Magazine article Public Management

Internal Complaint Investigations: Five Questions to Consider

Magazine article Public Management

Internal Complaint Investigations: Five Questions to Consider

Article excerpt

Your local government receives a complaint that an employee or vendor is involved in serious misconduct that warrants an investigation and opens a floodgate of concerns that require a thoughtful and reasoned response. What should you do?

Before initiating an investigation, you need to consider five questions that will dictate your response and direct any further actions.

1. Is the complaint credible?

Before determining a course of action, evaluate the evidence or allegation that has been initially presented. An organization that responds to all allegations concerning its employees and vendors risks investing inordinate resources and expense chasing spurious claims.

Although anonymous complaints can be reliable, the complaint must be assessed on the information provided.

A person with specific knowledge of wrongdoing may choose not to identify himself when making a complaint, yet the evidence provided may show signs of credibility.

Specific facts and detailed information provide insight into the complainant's knowledge base. In essence, don't discard anonymous complaints. Be sure to evaluate the allegation and the evidence presented.

If the complaint comes from an identified source, begin your due diligence and inquire further. Question the complainant about her firsthand knowledge of the issue.

Try to determine if the complainant is passing on information overheard from others or inferences made from other people's comments. Seek to identify others who can corroborate the allegation or provide further evidence.

2. Does the nature of the allegation warrant notification to outside agencies?

Certain alleged misconduct must be reported to the appropriate agency for investigation. Child abuse or neglect allegations, for example, require that mandated reporters notify the local child welfare agency. Administrative regulations may require that sexual harassment allegations be reported to a specific agency official for follow-up. Grant providers may include provisions in awards requiring immediate notification of alleged malfeasance.

The list of possible notifications goes on. Public housing agencies may be obligated to report allegations to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; schools may be required to report allegations to a local or federal oversight board; and allegations about breaches of environmental or safety protocols may need to be reported to the appropriate state or federal agency.

If the complaint alleges criminal conduct, you may want to notify local law enforcement. Keep in mind, however, that government employees' rights differ based on the nature of the investigation. Government organizations can conduct an administrative investigation into criminal conduct while still preserving the use of evidence in a subsequent criminal proceeding.

But an administrative investigation can also secure evidence--an admission or evidence obtained following an administrative interview--that cannot be used in a criminal proceeding. Likewise, search-and-seizure rules vary slightly in an administrative investigation from the traditional and limited exceptions to the exclusionary rule, which precludes admission of evidence obtained in violation of a defendant's rights.

Any of these required notifications may dictate if or how you and your organization can respond to the allegations.

3. What is the employee's status?

The response to an allegation against a member of a collective bargaining unit may be dictated by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Union employees may be guaranteed certain rights, including the right to be notified about allegations of misconduct. Knowing and understanding these rights helps an organization navigate the investigative process.

In addition, at-will employees traditionally have fewer rights than career service, civil service, or non-exempt employees. …

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