Investigating Employee Complaints- What You Can’t See


October 25, 2013

St. Louis Arch

At one point in my college career, I actually considered whether or not I’d like to work for the DEA.  I was enamored with the idea of being able to investigate people who were deceptive and breaking the law.  As it turns out, that job wasn’t as interesting to me after I learned more about it, but I did realize that I wanted a job that incorporated aspects of investigation into the job.  Part of being a human resource professional means that you will become an investigator.  One question I hear often from professionals new to HR or from new leaders in business in general is how to properly conduct an investigation.

From the most simple employee relations discussions to the most complex, each has elements of investigation.  There has never been a case in my career where an employee or manager came to me and told me the “whole story” in their own words during our first conversation.  It always takes multiple conversations and follow ups with other employees or managers to try to piece together what is really occurring.  Think of conducting an investigation a bit like looking at the picture in this post.  We all know that the St. Louis Arch exists, but in the picture, most of it is obscured.  You would have to look much more closely to actually see the entire structure.  The truth of a story is no different.  On the surface, only part is visible.  You will need to plan your investigation strategy so that you can eventually “see” all that is not readily visible.

In order to successfully investigate a complaint, here are the people you’ll need to gather information from and the type of questions to get you started:

  • For the employee making the complaint–  Find out who, what, when, where and how the alleged incident went down in their view.
    • How did you react?
    • Were there any witnesses who would have relevant information?
    • Have you talked with anyone about this?
    • Do you have any documents or evidence to support this complaint?
    • What would resolution look like to you?
  • For the other party to the complaint (can be a manager, colleague, or other person involved)- Find out what they know about the situation.
    • Are the allegations against you true?  What is your response?
    • Who would have information supporting your view of the events?
    • Do you have any evidence to support your claim?
  • For Witnesses- Ask what they saw or heard personally, not what they’ve heard through the grapevine.
    • Have you talked with the person who made the complaint?  What did they tell you?
    • Have you observed this behavior before?
    • Do you have any additional information?

The important thing to remember whether you work in HR or you are in a management role in another part of the organization is that you should never accept a complaint on face value.  While there may be truth to the complaint, there will always be additional information that can change the course of your response to the complaint.  Be sure to take time to dig deeper and get to those facts you don’t immediately see.


  • These situations are the more unpleasurable events in your profession, I am certain. It’s nice when there is a different layer (in this case, HR) for that somewhat removed party to investigate. Too many times, there can be prejudice involved when the supervisor is the one receiving the complaint and doing the investigation.

    Frankly, too many people do NOT follow the protocol that you have outlined. This should be stamped into stone!!!

    Good stuff.

  • Great suggestions for investigating employee complaints. It’s also important to note that you will want to begin investigating a complaint right away- don’t sit and wait. Interviewing the complainant, subject and witnesses is time consuming, but these interviews add the most value to any investigation. I have written a blog post about determining the credibility of statements made during investigation interviews, which can be found on Detecting deception is hard, but it the only was to take all of the information you’ve gathered and figure out the truth.

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St. Louis Arch
St. Louis Arch
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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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