Deborah Neyens is an attorney, educator, and freelance writer with a B.A. in political science and a J.D. from the University of Iowa.
HR Investigations to Find Out Who's Lying
It's a common workplace problem: one employee lodges a complaint against another employee claiming some sort of misconduct, like sexual harassment. The employer must take prompt corrective action to avoid liability. Someone from the employer's human resources department has to investigate to find out what really happened and whether there are grounds for discipline. The HR person interviews each of the employees to get both sides of the story. There are no other witnesses to the incident and the accused employee vehemently denies that anything happened. So now what?
A human resources professional may believe that little more can be done when faced with a "he said, she said" scenario like the one outlined above. It's never a good idea to take disciplinary action against an accused employee without substantial evidence of guilt. But if the employee really did something wrong, by closing an investigation as inconclusive and taking no further action, an employer runs the risk of liability for a hostile work environment. Avoid getting caught in this quandary by learning a few basic investigation techniques. An employer who conducts an effective workplace investigation will be in a better position to determine who's telling the truth and who's lying.
Step 1: Gathering Information
The primary goal of the investigation is to determine the validity of the complaint so that the employer can limit its liability by stopping inappropriate workplace behavior. The investigator should begin by creating a list of the issues to be explored, the relevant documents and other information to be reviewed, and the persons to be interviewed. This list may be expanded later as new information is uncovered.
Next, gather the relevant documents and records. Consider what information could be relevant to the specific allegations of the complaint. If the complainant alleges something inappropriate occurred at a particular place and time, are there are any documents that would place the accused employee in that location at that hour? If there is controlled access to certain areas of the workplace, there may be security records showing when people entered and exited that area. (Such records also may be useful for identifying the presence of potential witnesses.)
Other relevant business records may include telephone or computer logs, time sheets, security tapes, and expense statements. The investigator also should look at the personnel files of both the complainant and the accused, any notes maintained by the employees' supervisors, relevant company policies and procedures, records of prior complaints, and any documentation about the alleged incident, such as written witness statements, if available.
Review these materials before talking to any employees, as knowing what the documents say in advance helps pinpoint when a witness is lying, and use them to prepare interview questions.
Attributes of a Good Investigator
- Impartiality both in reality and in the perceptions of the complaining employee, the accused, and any other employees who may be involved in the investigation.
- An ability to be objective and withhold judgment until all facts are in.
- Discretion and an ability to maintain confidentiality to preserve the integrity of the investigation.
- Knowledge of applicable laws and company policies.
- Good listening skills.
- An ability to evaluate evidence.
- Someone who would make a good witness if called to testify about the investigation and findings.
Step 2: Interviewing Witnesses
There are two witnesses who must always be interviewed: the complaining employee and the accused. Regardless of the manner in which the complainant previously lodged the complaint, it's important for the investigator to conduct a formal interview as part of the investigation. Ask the employee to describe what happened, but don't suggest any facts or conclusions. The investigator also should project impartiality and convey that the employer takes the complaint seriously.
It’s also critical to get the accused's version of the events. Start with general questions ("Did you see [complainant] at work on Friday?" "What did the two of you talk about that day?") and follow up with more specific questions. If the employee claims the other is lying, explore any possible motives for a false claim. Because the truth always lies somewhere in the middle, explore possible misinterpretations.
It isn't sufficient to talk to just the complainant and the accused in most cases, especially if their stories are widely divergent. Other potential witnesses are those identified through the document review, persons identified by either party as having knowledge, supervisors of the parties, and co-workers. This list may expand based on information learned during the early interviews.
How to Interview Witnesses in a Workplace Investigation:
- Take notes.
- Ask open-ended questions, not those that require a yes or no answer.
- Remember the five questions to get at the facts: who, what, where, when, how.
- Differentiate between the witnesses' own direct observations and hearsay.
- If the witness is repeating hearsay, find out the source of the information. Did it come from the complainant, the accused, or somebody else, or is it based only on rumor and innuendo?
