From the Contributor’s Corner: General Rules for Conducting Internal Investigations

There are a number of guiding rules for conducting internal investigations.  Being aware of them is particularly important for those who do not have a strong background as an investigator.  In such cases, it is all too easy to make a simple procedural error that may seriously compromise an investigation.  It is worthwhile to keep them close at hand.  Failing to recall any of them might be a costly error and result in considerable difficulties later.  The following are a dozen such rules for consideration:

  1. “Need to Know.” The general rule is that all internal investigations or inquiries should fall under the “need to know” standard. This means that all discussions regarding the investigation should be restricted on a “need to know” basis. This means there should be no sharing of information regarding the predication, direction, or findings of the process with any unauthorized parties. In any inquiry, the facts will dictate how to address the issue.
  2. Controlling and Tracking Information. All “cases” should be stamped, logged, and numbered as part of records management.
  3. Fully Debrief Complainants at the Outset.  All complainants need to be fully debriefed as to the basis of their allegations, concerns, and complaints.  All facts should be gathered promptly.
  4. Be Fair and Impartial. The process of conducting the investigation must be a fair and impartial review of all relevant facts.
  5. Include Management’s View. It is important to include management’s views as part of the report and not rely solely upon representations of staff.
  6. Exercise Discretion. It is very important for the investigator to be discreet in gathering pertinent facts.  In a confined work environment, it is easy to “telegraph” information about the investigation that could easily undermine its effectiveness.
  7. Avoid Using Original Documents. Work with copies, not original documents.
  8. “Chain of Custody.”  All evidence obtained during an investigation must be tracked so that it is never outside of the control of the investigation.  This is referred to as maintaining “chain of custody.”  Failure to maintain this chain of custody may result in the evidence being disallowed in a formal adjudicative process.
  9. Stay Focused.  Investigators must never lose sight of the purpose and objective of the investigation.  This means staying focused on factors relating to the complaint and not being distracted by extraneous information.
  10. Be Flexible.  It is critical to stay focused, but not inflexible to changing fact patterns or conditions.  This is not meant to conflict with the previous point, but to recognize that, under certain circumstances, deviating from the guidelines and investigative plan may be necessary. Remaining too narrowly focused may result in missing even more significant issues than those that predicated the original investigation.  In many cases, the investigation may identify problems related to the original complaint or allegation.
  11. Be Comprehensive. For most investigations, there is one chance, and so it is important that everything be done right the first time. It must be comprehensive enough to answer all the questions raised in the predication, as well as sufficient to identify any pervasive or systematic problem that may have caused the problem.
  12. Prevent Retaliation.  One of the worst outcomes of an investigation is to have retaliation or retribution against the original complainant or witnesses.  This issue is specifically addressed in the OIG Compliance Guidance.  It is also something that can create serious legal liability.

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.