A workplace investigation is a method used to determine what happened, whether a university policy has been violated, and who, if anyone, is responsible—it is not a legal proceeding. The Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP) will determine if a workplace investigation is necessary in order to address a staff member's complaint based on the nature and severity of the complaint and the information provided. In unique circumstances, the HRBP, in conjunction with the department and/or Behavioral Consultation Team (BCT), will evaluate whether an administrative leave is appropriate in circumstances which are deemed to be egregious or a safety concern (e.g. fitness for duty).
What follows is information about what to expect if you are a participant in a workplace investigation.
Workplace Investigation Roles
A workplace investigation generally includes the following roles:
- Complainant: Individual(s) making the complaint.
- Respondent: Individual(s) implicated or accused in the complaint.
- Witness: A person who has knowledge of the events from personal observation or experience. Witnesses may be identified by the complainant and the respondent.
- Investigator: The investigator should be an objective party. An investigation may be conducted by a HRBP, a department/unit administrator, or a partnership of the two.
Northwestern reserves the right to take reasonable actions to investigate and address complaints and other workplace concerns brought to its attention, including reviewing systems and other sources of available evidence. If a staff member reporting a possible policy violation does not wish to pursue a complaint or proceed with an investigation, the University may nevertheless independently decide to conduct an investigation. In such situations, Northwestern will not compel the staff member to participate as a complaining party but expects the staff member to provide all relevant information to an appropriate University authority, consistent with the reporting obligation set forth on page 4.2 of the Staff Handbook.
Northwestern policy strictly prohibits retaliation against any member of its community for reporting or inquiring in good faith about what the member believes to be wrongful or unlawful activity or for participating in an investigation or proceeding related to such activity.
The exact steps involved in any given workplace investigation may vary based upon the specificities of the case. What follows is an example of steps taken in a typical workplace investigation, but note that the process could vary based on each specific case.
- HRBP conducts intake interview with the complainant and reviews supporting evidence, if provided. If the HRBP determines that an investigation is necessary, the HRBP will notify the complainant and the appropriate department leadership accordingly.
- If it is determined that an investigation is not necessary, the complainant will be notified.
- HRBP collects information by interviewing the respondent and witnesses.
- HRBP determines findings after reviewing information collected in the interviews and the evidence provided by participants.
- HRBP communicates findings to appropriate department/unit leadership along with recommendations for next steps.
- The complainant and respondent are made aware of the findings and next steps.
During investigation interviews, the complainant, respondent, and witnesses will have the opportunity to present information and material related to the situation. The investigator will ask questions related to the complaint, listen, and take notes. They will ask for the names of any other individuals who may have information or knowledge of the situation and about what happened. If necessary, the interviewee will also have the opportunity to respond to the information that will be relied upon and other information gathered.
In order to protect the integrity of the investigation, the investigator will request that you keep the information you share confidential until the investigation had concluded.
The exact timeline is case-specific. Workplace investigations are approached as expeditiously as possible while completing the necessary due diligence. Complainants may contact the investigator to receive updates regarding the timeline.
The findings will be determined based upon a preponderance of the evidence, which is what more likely occurred than not, based on the information made available and that the investigator was reasonably able to gather.
The HRBP will first discuss the findings with appropriate department/unit leadership and will provide consultation in determining appropriate next steps. Recommendations, which are generally provided regardless of the outcome of the investigation, may include but are not limited to, training, adjustments to protocol/procedures, a facilitated meeting, corrective action, etc.The complainant and respondent are made aware of the findings and next steps as it relates to each of them specifically, meaning that if the findings are substantiated and corrective action is sanctioned, the other party will not be made aware of the specifics.