Far from the seemingly glamourous investigations conducted by police on TV, workplace investigations are inevitably more tedious, less rewarding and are a drain on valuable resources. However, they are also a crucial step in handling allegations of misconduct by employees, and getting them wrong can be disastrous for employee and employer alike.
When should an investigation be conducted?
Investigations should follow any complaint raised in the workplace, whether it is a customer criticism about an employee, a staff member’s grievance about a colleague, or even a concern about some aspect of the business’ operation such as, discriminatory recruitment methods or a culture of unsustainably high workloads.
Investigations are vital for understanding what has occurred and why, and are required to be undertaken before a decision can be made on appropriate action.
How do I undertake an investigation?
The exact nature of the investigation depends on its trigger. A disagreement between two colleagues in a place with no witnesses or surveillance may only involve speaking to each employee separately and determining who is more believable. In contrast, an ongoing series of fraudulent incidents involving an entire team of staff will likely take a longer period of time, and may involve a mixture of witness interviews, review of CCTV footage and an analysis of relevant documentation.
Whatever the matter in question, it is important that you thoroughly examine all evidence before making a conclusion. Sometimes, a witness interviewed late in the process may raise further issues which you must then look into further. Do not finalise the investigation until you are satisfied that all relevant information has been collected and considered.
A key step that is required in nearly every investigation is speaking to the person alleged to have engaged in the misconduct. You must give the person the chance to put their own side of the story forward, otherwise a resulting termination risks being found unfair. Whether the person confesses the behaviour, denies it, blames it on another person or provides a credible explanation for why it occurred, they must be allowed the opportunity to speak. It is often advisable to gather other evidence before organising this meeting, in order to present the evidence to the employee for them to respond to.
Can someone else do the investigation?
If you’re not comfortable with conducting your own investigation for any reason, whether it is due to resources, time or skills, we encourage you to seek professional assistance. Outsourcing your workplace investigations provides plenty of valuable opportunities for you to effectively manage the matter whilst focusing on the other aspects of your business. Furthermore, you will be provided with an investigation report containing the findings which will allow you to make an appropriate decision about what action should be taken.
Additionally, it is recommended to use an external HR consultancy firm where the staff who you would usually ask to perform the investigations are involved in the complaint itself. This is quite common for small businesses who have few, if any, HR personnel or if it is the manager or owner themselves who is the target of the allegations. Seeking external assistance in conducting the investigation avoids further claims of bias and allows the matter to be resolved quickly and with as little fuss as possible.
What are some tips for conducting investigations?
Considering the complexity of investigation processes, there are many integral elements to get right. Below are some of the key factors and tips to remember when conducting workplace investigations:
1. Keep investigations confidential
• Minimise what information you share about the investigation between the parties involved, and ensure that anything you do reveal is necessary for eliciting information/progressing the investigation further
• Do not divulge information about the investigation to an uninvolved third party, such as other employees in the workplace
2. Avoid the perception of bias
• If there are any doubts that a staff member conducting the investigation may be biased towards or against an employee involved in the matter, you should replace that staff member with someone who is, and is perceived as impartial
3. Be thorough in your process
• There’s nothing more dangerous than skipping steps in a workplace investigation. Before you make any conclusions, it is imperative that you consider all of the evidence available to you, including interviewing witnesses, reviewing surveillance footage or speaking to customers
• Failing to conduct a thorough investigation may undermine the entire process, likely making any resulting disciplinary action unfair
4. Thoroughly document all findings and conclusions
• As with all employment relations matters, recording all communications, findings of fact and resulting conclusions is of vital importance
• Not only does it provide you with a comprehensive record of the investigation, but you may also need it as evidence to defend against allegations of investigation bias, insufficiency or unfounded conclusions
Workplace investigations are a complex and risky area of employment relations, so we recommend that you contact the ARA Employment Relations Team for support.
For more information on managing investigations please contact the ARA Employment Relations Team on 1300 368 041.