Building Trust In The Internal Affairs Function

John F. Hein, CPP

The integrity of any organization depends on the character and honesty of its employees and especially its leaders.  The internal affairs (IA) function, the investigation of wrongdoing by employees, is an important part of maintaining professional conduct in any organization.  An IA investigation is a sensitive issue with potential life changing consequences for the subject employee, and sometimes for co-workers.

Strong, fair and impartial leadership is essential to create an IA activity that is trusted throughout an organization. Whether the office conducting an employee investigation is called Internal Affairs, Inspector General, or Office of Professional Responsibility, it serves management and the organization as a tool to maintain and strengthen professional conduct.  The complete and unbiased investigation of any allegation ensures fairness and reduces the potential for misunderstanding the IA function.

However, sometimes the IA function is misunderstood.  A professional and honest internal investigation may be perceived as unfair and biased depending upon leadership support and departmental culture.  Just as strong leadership and an impartial investigation reduce the possibility of misunderstanding, the attitudes and actions of leaders also can taint IA actions and create an environment of suspicion, distrust and intimidation.

Leaders are not alone in creating attitudes and perceptions of the internal investigative function.  Employees also may have conflicting attitudes, perceptions and motivations.  Compounding the complexities of the IA function, the process includes others who may affect the perception of internal affairs.

Internal affairs investigators, community and political leaders, union representatives, the media, and citizens the organization serves all influence the perception of the internal affairs function.  An internal affairs investigation may be perceived unfavorably because of negative attitudes among the key players in the process even when IA actions are unbiased, just and void of undue influence.

The internal affairs function can be affected simply because of diverse interests.  Leaders may want to avoid or ignore tough issues that may complicate management of their organization. Offending employees may not admit wrongdoing and as their defense they attack the integrity of the internal affairs investigation.

Employees may feel powerless against management and the community may feel betrayed by politicians who act in their own self interest.  Unions may be deceived by management, management may be frustrated by union officials, and both, along with the rank and file may be ridiculed in the media and criticized by the citizens served. These conflicting interests may cause employees to feel unprotected and so they focus resentment on the internal affairs function.  An insensitive investigator also may create a sense of unfairness by unprofessional behavior.

The attitudes of some players, especially department leaders, can change the department culture and perceptions of others involved in the process.  The players in the process have the potential to build trust between the function and all who are affected by it.  In reality, the personal agendas of some participants may conflict with the best interests of the department and negatively affect employee professionalism and create a negative perception of the internal affairs function.

Supportive management, thoughtful selection of IA employees and continuing professional education can ensure an internal affair function that serves the best interests of the department, its employees and community.

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