The answer seems to depend on who you ask. Some will give you the definition of what requires an investigation under harassment discrimination laws. Others will say that you should only conduct an investigation when it is absolutely clear that an investigation is legally required, in order to avoid shining light on the situation. Most advice falls somewhere in between.
After almost 25 years of working as an HR professional generalist with a focus on employee relations my answer is this. If you have to ask, the answer should always be yes. Although the fact that the EEOC has historically cleared over 50% of claims filed based on the employer having conducted a proper investigation should be reason enough, there is an even stronger case. Time and time again, employers who conduct prompt and impartial investigations consistently find the result to be an increase in employee trust that everyone is held to the same standards of conduct. And we all know that trust in the management team results in greater engagement.
Imagine that your company implemented investigations as a standard business process. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to investigate is, “to observe or study by close examination and systematic inquiry.” Think about how often you do this in the course of your job. It is just not generally referred to as an investigation because we save that term for “serious matters”. But the process is the same. Instead of waiting until a situation gets out of hand, or an employee complains, disengages or leaves, why not use a standard, respectful process to work through the fact finding and find a positive resolution? This proactive action reduces the negative impact on the workforce as it is seen as just another standard process. And the next time there is a ‘serious matter” to investigate, you’ll be surprised at the level of participation because the investigation is not something new and feared.
And the best part is that when and if your company received a complaint letter, it becomes simple to prove that the company uses a fair and consistent process every time there is even a chance of improper treatment in the workplace.