High-Quality Investigative Research Requires Highly Engaged Employees

By Daniel Greenberg, Vice President of Forward Risk and Intelligence

Under the Hood: A Discussion Series for Investigative Professionals

Many firms boast of offering top-quality investigative research and intelligence services, but experience has shown that delivering on these promises requires a highly motivated and well-staffed research team. A proper understanding of the link between employee engagement and research quality should lead to long-term efforts to create a healthy and sustainable work culture.

High-quality investigative research adds a huge amount of value for clients – uncovering hidden facts, changing a narrative, and developing actionable insights – ultimately resulting in improved business decisions and results. Many firms boast of offering top-tier investigative and intelligence services to clients for this reason. However, delivering client value depends on a highly engaged investigative research team that is focused and motivated to excel consistently.

White-collar professionals, like many others, have felt burnout in the past year and a half, and this has led some to feel less engaged with their jobs. Even before the pandemic, investigators and other white-collar research professionals often felt tremendous stress from a variety of factors. Among the many negative consequences of job burnout are lack of concentration, decreased productivity, and increased turnover, according to the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Business Review.

For investigative researchers, burnout impairs core job functions. With a team of chronically stressed out or over-worked employees, how can a client trust that nothing will be overlooked? A key research finding or analytical insight that breaks open a case and delivers real value requires an investigator striving for excellence in all efforts.

For example, an important civil or criminal record finding may only be retrievable by diligently searching many variations of a person’s name. Or, a seemingly benign property transaction could actually be sign of an improper pay-off – an insight only discoverable if an investigator digs in to the background of all involved parties. There are innumerable scenarios in which a highly engaged investigative researcher can add substantial value beyond a more cursory or slapdash approach.

How should investigators (and their managers) promote engagement, prevent burnout, and fulfill their responsibilities to their clients? The full answer is complex and depends on each particular situation, and even the best intentions can fall by the wayside without thoughtful management and sufficient commitment to a long-term outlook.

From my experience, there are a few general lessons that can serve as a guidepost:

Prepare for Busy Season

Investigative researchers and other white-collar professionals are likely already quite familiar with the impact of a sudden spike in project work. Increases in workload happen with enough regularity that they can be planned for. Those taking a fundamentally long-term view of staffing can invest in hiring and training workers before they are desperately needed. A brain trust of talented, hard-working, and experienced researchers is your firm’s most valuable asset, and one not easily replicated. Treating your current investigative team well, across the board, ensures that they will feel genuinely motivated to step up when the situation calls for it.

Be Realistic and Transparent When Assigning Work

Opaque, unrealistic, or even unfair delegation of work can grind down even the most passionate investigative researchers. Research teams should take the time to properly assess how long a project will take –conducting brief preliminary research – and then devote sufficient resources. Managers should routinely bring investigative researchers into the decision-making process and create a culture of inclusivity where opinions are genuinely valued.

Avoid a “Fire Drill” Culture

Any workplace should be, at a minimum, functional. In the investigative research setting, this means leveraging the team’s experience to develop standards around case assignment, research best practices, reviewing, and communicating with clients – without creating excessive bureaucracy. Importantly, those who step up to help their teammates on a difficult assignment should be recognized or rewarded, while any drama or ego battles must be immediately quashed. Leaders must model good behavior themselves, or chaos and dysfunction will filter down throughout the team, with predictable results to engagement.

Set Boundaries

Because of pressing business needs, there are often urgent emails or assignments that come in during evening and weekend hours, or when employees are otherwise unavailable. Research teams should proactively plan ahead for such events in a way that works well for both clients and employees. One simple fix is designating a teammate to cover certain projects while an employee is on PTO. Another may be to schedule emails to be sent only during business hours unless there is a genuine emergency. In general, research teams should act as if boundaries are not just a luxury, but rather an absolute essential component of long-term success.

Our experience in the field of investigative research has shown that a firm cannot effectively serve its clients without retaining and motivating its cadre of research talent. A firm whose leadership takes a long view on employee engagement, talent development, and burnout prevention will consistently produce better results on deliverables and create better long-term relationships with its clients.

This post is the first in a series about workplace challenges facing investigative professionals and other white-collar researchers, focusing on practical advice and lessons learned from our own experiences. While tailored toward the investigative and intelligence industry, we hope that these articles are also valuable for others in the professional services sector, while also providing a behind-the-scenes look at Forward Risk’s values and operating practices.

If you have any questions or comments, or would like to suggest a topic for further discussion, please email our Vice President Dan Greenberg – dan [at] forwardrisk.com.

Daniel Greenberg is a Vice President of Forward Risk and Intelligence LLC, a corporate investigations firm with offices in Washington, DC and New York. More information can be found at www.forwardrisk.com.