- Don't accept conclusory statements as answers, dig for the "whys."
- Ask follow-up questions.
- Ask questions to confirm or refute other information or witnesses–but don't reveal sources.
- Ask whether there are any supporting documents or anyone else with relevant information.
- Exhaust all avenues of inquiry.
- Remain neutral.
- Observe physical and verbal reactions.
Step 3: Documenting the Investigation
It's advisable to have a second management person present for interviews to support the investigator and take detailed notes. The notes need not be verbatim but should capture the essence of what the witness said. Having a second person available to do this allows the investigator concentrate on asking the questions and formulating follow-up questions. Also, a second person helps to avoid another "he said, she said" scenario if witnesses later change their stories. This "silent witness" should have a reputation for trustworthiness and good attention to detail.
Step 4: Making a Credibility Determination
In the absence of eyewitnesses, resolution of a workplace complaint often depends on a determination by the investigator as to which party, the accuser or complainant, is more credible. By conducitng a thorough review of the evidence using good investigative techniques, the investigator should be in a better position to make this determination.
When determining who to believe, consider:
- The quality of the evidence: Facts are better than conclusions; direct evidence is better than hearsay. Consider distance and time. Was the witness too far away to have a clear view? How long ago did the events occur? The witness' account should remain internally consistent. Any discrepancies suggest the witness may be less than truthful.
- Whether there is corroborating evidence: In the absence of direct evidence, a preponderance of circumstantial evidence may make a case against one party or the other. Consider whether the witness' story is consistent with the documentation. If there are no witnesses to the incident itself, look for first-hand accounts of the parties' behavior immediately before or after the specified time. A contemporaneous observation of the complainant crying shortly after the incident allegedly occurred supports a finding that something bad happened. Is there evidence of past similar incidents? This may establish a pattern or practice. Finally, consider whether there should be corroborating evidence to support the witness' story. If a witness claims someone made a phone call, is there a record of the call? There should be. If not, it's reasonable to assume there was no call.
- The interests of the witnesses: Does anyone have a motive to lie? Someone with no stake in the outcome may be more credible than someone with something to gain or lose. Statements against interest also may be more credible; it's safe to assume that people don't say things to make themselves look bad unless those things are true.
Sometimes, despite the best investigative techniques, an investigator's findings truly are inconclusive. That doesn't mean the employer is off the hook. At a minimum, the employer should reiterate its policies and look for opportunities to reeducate the workforce to prevent future violations.
- A Checklist for Employers Before Discharging Employees
An employer checklist to assess potential legal exposure before discharging an employee. Reduce the risk of wrongful discharge litigation by proactively identifying and addressing legal risks of employee termination before taking action.
- Strategies for Avoiding Employee Retaliation Claims
Employee retaliation claims are on the rise. Learn what constitutes unlawful retaliation and what employers can due to avoid liability.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2011 Deborah Neyens
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on September 08, 2017:
You mean that life (and time) has found me now two years later . . .Sept. 8, 2017?
I apologize to you for taking so long in getting back to comment again on this very helpful hub.
I mean it.
I wish that I had known about this information during my 23 years in the newspaper business--this hub could have saved my company and me a lot of time and frustration.
Keep up the fine work and keep in touch.
ytoi on February 14, 2017:
Hello so I work with a lot of users and sometimes they're not always nice (NiceNasty), when I assist them with their computer issues. I have had one or two user report me to HR stating I'm abrasive and condescending towards them when assisting them with their computer issues...However these same employees are nasty and rude when I try to assist them, they do this by trying to tell me how to fix their computer issue. How do I fight back when users report me to HR. Mind you users have the opportunity to fill out a survey on me once I complete their computer issue and my manager is notified on all surveys.
How do I fight these, he say she say complaints? Please help.
