A few years back, I had the opportunity to meet Allison West at a conference out in California.  She runs Employment Practices Specialists and does workplace investigations. (She’s also a terrific speaker and I’d highly recommend you go to a session where she is speaking.)

She recently let me know about an Association of Workplace Investigators institute that is coming to Connecticut for the first time in May of this year.  I asked her a few questions about it via e-mail and have edited that conversation here for those that have an interest in the subject.

So Allison, what exactly is the Association of Workplace Investigators? 

Allison: AWI is the premier organization in the nation dedicated to promoting and enhancing the quality of impartial workplace investigations. Its members include professionals from around the country who conduct workplace investigations.

Before I ask about the institute, can you share your thoughts about why companies should hire an outside investigator and in what circumstances?

Allison: Sure.  The law of workplace investigations is evolving and courts and agencies around the country have made it absolutely clear that employers have a legal obligation to conduct prompt, thorough and effective investigations when certain allegations of wrongdoing in the workplace arise.

One of the essential elements of an effective investigation is an impartial investigator.

Sometimes, investigations should be handled internally.

But there are times when it is critically important to bring in an outside investigator.

For example, say an employee makes allegations of harassment by the employer’s top executive. It will be difficult for an HR manager, who ultimately reports up to that top executive, to be (and, just as importantly, to appear to be) impartial and unbiased.

Can you provide some common mistakes you see from companies and its investigators when conducting an investigation?

Allison: We see a lot of mistakes, and they can be quite costly for employers.

One of the most common mistakes is the perceived or actual impartiality or bias of the investigator. Engaging someone who has skin in the game, so to speak, can render even a well-conducted investigation suspect.

Another mistake is a lack of thoroughness. Investigators will sometimes look at some of the evidence, or speak to some of the witnesses, but miss critical pieces. For an investigation to pass legal muster, it needs to account for all of the allegations and the evidence related to them.

Finally, another serious mistake we often see is the investigator doesn’t assess credibility. This is a crucial element in order to effectively reaching findings. Investigators must assess the credibility regarding motive, plausibility of the testimony, corroboration and other factors. Without assessing credibility, the investigator puts his or her own credibility at risk.

Happy to see that Connecticut will host the next institute. Can you tell us a little more about it? Is it open and how do people join?

Allison: You’re right, Dan. AWI is holding its first Institute outside of California for workplace investigators on May 4-8, 2015 in Mystic, Connecticut.

Personally, I think this week-long program is one of the most comprehensive trainings available for workplace investigators. We’ve got a nationally-recognized expert faculty and gold standard curriculum, so this program will provide attendees with a solid foundation and confidence they need to effectively conduct workplace investigations.

As to who should attend, I’d say: New and seasoned investigators; Attorneys, HR professionals, private investigators, security; Professionals from private and public sectors; Internal employee investigators of organizations; Outside, third-party investigators.

The program limit is 60 students, and we’re nearly half-full already.  Each previous Institute sold out close to the early registration deadline. That deadline is actually next week — on January 15th! You can get more information and register for the Institute on the AWI website.

People can contact AWI with any questions they might have at admin@aowi.org.

Thanks Allison for sharing the information. Sounds like an interesting program close to home.