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Keep it movin’ – how to improve timeliness in workplace investigations

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Good investigators worry about timeliness – it’s a requirement of the job. On the one hand, we understand that we must be thorough and produce a good, legally defensible investigation report. On the other, we also know that there are parties and clients (whether internal or external), waiting for the results of the investigation.

We know that not all delay is avoidable. For example, we often encounter scheduling issues when trying to meet with parties and witnesses. Some are not entirely responsive, and it may take us a few tries before we can connect with them, which can lengthen the process. Documentary evidence can also be a problem – there can be delay in receiving documents that the investigator has requested. While these things are not within our control, there are a lot of other things that are. Below, I’ve put together a list of tips on how to improve timeliness:

  • Manage the workload. I put this one first because I think that a heavy workload is the most common reason why investigations get delayed. There are only so many investigations that an investigator can carry at once. Managers need to be mindful of this and investigators need to know when to speak up when they think their workload is getting in the way of a speedy investigation. If there are long periods of time when files are not getting worked on, this is a good indication that there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
  • Think one step ahead and keep it moving. We try to minimize how much time a file is dormant. While a few days here and there is fine, you want to avoid a situation where weeks go by without the file being worked on. When there is a delay that is not within your control, it’s a good idea to think about what else can be done on the file while you wait. For example, if a respondent is not available for a few weeks, it may be that some witness interviews can be done in the meantime.
  • Track your cases. It can be helpful, if you have multiple investigations on the go, to track your progress on each in one document. The document can be updated often, which I find helps to keep track of which file needs the most attention and what needs to be done next.
  • Follow up. As noted above, parties and witnesses may not be responsive when we reach out to them initially. If you don’t hear back from an individual with whom you need to speak, follow up with them quickly (within days, rather than weeks).
  • Prepare for interviews. Before interviewing a party or witness, it’s worth taking the time to prepare thoroughly so that you know what to ask them about. This is to avoid having to re-interview multiple times, which can result in delays.
  • Address issues as they come up. Investigators can sometimes take a “wait and see” approach when an issue comes up, which isn’t always the most effective approach. Issues can grow bigger as the investigation progresses and can become more time consuming. For example, an investigator may find that the complainant’s allegations are not entirely clear after the initial interview. It’s better to clarify these at the outset rather than to wait until later.
  • Keep the file organized. The investigation file, whether it be electronic or hard copy, needs to be in good shape. This is a good practice for many reasons, one of which is that it allows you to find documents easily when they’re needed (for example, when preparing for an interview or writing the report). It also allows you to jump back into the file more easily, especially if it’s been dormant.
  • Write as you go. This one may not work for everyone, but I’ve seen many investigators apply this strategy successfully. There are some parts of the report that can be written as the investigation progresses, rather than at the end. This includes some of the introductory sections (like the description of the mandate and who the parties are), the evidence summary, and the applicable policy language. We do this, especially in complex cases with many allegations, to reduce the amount of time that it takes to write the report at the end of the investigation. The added benefit is that it can also help us to see any gaps in the evidence as we move along.
  • Schedule time to write. The longer you wait after the evidence-gathering stage to start writing the report, the harder it will become to write it. Our memory of the evidence tends to fade and it’s easy to get distracted by other tasks. That’s why it’s important to schedule writing time into the calendar, and it’s preferable to set longer blocks of time aside (rather than to work on the report a few minutes here and there).

What I like about these suggestions is that they can improve efficiency, without having an impact on thoroughness. Incorporating some or all of these may go a long way to making you feel more confident and in control of your investigations.

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