From the Contributor’s Corner: What Is an Investigation?

The terms “investigation”, “internal inquiry”, and “internal review” are commonly used. In many respects, all of these terms can be interchangeable.  However there are very good reasons to determine when to use one term over another in conducting a detailed examination of facts. Whenever possible, it is advisable to use the most general one to avoid unnecessarily exciting concerns and speculation among employees.

First and foremost, “investigation” is a charged term that connotes different meanings to different people. It invokes the notion of a law enforcement situation and a violation of laws. When people hear about an investigation, their imaginations may be excited to infer a lot more about what is occurring than is factually correct. It may affect the way they respond to the investigator and could make people more defensive and cautious in responding to questions. Others outside the workplace may be affected by the term. If Board Members hear about an “investigation” they may feel the need to somehow intervene to find out what is going on before there is sufficient factual information to respond intelligently. The media is also far more likely to pick up on information when there is an “investigation” underway than if they hear there is an internal inquiry taking place. The last thing anyone would like is a story in the local paper about an investigation in process in your organization. It is hard to respond to media inquiries when the investigation has yet to establish many facts. “Internal inquiry” does not cause the same level of emotional response and should be used whenever possible in lieu of investigation.

An investigation can be characterized as a detailed systematic search to uncover facts and determine the truth of the factors (who, what, when, where, why and how), or inquiring into something thoroughly and systematically. It is also defined as a detailed inquiry or systematic examination, or using inquiry and examination to gather facts and information to solve a problem or resolve an issue. It is also defined as an inquiry into unfamiliar or questionable activities. Note that these definitions frequently fall back on the term “inquiry”, which is most frequently defined as a systematic investigation of a matter of official interest. So, most definitions of one of these terms use the other to explain the meaning.

Investigations Are Defined in Many Ways

  1. Probes or inquiries into unfamiliar or questionable activities
  2. Processes of inquiring into something thoroughly and systematically
  3. Detailed inquiries or systematic examinations
  4. Quests for knowledge, data, or truth
  5. Processes to gather facts and information to answer questions
  6. Detailed systematic searches to uncover facts and determine the truth of events or situations (who, what, when, where, why and how)

Most investigations are of short duration and can lead to a resolution in a day or two. Other investigations are more complex and may require a significant commitment of resources over a protracted period. In any case, the elements of any investigation will include one or more interviews, gathering documents, and a case file. While many complaints, allegations, and concerns are fairly routine in nature and may be resolved through normal management procedures or through HRM, any potential violation that falls out of the routine management process may be directed to compliance officers or legal counsel for assistance. In any case, the authority that empowers an internal inquiry must determine if there is sufficient evidence to support an internal inquiry/investigation and/or referral to a duly authorized law enforcement agency. Note that if an inquiry occurs under the direction of legal counsel, it must be conducted in certain defined ways and according to special rules.

In conducting an internal inquiry or investigation, it is important to be properly empowered in the scope of the effort. In many cases this may involve legal counsel, compliance officers, human resource managers, or members of senior management.

Richard Kusserow served as the DHHS Inspector General for 11 years with prior services in the FBI. He is the author of Conducting Internal Investigations in Health Care Organizations, AIS, 2011, (ISBN 979-1-936230-60-8). He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services.

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Copyright © 2013 Strategic Management Services, LLC.  Published with permission.