Sophie on January 31, 2017:
AudreyHowitt on August 23, 2016:
Such a great hub! This is so very important and so difficult to ascertain where truth lies --
Yvonne Akinmodun from United Kingdom on November 23, 2015:
Hi Debs - thank you for tackling what is often seen as quite a tricky subject matter. I think when determining when and how to take action is that your decision is either based on sound evidence, or in the absence of that, using best judgement or on balance of probability, which is sometimes easier said than done.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 30, 2015:
Great hub Deborah on useful and interesting information on the workplace situations. Voted up!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 02, 2015:
Thank you, Kenneth, and same to you!
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on December 31, 2014:
DeborahNeyens and Everyone on This Hub:
Happy New Year and may May 2015 be Your Best.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on December 29, 2014:
Interesting story, Carol. The last sentence of your comment is very telling. When an employer finally takes action to deal with a problem employee (or employees) it really can affect the workplace for the better.
Carol Houle from Montreal on December 28, 2014:
Yes, I've heard of this "he said, she said", both were my colleagues and only HE got fired. Since then, I've worked for another company where "misappropriation", both parties hit the curb. Suddenly everyone else becomes more reasonable.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 31, 2014:
Thanks, grand old lady. I would recommend anyone in this situation to make and keep some notes documenting what happened from their perspective.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 19, 2014:
This is a useful article, because if you are caught in a situation that you find inappropriate, you will know in advance what procedures will be followed. Forewarned is forearmed, so knowing who the witnesses are, or if there is CCTV or documentary evidence can help as well. Also, sometimes you can't depend on investigators to do their job well, so if you can gather your own evidence to help your case, that would be a good thing. Everyone needs a job, and to lose one's job because of inappropriate experience and/or accusations of inappropriate behavior look very bad on a person's record. For this reason, your article is very relevant to many people. Voted up and shared.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 02, 2014:
Are you in the United States? Possibly some type of tort claim, like a claim against your co-worker for defamation or a wrongful discharge claim against the employer. You may want to consult with an attorney for advice. Most attorneys offer a free initial consultation.
JulezSmilez on March 02, 2014:
What recourse do I have if my coworker flat out lied about me to HR to get me fired?
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 24, 2014:
Thanks for reading, vespawoolf. It's a challenging situation for the person who has to investigate, that's for sure.
Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on January 20, 2014:
This is interesting information. I'd never considered what an extensive investigation would be involved in such a he says/she says case. I appreciate that one needs to be objective and withhold judgment until clear facts can be established. Thank you for sharing.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 13, 2014:
Thanks, Vicki. Fear of retaliation for coming forward can be a valid concern that prevents people from coming forward. I wrote a whole other hub on retaliation issues.
Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on January 11, 2014:
Great info. Sometimes it IS hard to come forward, especially when the problem may be the employer themselves, or a supervisor. Then, as in the place I used to work, the employee with the complaint has little chance--with all the politics involved. Still, this is good information to keep in mind.
CraftytotheCore on September 03, 2013:
Times have certainly changed. Years ago I was working in a small office. A secretary had a personal grudge. It wasn't against me. As I walked across a coffee shop parking lot, she drove through it and almost hit me with her car. Then sped off. There were witnesses. When I tried to discuss the matter with her and the superiors, they told me that I shouldn't take it personally and just forget about it. In today's world, that wouldn't be the case.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 01, 2013:
Michelle Liew from Singapore on July 31, 2013:
Sharing again! This is the truth of office politics!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 05, 2013:
It can be very difficult to speak up about problems in the workplace making the job of an investigator a difficult one. Thanks for the comment, DDE.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 04, 2013:
Interesting about what goes on in the workplace, sometimes nobody wants to speak of their events.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 06, 2012:
Thanks for reading and commenting, DeviousOne.
