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5 Ws That Are Key to Employee Investigations

While working at your office one day an employee quietly enters and closes the door behind him. He asks for a few minutes of your time, and detecting the urgency in his voice you grant him the time- he proceeds to tell you a harrowing tale of harassment and bullying allegedly going on right beneath your nose. Right now, he just wants you to do something about it. Time for you as a Manager to jump into action and immediately contact your HR Business Partner.

I cannot stress the importance of conducting a quick, thorough, and documented investigation into any and all claims of harassment by an employee. While HR professionals are trained to perform these investigations, Managers should at the very least be knowledgeable on the 5 Ws that will determine the success of said effort.


The 5 Ws refer to the questions that must be asked during any investigation-

  1. Who – was there, who made the offending comment, who witnessed the comment being made, etc.
  2. What – preceded the comment, what was said exactly, what do you think the offending party was trying to convey with the comment, what was hurtful about the comment, what did you do about being hurt at the time, what in your opinion would be the ideal resolution to this situation, etc.
  3. When – was the comment made, when did you decide to complain, when did you tell the offending party that their comment was hurtful, etc.
  4. Where – did the incident happen, where did you go afterwards, where did they go afterwards, etc.
  5. Why – didn’t you tell them you were hurt by their behavior, why did you not say something sooner, why did you …, etc.

Your employee investigations should be executed quickly, your interviews well-planned and remember the 5 Ws. Your employees must perceive you as unbiased and objective in the performance of reviewing these claims- or you will not get the information or cooperation you need from them in order to get to the bottom of the situation. It almost goes without saying, but document every step along the way of your investigations and it helps if you always assume that the matter will end up in court.

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