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What Your Mission Needs to Know About Internal Investigations, Part 1: Preparing for an Investigation

When employees or members raise grievances with the organization, what should be the proper response? In many cases, an internal employment investigation is warranted. But how should the mission go about conducting one? Sometimes, it is hard to know where to begin. To this end, this three-part series explores what religious organizations, and in particular, mission organizations, need to know about conducting internal employment investigations. Part One of the series addresses why these investigations are important and how to go about developing a policy for conducting them in your organization.

Why should a mission be doing internal investigations?

First, it is part of good member care. Conducting internal investigations when there are employee complaints gives employees confidence that the mission is continuing in its commitment to care for them. Faithfully investigating complaints can also help to foster a culture of truth and accountability. When the mission responds to employee grievances by taking them seriously, it creates a culture where voices are heard and people are not afraid to speak up when misconduct or other un-Christlike behavior is occurring.

And, of course, it may be legally necessary. In some situations, conducting an internal investigation is required to protect the organization from liability. For example, if an employee complains of sexual harassment, a mission should conduct an investigation of that complaint and take prompt action to remedy any issues. Failure to do so can deprive the mission of a defense in the event of a legal claim, or worse, subject it to legal liability in certain cases.

What should trigger an investigation?

Whether a full-blown investigation is warranted depends on the severity of the incident involved and whether it needs to be dealt with formally. Some examples of things that might trigger an investigation include:

  • Formal complaint or grievance,
  • Informal/casual report or comment about a violation of policy or the law,
  • Observation of inappropriate conduct,
  • Changes in behavior or morale,
  • Administrative agency inquiry, or
  • Receipt of legal demand, employment discrimination charge, or a lawsuit.

Is there any risk to not conducting an investigation?

Yes. In certain circumstances, not conducting an investigation, or conducting an inadequate investigation, can lead to liability for the organization. There have been cases where the failure to do an investigation, or even conducting a poor investigation, was the sole reason the company was on the hook. This is particularly true with complaints of sexual harassment, for example, where conducting a proper investigation may provide a defense to some claims.

Even in less serious cases, when an employer chooses not to investigate, it loses the opportunity to learn about bad behavior in the organization and might be liable for harm that continues to occur. By not conducting an investigation, you miss out on the opportunity to take corrective action before the situation reaches a tipping point.

Do I need to place the accused on administrative leave during the investigation? What if the accused is overseas…when is a furlough or home assignment necessary?

This depends on the unique circumstances. But the question brings up another important point: consider whether there are any safety issues involved. This is one of the first things that an employer should figure out when an employee lodges a complaint or questionable behavior is observed. Depending on the issues involved, administrative leave may or may not be necessary.

In some situations, the situation will be so serious that the missionary will need to be called back to the home country pending further investigation. Some examples of this might include egregious sexual misconduct, allegations of child abuse, allegations involving violent behavior, or where the accused is a danger to himself/herself or others around him/her. Policies should be created to treat like situations similarly and to give the decision-makers some help in making that judgment call.

How can I create a framework for conducting investigations in my organization?

Developing a framework for conducting investigations takes time and consideration. When starting down this road, begin by asking yourself and your stakeholders some basic questions:

1. What kinds of misconduct will require an investigation?

Each organization must decide for itself when to trigger an investigation. Sometimes this question can be answered by looking at your own internal policies and procedures and determining whether this offense could lead to immediate discharge or discipline. Other times, an investigation will be triggered by alleged misconduct that could lead to liability for the mission if not dealt with promptly (child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, discrimination, violation of local laws, etc.). Try to make a non-exhaustive list of the most common triggers.

2. Who gets to decide when an investigation is triggered?

This question involves thinking about the process of reporting. Think about these questions:

  • Who should be taking in complaints?
  • When do you notify the next level up?
  • When do you call your attorney? (Hint: before, not after, you have done or said things that will have a lasting impact)

3. Who is typically responsible for conducting an investigation?

Any general framework for conducting internal investigations is not complete without consideration of who will be the ideal investigator. Will it need to be a person of the same gender as the complaining party? Someone with a similar cultural background? An individual inside the organization? An outsider? Many times, an attorney or outside law firm will be brought in to conduct an investigation. Pros and cons to each scenario should be explored, and will vary for different investigations. No matter who is the go-to person, it is important that the person conducting the investigation not be someone who may be involved as a witness or who may be too biased to be fair (or perceived as such).

4. What is an investigation seeking to discover?

Finally, the general framework should also address how to develop an investigative plan for conducting individual investigations when the time comes. Each investigation should begin with a plan or roadmap for reaching an ultimate conclusion. To develop this roadmap, consider what kind of evidence you are looking for; what documents need to be reviewed; who will need to be interviewed and where they are located.

Answering these questions in a general way can be a good start to developing a policy memorializing how internal investigations will be approached within the organization. Then, when the need for one arises, an individualized plan for the investigation can be developed. Focus on these issues before an investigation is needed, so key pieces are not missed.

Featured Image: ”Sherlock Holmes” by Pixabay.
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