In America, internal investigations into suspicions and allegations of employee misconduct follow an increasingly well-defined approach. But exporting US investigatory best practices raises unexpected hurdles of foreign workplace laws.

Internal investigations in the US have become high-profile and big business. Corporate investigations can be hugely expensive: One American personal care products company disclosed in an SEC filing that it had spent US$247.3 million on a single investigation. And these investigations can be long and drawn-out: By the time ex-FBI director Louis Freeh wrapped up his thorough internal investigation into child rape allegations at Penn State University, his chief targets were either dead or in prison — Penn State launched its investigation after the scandal broke in late 2011; Joe Paterno died in January 2012; a Pennsylvania jury convicted Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child molesting in June; the investigation wrapped up that July.

The highest-profile internal investigations tend to be complex, drawn-out and expensive. Stakes are high when an allegation involves millions of dollars and serious charges—bribery, sabotage, embezzlement, tax fraud, insider trading, antitrust collusion, workplace violence, environmental crime, audit/accounting fraud, conflict of interests. That said, huge internal investigations are the exception. Most internal investigations tend to be fairly streamlined, inexpensive and fast. Investigations into, for example, run-of-the-mill claims of petty theft, bullying, harassment, workplace accidents and expense-account fraud often get wrapped up quickly and inexpensively. But in this era of Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank and close scrutiny into corporate compliance and ethics, an internal investigation, be it slow and expensive or fast and streamlined, needs to get done right. Wrongdoers need to get punished.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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