Workplace investigations are critical procedures undertaken by organizations to address and resolve issues such as misconduct, policy violations, and other workplace disputes. These investigations are essential for maintaining a safe, fair, and legally compliant working environment.

In this guide, we’ll explore what workplace investigations are, when they’re necessary, and how to conduct them correctly to ensure thoroughness, fairness, and effectiveness.

What is a workplace investigation?

A workplace investigation is a formal process initiated by an organization to examine allegations of misconduct, policy breaches, or other concerns within the workplace. The purpose of a workplace investigation is to gather relevant facts related to a harassment complaint, assess the credibility of the information, and determine whether any organizational policies, laws, or ethical standards have been violated. Ultimately, the goal is to make informed decisions about appropriate actions to resolve the issue and prevent future occurrences.

Types of issues investigated

Workplace investigations can address a wide range of issues, including but not limited to:

  • Harassment and discrimination: Claims related to sexual harassment, racial discrimination, gender bias, and other forms of inappropriate behavior.
  • Bullying: Allegations of persistent, harmful behavior directed at employees.
  • Theft and fraud: Incidents involving embezzlement, stealing company property, or fraudulent activities.
  • Violations of company policies: Breaches of the organization’s code of conduct, safety regulations, or other internal policies.
  • Safety concerns: Reports of unsafe working conditions or practices that could harm employees.

When to conduct a workplace investigation

Determining the need for a workplace investigation is a crucial first step. Not all complaints or issues require a formal investigation, but certain situations mandate a thorough and structured inquiry.

Situations requiring an investigation

  1. Formal complaints: When an employee files a formal complaint alleging serious misconduct or policy violations, a workplace investigation is usually necessary. Formal complaints often involve sensitive issues such as harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.
  2. Repeated issues: If there are recurring reports of similar issues or behaviors, it may indicate a systemic problem that requires investigation to identify and address root causes.
  3. Serious allegations: Allegations involving potential legal violations, such as criminal activity or significant breaches of regulatory requirements, necessitate a formal investigation.
  4. Safety incidents: Accidents or near-miss incidents in the workplace that raise concerns about safety practices or conditions should be investigated to prevent future occurrences and ensure compliance with safety regulations.
  5. Legal and regulatory requirements: Certain industries and jurisdictions have legal mandates that require investigations under specific circumstances, such as whistleblower complaints or discrimination claims.

Preliminary assessment

Before launching a full-scale investigation, it is essential to conduct a preliminary assessment to determine the validity and seriousness of the complaint. This initial step helps to:

  • Assess the credibility of the complaint and the need for a formal investigation.
  • Identify any immediate actions required to address urgent concerns or to protect individuals involved.
  • Determine the scope and objectives of the investigation.

How to conduct a workplace investigation: 8 steps

Conducting a workplace investigation involves several critical steps, from planning and evidence gathering to interviewing witnesses and reporting findings. Here’s a detailed guide on how to conduct a workplace investigation correctly:

1. Planning the investigation

Proper planning sets the foundation for a successful investigation. It involves defining objectives, selecting the right investigator, and developing a structured plan.

Establish objectives

Clearly define the purpose and scope of the investigation. These could include:

  • Determining whether specific allegations are substantiated.
  • Identifying any underlying issues contributing to the problem.
  • Making recommendations to prevent future occurrences.

Select the investigator

Choose an investigator who is impartial, unbiased, and experienced in conducting workplace investigations. Depending on the complexity and sensitivity of the case, consider whether an internal investigator or an external professional (such as an HR consultant or legal expert) is more appropriate.

Develop an investigation plan

Outline the steps to be taken during the investigation. An investigation plan should include:

  • A timeline for completing the investigation.
  • A list of individuals to be interviewed.
  • Identification of relevant documents and evidence to be reviewed.
  • Procedures for maintaining confidentiality and ensuring fairness.

2. Conducting interviews

Interviews are a key component of any workplace investigation. They provide firsthand accounts and insights into the events or behaviors in question.


  • Schedule interviews in a private, neutral location to ensure confidentiality and minimize disruptions.
  • Prepare a list of questions tailored to each interviewee, focusing on gathering factual information rather than making accusations.
  • Explain the purpose of the investigation and the interview process to each interviewee, emphasizing the importance of honesty and confidentiality.