DeviousOne from Sydney, Australia on November 04, 2012:
Very interesting information
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 28, 2012:
Good for you for confronting the issue head-on, MME. The sad thing is that many employees are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation or worse. As I tell the HR students during the training I do, employers need to monitor the workplace for problems and take action to correct an issue even in the absence of a formal complaint. But, still, I think a lot of employers tend to turn a blind eye because it's just easier that way. Thanks for sharing your story.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 28, 2012:
Thanks, Jaye. The last three semesters I've presented training on how to conduct internal investigations to students in an Advanced Topics in HR class at one of the local universities. These are juniors and seniors who are about to embark on careers in Human Resources and I tell them that this is a skill set they will need to use many times over during their careers.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 28, 2012:
Mary, thanks for the comment, votes, and share. Glad you avoided this type of situation during your career.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 28, 2012:
Thanks, midget. Sorry to hear about your friend's situation. Workplace issues can be very emotionally draining. I always say that being an employment attorney is a lot like being a family law attorney. There are a lot of emotions and relationship issues involved.
Maude Keating from Tennessee on September 27, 2012:
I had this problem twice, in the same company. The first time the man (it was a male dominated business) and my boss who normally is fair, had their meeting and when they came out, I was treated like I was the instigator and at fault. This often happens with a bully involved. The bullying continued until I threatened to quit unless he was moved from my area. He was moved. The second time was with a person who I normally got along great with. He had a bad day and said something very derogatory to me. The next day I was still upset so I went to his boss and told him all I wanted was an apology so he would realize what he did was not right. I got my apology and he even thanked me for saying something. He was the head of his department and I guess he pulled this kind of stuff on his staff, but they let him get away with it. I was the first to call him on it. Anyway we stayed friends and he never spoke rudely to me again.
Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on September 27, 2012:
Your hub is excellent, Deborah, and really covers all the bases of an internal investigation. The scenario you suggested really takes me back in time. I retired from a career in human resources management several years ago, and investigating employee complaints was one of my responsibilities. An HR professional needs many skill sets, but objective and thorough investigative ability is high on the list.
By the way, the human resources management field is in growth mode now, with so many baby boomers reaching retirement age. If someone enjoys solving problems (and preventing them), HR offers a great career opportunity.
Voted Up++ and sharing.
Mary Hyatt from Florida on September 27, 2012:
I would not want to be in this situation. I was never confronted with this problem when I was in the work world, thank goodness.
Great informative Hub. I voted it UP, etc. and will share.
Michelle Liew from Singapore on September 27, 2012:
Points well taken, Deb. This, I share. Thanks for pointing out how to handle a fiery 'he said, she said' situation. My friend was in it herself and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. This will help!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 22, 2012:
Thanks, Shasta. Yes, that stinks when the accused is able to continue with impunity and the accuser then feels like they have no choice but to leave.
Shasta Matova from USA on July 21, 2012:
This is great information - I have often seen these type of situations ignored because HR feels they can't make a determination, even before they interview the parties. What generally happens is that the accuser winds up quitting while the accused happily rolls along doing the same thing.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on February 18, 2012:
Thanks, sholland. Managers often think there is nothing they can do in "he said, she said" situations, but the law requires that some reasonable measures be taken to prevent unlawful harassment in the workplace. If a manager has the tools to conduct a proper investigation, then he or she is better able to address the underlying problem.
Susan Holland from Southwest Missouri on February 18, 2012:
This is a great hub. So many times things are swept under the rug, either because they don't want to rock the boat or there is a "good ole boy system" in place. It can be so frustrating. More documentation is needed so that problems can be put to rest. A needed hub. Thanks for SHARING! :-) Votes and shared.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 20, 2011:
Thanks for your kind comments, Hillbilly. I'm happy to follow you and read your great hubs!
Hillbilly Zen from Kentucky on November 20, 2011:
Great Hub, Ms. Deborah, comprehensive and well-written. These tips would benefit both employers and employees, stressing accurate record-keeping and attention to detail. Thanks for sharing this, and thanks for the follow :) Voted up and useful.
Paul Goodman from Florida USA on September 29, 2011:
This is a great article (voted up!). So often these investigations can end in stalemate with a lack of evidence to decide either way on an accusation, in my experience. You give some great ideas for finding ways forward in a professional way.
Jennofthree from Georgia on September 10, 2011:
Great tips. Too many workplace investigators shy away from making credibility determinations that are documented and explained in the report.