Issues occur in workplaces with some regularity, and whether it be a dispute between employees, a breach of procedure, a case of misconduct or something else altogether, it needs to be dealt with effectively and efficiently through a workplace investigation.
Incidents that may be minor in nature can often be dealt with internally with a minimum of fuss. Mediation, informal counselling, employee assistance or a workplace review are all possible options to remedy a situation.
Other issues, for example, allegations of bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment, embezzlement, fraud or misconduct, amongst others, may need a thorough workplace investigation to be conducted.
Irrespective of what the issues may be, investigations must be treated carefully, sensitively, swiftly and, above all, fairly.
Managing a workplace investigation
While issues in workplaces may occur with some regularity, escalating them to be the subject of a workplace investigation happens less frequently. When it does happen, it is imperative for all concerned that it is performed correctly.
“You only get one chance to conduct a workplace investigation,” says Hich Nasr, Director of Employment Relations (ER), and Risk at PerformHR.
“The way you handle this process can have far-ranging repercussions – both culturally and legally – so you need to handle it correctly.”
What is the purpose of a workplace investigation?
The purpose of a workplace investigation is to get to the bottom of what happened. And this takes time – time which you will not have planned for. The purpose is not always entirely clear at the outset. For instance, an incident investigation requires a finding of fact and law while simpler investigations may require a review of the culture of the business.
“The reality is that managing a workplace investigation internally is fraught with problems. Not only do you not necessarily have the time to dedicate to conducting a full investigation, there may also be a perception of bias and you may not have the confidence that procedure fairness has been followed.”
By their very nature, issues that escalate to an investigation aren’t the most pleasant to deal with – and can often be troubling for colleagues to resolve.
“Sometimes these issues can be deeply unpleasant and personal in nature,” says Hich.
“They need to be treated with the utmost sensitivity, as well as a process that’s free from any perception of conscious or unconscious bias.”
What is involved in a workplace investigation?
Workplace investigations revolve primarily around a series of interviews to gain different perspectives on the issue that has occurred.
“When we are invited into a company to conduct a workplace investigation on their behalf, the first step is to make sure we understand the allegation or complaint that has been put forward, determine whether an investigation is required and agree on the scope,” says Hich. “From there we identify the parties that need to be involved.
“We then conduct a series of recorded interviews to allow parties to provide their viewpoints, and from there we gather documentary evidence. We provide the complainant and respondent with the opportunity to review and comment on whether the evidence is consistent or contrary to their position.
“After that, we report back to the management team and talk through what we’ve discovered.
“If instructed to do so, we provide pragmatic recommendations, outside of the formal investigation report, of what the employer’s next steps should be, and it is completely up to them to decide whether to act or not.
“Most importantly, we provide you with a clear concise report, supported with documented evidence. Placing you in a position to make an informed decision on how best to proceed.
What are the risks of getting it wrong?
Bringing in an external party to conduct a workplace investigation will help minimise the risks involved in the whole process.
“It’s a very risky time for a business – people and processes are going to be under scrutiny, and you need to handle it correctly,” says Hich.
“You’ve got to ensure the process is free from any perception of prejudice or bias. That’s virtually impossible if you handle it internally, as someone will have an opinion of what happened, or a view of an employee, that clouds judgment – whether that’s subliminal or not.
“The cultural risk of getting it wrong is astronomical. It could prevent other people coming forward, it may result in some people leaving the business, and you may gain an unwanted reputation. It is often difficult to rebuild relationships post investigations.
“Bringing in external, impartial experts tells the world, ‘We want the truth, and we’re an organisation that looks after its employees.”
And what better message to send to the world than that?
Need some help?
If you would like to talk with Hich and his team about Employment Relations, or workplace investigations, submit an enquiry here, book a meeting here or call 1300 406 005.