Six Steps to an Effective Internal Investigation

Conducting an effective internal investigation is a critical compliance function.  A flawed investigation may result in a failure to identify a compliance issue or to implement appropriate remediation efforts.  If questions arise later, the internal investigation will be examined under a microscope and incomplete, inadequate or poorly documented investigations will stand out.  The following are six important steps to follow in every internal investigation.        

1.   Begin all investigations with objectivity.   As the investigator, you must not begin with preconceived notions or conclusions.  Instead, avoid drawing conclusions until you have collected information from all relevant sources.  The mission is to determine whether there is an issue, and if so, to ascertain the root cause of the issue and implement the most appropriate measures to prevent reoccurrence.  It’s about improving compliance, not finding someone to blame.

2.  Focus on the five W’s of an investigation.  Predictably, the five W’s are:  who, what, where, when, and why/how.  The investigation is not complete until you can answer each of these questions.  The “why/how” may require you to weigh and evaluate the information collected in order to reach a conclusion.  See #5 below.

3.   Conduct effective interviews.  As the investigator, you must identify people who may have relevant information.  It is often best to start with the person who raised the compliance concern.  Effective interviews are conversations, not interrogations.  Therefore, it is important to establish a rapport with each person you interview.  Avoid using an accusatory or judgmental tone.  Begin the interview with open-ended questions that allow the interviewee to provide a narrative response.  Let the interviewee talk while you listen and take notes.  Then, use follow up questions to obtain details.  Document all interviews, including specific statements of interviewees when important.  Here are sample interview questions:

  • Can you tell me what happened?
  • What happened first?  When did that happen?  Where did it happen?
  • Who did you speak with?  What did they say?
  • Was anyone else involved?  Did anyone else see what happened?
  • Is there anything else that you think I should know?

Don’t underestimate the importance of the final question.  Interviewees often provide the most important details in response to this type of question.  Keep asking it until the interviewee offers nothing else. 

4.   Examine all relevant evidence.  In addition to interviews, determine whether you need to review any documents or examine any physical evidence such as medical records, photographs, text messages, emails, equipment, office set up, or proximity of workstations.

5.   Reach a conclusion and document it.  All investigations must result in a conclusion.  As the investigator, you serve as the judge and jury.  This may include discrediting statements or claims of interviewees or reaching a conclusion based on circumstantial evidence.  This can be difficult when the facts don’t point to a definitive conclusion.  When this happens, you must reach a reasonable conclusion based on your unbiased review and evaluation of all the information collected.  Then document your approach and conclusions.  Include relevant supporting information such as notes or documents reviewed.  If you cannot reach a conclusion due to lack of information, be sure to document that finding as well. 

6.   Perform the investigation as close in time to the incident or issue as possible.  Quite simply, memories fade.  The most accurate and reliable information will come from those who were involved and are interviewed soon after the incident or issue.  Relevant tangible evidence may also be more difficult to obtain with the passage of time.