Interview techniques

  • Open-ended questions: Encourage detailed responses by asking open-ended questions such as, “Can you describe what happened?” or “What did you observe?”
  • Clarifying questions: Ensure understanding by asking follow-up questions to clarify any ambiguous or incomplete responses.
  • Non-leading questions: Avoid leading questions that suggest a particular answer. Instead, remain neutral and objective.

Documenting interviews

  • Take detailed notes during each interview or, with consent, record the conversation for accuracy.
  • Summarize key points and observations immediately after the interview to ensure accuracy and completeness.

3. Gathering and analyzing evidence

In addition to interviews, gathering physical and documentary evidence is crucial for a comprehensive investigation.

Collect evidence

  • Documents: Collect relevant documents such as emails, reports, policies, and written statements.
  • Physical Evidence: Gather any physical items related to the investigation, such as damaged property or safety equipment.
  • Digital Evidence: Secure digital records, including computer files, logs, and digital communications.

Analyze evidence

  • Assess the credibility and relevance of each piece of evidence.
  • Cross-reference evidence with interview statements to identify consistencies or discrepancies.
  • Look for patterns or trends that may provide additional insights.

4. Making a determination

Once all evidence is gathered and analyzed, the next step is to make a determination based on the findings.

Evaluate findings

  • Review all gathered evidence and interview summaries.
  • Determine if there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations.
  • Consider the weight and credibility of each piece of evidence.

Draw conclusions

  • Decide if the allegations are substantiated, unsubstantiated, or inconclusive.
  • Document the rationale for the conclusions reached, ensuring that the decision is based on facts and evidence.

5. Reporting the findings

An investigation report is a formal document that summarizes the investigation process, findings, conclusions, and recommendations.

Write the investigation report

  • Introduction: Provide background information, the scope of the investigation, and the objectives.
  • Methodology: Describe the steps taken during the investigation, including interviews conducted and evidence reviewed.
  • Findings: Summarize the key evidence and facts uncovered during the investigation.
  • Conclusions: Present the determination based on the findings, explaining the rationale behind the conclusions.
  • Recommendations: Suggest actions to address the issue and prevent future occurrences.

Review and finalize the report

  • Ensure the report is clear, concise, and free of bias.
  • Review the report with legal or HR advisors if necessary.
  • Finalize the report and prepare it for dissemination to relevant parties.

6. Taking appropriate action

Based on the findings and recommendations of the investigation, appropriate actions should be taken to resolve the issue and prevent recurrence.

Implement recommendations

  • Follow through with disciplinary actions if required, such as reprimands, suspensions, or terminations.
  • Implement policy changes, training programs, or other corrective measures to address identified issues.
  • Ensure corrective actions are documented and monitored for effectiveness.

Communicate outcomes

  • Inform the complainant and the accused of the investigation outcome, maintaining confidentiality and providing only necessary details.
  • Communicate any policy changes or new measures to the broader organization as appropriate.

7. Follow-up

A thorough follow-up process ensures that the implemented actions are effective and that any residual issues are addressed.

Monitor compliance

  • Monitor the workplace to ensure compliance with recommendations and changes.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of any new policies, procedures, or training programs.

Address ongoing issues

  • Promptly address any new or ongoing issues that arise following the investigation.
  • Continuously improve investigation processes and practices based on lessons learned.

8. Maintaining records

Proper documentation and record-keeping are essential for future reference, legal compliance, and organizational learning.


  • Keep detailed records of the investigation process, including notes, evidence, interview summaries, and the final report.
  • Store records securely, maintaining confidentiality and protecting sensitive information.
  • Comply with legal and regulatory requirements for record retention, ensuring that records are preserved for the necessary period.

The final word

Conducting a workplace investigation is a complex but essential process for ensuring a safe, fair, and compliant work environment. By following the steps outlined in this guide, organizations can conduct investigations that are thorough, impartial, and effective. Proper planning, evidence gathering, interviewing, and reporting are key components that contribute to a successful investigation.

Additionally, taking appropriate actions based on findings and maintaining comprehensive records are critical for resolving issues and preventing future occurrences. Through diligent and fair investigations, organizations can uphold their values, foster a positive workplace culture, and protect the rights and well-being of their employees.

About Ethena

At Ethena, we’re committed to making corporate compliance training so good it sticks. In fact, ineffective harassment prevention training was the catalyst for why we were founded

Today, our modern and engaging approach to learning goes beyond check-the-box regulation requirements. With over 2.3 million ratings and a 93% positivity score, Ethena’s Harassment Prevention training course inspires learners to foster healthy, inclusive, and squeaky clean workplaces.