairness and impartiality, fostering a respectful and safe work environment.

Additionally, HR investigations may also be initiated proactively based on patterns or trends noticed in employee behavior or performance. For example, if multiple employees raise similar concerns about a certain manager or department, it may warrant an investigation into potential systemic issues.

It's important for HR to take all allegations and complaints seriously and conduct thorough investigations to ensure fairness and justice for all involved parties. Failure to do so can result in legal repercussions and damage to the company's reputation.

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Why Conduct an Investigation?

When a problem arises, a fair and impartial HR investigation isn't just the right thing to do; it's also essential for mitigating legal risks and protecting your company.

Imagine a scenario where an employee files a lawsuit alleging harassment or discrimination. Without a documented investigation demonstrating a good faith effort to address the complaint, your company could face significant legal consequences.

HR investigations also help prevent similar issues from recurring. By uncovering the root cause of a complaint, you can implement corrective actions and training programs to address underlying problems and foster a more respectful workplace culture. 

A prompt and thorough investigation helps maintain a positive work environment, protects employees and the company, and minimizes potential legal and financial repercussions.

The Importance of Thoroughness, Fairness and Impartiality

When conducting an investigation, it's crucial to ask the right questions to avoid missing a key piece of evidence. Similarly, not giving the accused employee a chance to be heard can lead to resentment and potentially escalate the issue.

This is where the three pillars of effective HR investigations come into play: thoroughness, fairness, and impartiality.


Thoroughness ensures you gather all relevant information to reach a well-informed conclusion. This involves asking open-ended questions, interviewing all relevant parties, and meticulously documenting the process. Don't settle for surface-level details; dig deeper to uncover the full picture.


Fairness guarantees all parties involved are treated with respect and have equal opportunity to be heard. This means providing clear communication about the investigation process, allowing all parties to present their perspectives, and maintaining a neutral stance throughout.


Impartiality eliminates bias and ensures objective decision-making. Avoid preconceived notions or letting personal opinions influence your judgment. By sticking to the facts and weighing evidence objectively, you can base your conclusions on a comprehensive understanding of the situation.

By upholding these principles, you ensure the investigation is not only effective in resolving the issue but also perceived as fair and legitimate by all involved.

Steps Involved in Conducting an HR Investigation

A formal investigation can be a big undertaking for HR. Employee assistance programs can provide guidance and help define the process that will lead to the best outcomes.

Step 1: Planning and preparation

When initiating an investigation, it's essential to take the time to plan it out thoroughly. This involves identifying all the relevant aspects of the investigation, determining the scope of work, and establishing a clear timeline for the process. A well-planned investigation ensures that all necessary steps are taken, and the investigation is comprehensive and successful.

Step 2: initial interview with complainant

The first step is to meet with the employee who raised the concern.

  • Create a safe and confidential environment for them to share their story.
  • Actively listen and ask open-ended questions to gather details about the alleged incident, including the who, what, where, when, why, and how. 
  • Avoid leading questions or interrupting them.
  • Clearly explain the investigation process and next steps and encourage them to provide any relevant documentation or witness information.

Step 3: witness interviews

Witnesses can provide valuable insights into the situation. Identify potential witnesses based on the information gathered from the complainant. Prepare interview questions beforehand, focusing on objective observations and factual details. Maintain neutrality and avoid asking leading questions that might sway their responses. Remind witnesses of the importance of confidentiality and encourage them to come forward with any additional information they may recall.

step 4: interview with accused employee

It's crucial to hear the accused employee's perspective. Inform them about the complaint and your role in the investigation. Explain their rights and ensure a respectful and professional environment. Prepare questions that allow them to address the allegations directly. Listen attentively and give them the opportunity to present any evidence or witnesses on their behalf.

step 5: evidence collection and review

Evidence can be anything that supports or refutes the allegations. Potential evidence might include emails, text messages, voice recordings, documents, or witness statements. Secure all evidence and maintain a chain of custody to ensure its authenticity. Carefully review the gathered evidence along with interview notes and statements to identify any inconsistencies or patterns that might shed light on the situation.

step 6: analysis and report writing

Once you've reviewed all the information, analyze it objectively to reach a conclusion. Look for any corroborating evidence and consider if the details provided by different parties align. Document your findings and recommendations in a detailed and impartial report. The report should summarize the complaint, details of the investigation, analysis of the evidence, and your conclusions.

Taking Action and Follow Up

Following your analysis, different courses of action might be necessary depending on the investigation's findings. These could include disciplinary action, mediation, further training, or policy revisions. 

Clearly communicate the outcome of the investigation with all parties involved, while maintaining confidentiality regarding sensitive details.

Following up is crucial. Ensure any recommended actions are implemented effectively. Monitor the situation to see if the issue has been resolved and if there are any lingering problems. If necessary, provide additional support or resources to those involved.

Best Practices and Common Pitfalls

Here are best practices to keep in mind:

  • Maintain clear communication. Keep all parties involved informed about the investigation process and timeline.
  • Stay organized. Document everything thoroughly, including interview notes, evidence logs, and communication records.
  • Be respectful and professional. Treat all parties with dignity and courtesy throughout the process.

Here are common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Bias. Be mindful of your own biases and avoid letting personal opinions influence your judgment.
  • Rushing the process. A thorough investigation takes time. Don't sacrifice quality for speed.
  • Confidentiality breaches. Maintaining confidentiality is essential for fostering trust and encouraging cooperation.

By following these best practices and avoiding common pitfalls, you can ensure your HR investigations are efficient, fair, and effective.

Final Thoughts

Conducting thorough, fair, and impartial HR investigations is a vital component of any successful workplace. It fosters trust, protects employees, and minimizes legal risks. 

A well-conducted investigation can not only resolve immediate issues but also contribute to a more positive and productive work environment for everyone. 

When you partner with Ulliance, our Life Advisor Consultants are always just a phone call away to teach ways to enhance your work/life balance and increase your happiness. The Ulliance Life Advisor Employee Assistance Program can help employees and employers come closer to a state of total well-being.

Investing in the right EAP or Wellness Program to support your employees will help them and help you.  Visit or call 866-648-8326.

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• Stress about work or job performance
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Common Pitfalls of Workplace Investigations; Helsell Fetterman; Hannah Driscoll

How To Conduct A Thorough, Fair And Impartial HR Investigation; People Managing People; Jessica Cieslinski

How to Conduct a Workplace Inspection; Society for Human Resources Management

Workplace Investigations Guide; Employers Council