Investigation meeting questions for effective conflict resolution
Conducting an investigation meeting is never a pleasant affair.
When difficult questions have to be asked regarding an employee’s workplace conduct, it doesn’t leave anyone feeling good. Nevertheless, it’s a reality of running a business.
At a small business where interpersonal team dynamics have a greater effect on your company culture than they would at a larger corporation, the outcomes and decisions of these investigation meetings matter all the more.
A disciplinary policy that balances legal understanding, tact, empathy, and strategic questioning can have a big impact on the company culture of your small business. I’ve seen small businesses come and go over the years, and I’ve helped a few navigate sensitive issues like disciplinary procedures.
I’d like to lend some advice on the kinds of investigation meeting questions you should have during a disciplinary hearing, and some tips on how to handle things when the process becomes emotionally charged.
The purpose of investigation meetings
Investigation meetings are a part of the disciplinary process.
When an employee or a team member is accused of misconduct or violating company policies, investigation meetings are a chance to gather the facts and get the details about the incident or allegations in question. They give the employee a chance to defend themselves in a fair and unbiased setting, before resorting to measures like termination of employment.
In a small business where team dynamics are often closely knit, managing these investigation meetings with thoughtfulness, professionalism and tact is all the more important. Flub the investigation, and it can lead to poor morale, distrust among your team members, or even legal disputes. Do it properly, and it can help build a culture of transparency and fairness.
Crafting effective questions
Whether the investigation meeting succeeds or fails can all come down to whether you get the information you need to make a fair and unbiased decision. For that, you need to know how to make thoughtful and effective investigation meeting questions that cut to the heart of the matter.
There are approaches you can take when making your list of questions:
- Purpose-driven questions: Start by understanding what information you need from each question. Are you trying to establish a timeline of events? Or determine the cause of the offending behaviour? Tailor your questions to whatever those objectives are
- Open-ended questions: Questions that go beyond a “yes” or “no” format can give you a more complete picture of the situation, get more detailed responses and form a narrative
- Neutral wording: You must neutrally frame the questions, and avoid loading the question in a way that invites a specific desired answer
- Behavioural inquiry: These questions help you understand the behaviours and reactions of those involved, and why they occurred
- Situational questions: These questions can help you in the decision-making process and understand why things happened the way they did. Questions like “If faced with a similar situation again, what would you do differently?” can help with resolving any potential conflicts peaceably
- Follow-up questions: Asking follow-up questions based on the responses you get can help dive deeper into important areas of contention, clear up ambiguities, and demonstrate active listening
Managing emotionally charged meetings
Investigation meetings can get very tense, very quickly. It just takes a few poorly worded phrases for tempers to flare in delicate situations where people’s job security can be on the line.
Having an ethical and productive investigation meeting means taking steps to avoid this. Here are some strategies you can use to prevent that happening:
- Recognise emotional cues: Be aware of the signs of rising emotions. Look for changes in tone or body language. Seeing them early means you can stop them from escalating
- Maintain calm and control: You’re facilitating this discussion, and it’s up to you to set the tone and decorum for the meeting. Speak in a steady, reassuring voice and avoid showing frustration
- Use de-escalation techniques: If emotions get heated, consider taking a short break, rephrasing the question that may have caused upset feelings, and reassuring all those present of their confidentiality
- Active listening: Summarise the key points of the discussion on either side. This demonstrates empathy and acknowledges the feelings of all parties as valid
- Refocus on objectives: When the discussion goes off track, gently steer the discussion towards the meeting’s goals, and remind the participants of the importance of their input for a fair outcome
Preparing for an investigation meeting
Taking steps to prepare for the investigation meeting will help ensure that it goes smoothly and that you maximise your time.
Select an unbiased mediator, preferably someone with HR expertise, to help facilitate the meeting. Gather all the relevant documents like incident reports, company policies and any communications related to the incident.
Communicate with all the parties involved, informing them of your investigation process and their involvement in it. Set the right expectations and clarify the purpose of the investigation. Schedule interviews with all the involved parties, and give yourself ample time for each session to put forward your questions.
Conducting the investigation meeting
When the day of the meeting comes, it's important that you get things off on the right foot, and set an atmosphere of open communication and professionalism.
Begin by stating the meeting’s objectives and the importance of truthful answers and gaining factual information. Emphasise the confidentiality of all parties, and that the purpose of the meeting is to gather the facts rather than assign blame or judgement.
During the meeting, use open-ended questions to get more detailed responses rather than questions that lead to a predetermined outcome.
Practise active listening. Pay attention to cues, both verbal and non-verbal. Document key points of the meeting, while staying engaged with the interviewees.
At the end of the meeting, summarise the key points, review any findings, and outline the next steps in the investigation process. Let the interviewees know when they’ll be updated on the investigation.
Analyse the data and look for any inconsistencies or patterns. Determine whether any additional follow-up questions are needed.
Sample questions for investigation meetings
To help smooth the process so that your investigation meetings stay productive and fair, I’d like to offer a list of sample investigation meeting questions that have worked for me when investigating workplace incidents. Feel free to take what I give you and customise it to suit the situation.
1. Can you describe the events as you recall them?
This serves as a good starting point to build a timeline of the incident.
2. Who else was present at the time?
Identify any other potential parties involved. Questions like this will help in cross-examining stories and getting different perspectives of the incident.
3. What specific actions or behaviours were observed?
Get a detailed description of the incident, and get an understanding of the seriousness and nature of the incident.
1. How did you react when [specific event] happened?
Understand individual responses to the incident, and get insight into their behaviour and personal perspectives.
2. Can you describe any conversations you had regarding this matter?
You’d be surprised how much you can learn from passing mentions or innocent, informal conversations about the incident. Asking questions like this can help in identifying rumours or misinformation before they spread.
3. Were there any changes in the team dynamics following the incident?
Is the incident disrupting team relationships or the overall mood of the company as a whole? If so, it would be good to know.
1. "If faced with a similar situation again, how would you handle it?"
The purpose of the investigation meeting should be to understand, not to judge. People can make innocent mistakes or errors in judgement and grow from them. Make an effort to gauge what they learned from the incident in hindsight.
2. What support or changes do you believe could prevent such incidents in the future?
Asking questions like this can help find opportunities for organisational improvements and preventative measures to keep the unfortunate situation from happening again.
3. How do you think this situation could be resolved fairly?
Not every investigation meeting should end with someone getting punished, suspended, or let go. Outcomes like that are best used as a last resort, if possible. Get the interviewee's expectations for what they want from the investigation meeting, plan follow-up actions and find ways to resolve the conflict in a way that’s fair to everyone.
Make a fair and effective investigation meeting process with Charlie
Investigation meetings play an important part in resolving workplace issues before they escalate into serious incidents. The key lies in effective preparation, focused and objective-oriented questions, and empathetic and clear communication to avoid any unfair disciplinary action.
Situations like this require careful handling, and a background in HR doesn’t hurt either. If you need some guidance on making your investigation meeting process for your UK small business, I or another HR advisor at Charlie will be only too happy to assist you. Book a free call with an HR advisor, and be on your way to make an investigation meeting process that balances understanding and fairness.