Recently I was asked to conduct an investigation by an organization that had received a complaint from another organization with which they did business, on behalf of one of its employees. While many of the investigation steps will be the same as in a more traditional internal investigation, the request did raise some important process questions to be asked by any organization that finds itself in similar circumstances.

Who will conduct the investigation?

In any investigation, it is important to select an investigator who is, and will appear to be, neutral to the parties. The use of a qualified external investigator is one way to meet this requirement. Should you choose to conduct the investigation internally, the decision might be more complicated. Who will look neutral to an employee of another organization? One option is to co-investigate with your HR equivalent in the organization that submitted the complaint. This might allow both the complainant and the respondent to feel confident that the investigation approach will be neutral.

How will confidentiality be ensured?

With two organizations involved, there are even more opportunities for employees to talk about the investigation process and their involvement in it. To limit gossip, it is important to be thoughtful about your list of witnesses and to limit interviews to those individuals who may have relevant information about the allegations that are being investigated. Additionally, during your witness interviews it is important that you question the witnesses strategically in order to determine whether they do, in fact, have relevant information without disclosing to them any details about the allegations of which they were previously unaware.

Whose policies will apply?

If the investigator’s mandate includes an application of policy to their factual findings, it will be necessary from the outset to decide which organization’s policies will apply. While the policy of the respondent’s organization is the one that governs his or her behavior, the policy of the complainant’s organization governs their responsibility to protect their employee. One option is to have the investigator limit their mandate to factual findings, to which each organization can apply their own policy. The answer to this question might actually depend on the answer to the next one.

To whom will the investigator report?

Unless otherwise stated in your organization’s policy, there is no legal obligation to share a full copy of an internal investigation report with the complainant following an investigation. Often, it is enough to advise them that the investigation was completed and provide them with a summary of the findings and policy determination. Arguably, that is the same amount of information to which the complainant’s organization would be entitled in circumstances in which it is the respondent’s organization that has retained the investigator. A summary will be sufficient to inform the complainant’s organization that the matter has been considered and taken seriously without unnecessarily disclosing sensitive information outside of the organization.

Once these process questions have been answered, you are ready to go ahead with your investigation process. Be sure to follow all the key steps, however, because in addition to the usual considerations, the future of the business relationship may also depend on the quality of your process.