The spectre of wrongdoing within a department can send chills down the corporate spines of an organization. Many sleepless nights have plagued senior managers who find themselves in the unenviable position of being responsible for dealing with allegations of wrongdoing.
The decision to launch an investigation and ensuring that the investigation is conducted thoroughly and competently are not to be taken lightly. The risks of failing can have consequences for all parties involved. The legal, human resource and labour issues that will most certainly stem from errors committed at any stage of the process can quickly become a corporate nightmare for a department. This being said, the risks of allowing the wrongdoings to persist are far greater.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stated: “It takes less time to do a thing right than it takes to explain why you did it wrong.” In making the right choices prior to launching an investigation in your department you mitigate the risks of finding yourself and your organization in a position of having to explain your own “wrongdoings.” The decisions you make will speak volumes about your leadership as well as about the values of your department.
An investigation is a “quest for the truth” that is undertaken following certain principles and rules that the law, the courts and organizational policies have created to guide those on the quest. There are different reasons why an investigation would be launched within an organization. They range from being a legislative requirement (e.g., the federal Public Servant Disclosure Protection Act) to a managerial decision to proceed with a review to determine the origin of a loss of productivity in a unit.
Most investigations, however, are initiated following allegations of “wrongdoing,” a term used to describe a wide range of acts or behaviours that are contrary to the values, laws, regulations and/or policies of an organization.
Understand the allegations
Prior to launching a full investigation, executives need to take a hard look at the allegations that are being brought to their attention. Lengthy and expensive investigations are often launched based on very little information and too much emotion. A preliminary probe should be considered to determine if a full investigation is warranted. A well conducted probe can save time, money, embarrassment as well as assist in determining the scope of the investigation.
However, it is extremely important that someone with the proper experience and expertise conducts the probe since the line between a probe and a full investigation must be fully understood. If one crosses the line, the rules of engagement change considerably as do the legal obligations of the department.
Consult the experts
This is where it is important to obtain expert advice. Though you may find yourself responsible for how the situation is handled, you are not alone in dealing with it. Legal services, human resources and labour relations units are important resources that should not be overlooked. Issues of confidentiality, natural justice, procedural fairness, privacy and collective agreements should be discussed and fully understood. Depending on the type of wrongdoing and extent of the investigation, you may want to consider consulting with your media relations unit.
Whether it is within your own organization’s investigation unit or through an outside consultant, the advice you receive should be from someone with many years of experience in the field and, preferably, with experience investigating in the public sector environment. An overzealous or incompetent investigator can be a liability. The cloud that hangs over an organization that conducts and acts on the results of a badly conducted investigation takes a long time to dissipate. Credibility and trust are difficult to earn and extremely easy to lose, especially in our media hungry and litigious society. Let’s not forget that, as the senior manager, you are not only responsible to act on the results of the investigation but also for the conduct of the investigation itself.
Define the scope
Once you are satisfied that an investigation is warranted and that you have the right individuals in place to conduct your investigation, it is important that you and your investigators are clear on the scope of the investigation. Ask yourself: what information will I need to make the right decision in this matter? At times it can be tempting to widen the scope at the beginning or during the investigation (sometimes called “scope creep”) but you may be doing yourself and your organization a disservice. A clear definition of the parameters will save time, energy, money and unnecessary stress for everyone involved.
Get out of the way
The next step can be the most difficult for many executives: let the investigation take its natural course. If you have confidence in your choice of investigators it should be easier for you. Everybody likes to play detective, but remember that the investigation must not only be unbiased, it must also be perceived as being unbiased. If you are seen as directing the investigation, the conclusion as well as the actions you take as the decision maker can be seriously put in question.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t be briefed during the investigation; on the contrary, it is important that you are aware of progress as well as of any issues that may need your attention. Regular briefings are also an excellent occasion for you to demonstrate your support for the investigation.
Get the story behind the story
The final phase of the investigation is the report. A good report should be clear, concise and based on evidence that is supported. The analysis portion of the report should be sound, founded on supported evidence and devoid of any gratuitous opinions or “gut feelings.” The findings of the investigation should be obvious to the reader prior to its conclusion.
Once you have read the report, insist on a personal briefing by the individuals who conducted the investigation. Remember, not everything is in the written report. It would be too long a document. You need the chance to ask any questions you may have about the report, discuss the recommendations and allow the investigators to share their insights on the matter. This information will be invaluable to you when you are preparing your response to the allegations.
The “quest for the truth” that you initiate should ensure that you are provided with the information you require to come to a judicious decision. The decisions that you take following your investigation will not only define you as a leader, but will also reveal you as a person. Hence, the importance of making the right choices prior to launching an investigation. They will determine the success of your quest and, maybe even, the quality of your sleep.
Wayne Watson, CFE, CFI, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and federal public servant, is president of W2 Investigation Consulting (W2inv.firstname.lastname@example.org or www.w2investigationconsulting.ca).