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Evaluating Allegations of Wrongdoing

Although there are many channels of communication, compliance complaints and allegations arrive primarily through the use of hotlines. Complaints can vary in the amount of detail presented, but all complaints and allegations must be evaluated and documented regardless of the source and before any action is taken. Proper evaluation is always necessary despite the fact that the overwhelming percentage of reported matters will not require a full investigation. This initial review is often referred to as “triaging” of the complaint, a practice commonly used in hospital emergency rooms. It is a process for evaluating situations to determine what course of action is warranted and how limited resources can be allocated to resolve issues. However, it is not always easy to determine the seriousness of an allegation and whether a complaint warrants full investigation from an initial communication.

The purpose of an investigation is to confirm or refute information provided by the source. It is important to remember that not all allegations are factually accurate. Generally, an internal inquiry of some type is always warranted when presented with any credible information of potential wrongdoing. Setting the appropriate level of investigative response is very important especially since the investigator wants to avoid involvement in a “wild goose chase.” Evaluating allegations for an investigative response is only the first step in the process. Conducting the actual investigation is an entirely different matter.

Factors to be Considered in an Initial Assessment

  • Does the complaint allege violation of laws, regulations, policies or standards?
  • What caused the issue and how serious are the allegations?
  • Does the issue involve parties outside the organization?
  • Does the complaint need to be reported to regulatory or enforcement authorities for investigation?
  • Would the allegation(s) be actionable should the information prove true?
  • Are the any potential liability issues related to the allegations?
  • What methods and approaches are necessary to resolve the allegations or complaint?
  • Who has the authority to decide whether something should be investigated or not?
  • Who will be responsible for the investigation? (Compliance Officer, Human Resources Management, Privacy/Security Officer, Legal Counsel, outside experts, etc.)
  • What are established facts, as opposed to those in dispute?
  • Do the facts adequately describe what happened?
  • Are there facts specified in enough detail that they can be substantiated?
  • How strongly does the complainant feel about the problem?
  • Are there logical investigative steps that can be followed?
  • How much of the allegation is not clear or in dispute?
  • How much additional information is needed to resolve the allegation?
  • Does the information make reasonable sense?
  • How serious are the implications of the allegations?
  • Have similar allegations been lodged in the past and if so, against whom?
  • How were these similar allegations resolved?
  • Could the matter give rise to litigation?
  • Was there a physical injury or loss that has dollar consequences?
  • How many people were affected by the event or act and who are they?
  • Would the media be interested in this issue?
  • What effect could this have had on employee morale?
  • Are senior members of management involved in the allegation?
  • What effect could an investigation have on the work force?
  • How much of an investigative effort would it take to resolve the matter?
  • What level of resources is needed to resolve the issues?
  • Has too much time elapsed in reporting to permit a proper investigation?

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The various decisions related to conducting investigations always come down to a series of judgment calls. The factors above will assist greatly in this process and over time, the ability to properly evaluate allegations will become second nature. Most complaints and allegations can be resolved with a limited amount of investigation or internal inquiry and in a matter of minutes, hours or a few days at most. Many times the facts stand on their own merits and are not subject to dispute. The only problem is figuring out what these facts really implicate. Even though a full investigation is not common, it is important to ensure that investigative staff has undergone rudimentary investigator training. An improperly conducted investigation could aggravate matters and even create potential liabilities. Also, attorneys cannot always be counted on to conduct investigations since few have undergone formal investigator training. All federal investigative agencies, including the FBI, ensure that all agents, including those with law degrees, undergo a formal, month long investigator training. As such, providing such training may prove to be a worthwhile investment.

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