Tom Smyth’s HR firm assists and advises Irish retailers on the human resources issues that arise in their workplaces. In this article, Tom provides an introduction to the correct procedures to follow when carrying out workplace investigations.
On the face of it, workplace investigations may seem straightforward. Sometimes they are and other times, once you address an initial complaint, they become much more complex. From the outset, it is important to have procedures in place to allow for disciplinary, grievance and bullying/ harassment investigations in the workplace. These policies must be fit for purpose and, at a minimum, in line with:
How do you commence an investigation once an issue occurs, or is reported to you? Firstly, address the complaint (grievance or bullying) or issues (disciplinary) immediately. Do not ignore the matter in the hope that it will simply go away, or resolve itself. It very rarely does. Meet with, and write to, the employee concerned and where they have raised an issue to you, outline to him/her the options available to them, e.g., a formal or informal route. If it is a possible disciplinary matter write to the employee and make her/him aware of why you need to meet and what she/he is accused of.
In the background you should consider who should be involved in any such investigation. Do you have appropriate, competent individuals available to be involved in this investigation? Is there any element of perceived or actual bias? When you consider what would be involved, who would be best suited to conduct either a formal or informal investigation?
If the matter under investigation is a grievance or bullying matter the employee may choose from two investigative approaches:
You must inform the employee of the alleged wrongdoing or complaint of which she/he is accused. This must be given in writing and be signed by the complainant. At this stage, the respondent should be informed of the route of investigation that the complainant wishes to follow. It is the complainant who decides whether a formal or informal route should be taken. Do not place any party on paid or unpaid leave until you have considered whether you can reasonably and justifiably do so.
Once the investigation begins, it is important to carry it out thoroughly; seek statements, comments, witnesses, evidence and/or documentation that will corroborate either party’s version of events. It is vital that any information received from one party is shared with the other party. Witness statements must be signed, and evidence such as this must be given to both the complainant and the respondent.
The concept of natural justice must underpin every investigation. This is the right of the parties to be heard, to put forward their case and to defend themselves. Ensure transparency and fairness prevails at all times and that there is no scope for bias on the part of the investigator. Never assume that each party will maintain confidentiality. Make this an explicit requirement of the investigation and even include it in the terms of reference (rules of engagement) for the investigation.
Once a thorough investigation has been concluded and each party has been afforded the opportunity to state her/his case and present proof of her/his version of events, the formal report, or conclusion can be issued.
Conducting workplace investigations can take from just a number of days to several months. The purpose of this article is to introduce employers to the strict rules that exist at present in relation to work investigations. If you are ever in doubt about the steps involved please seek advice as, under employment law, irrespective of the merits of an issue, an employer must hold a fair investigation.
Tom Smyth is Managing Director of Tom Smyth Associates, a HR consultancy, established in 1991, that, In association with HAI, gives Irish employers practical advice on HR, industrial relations and employment law issues.
This Business Support article featured in the September/October 2015 edition of The Hardware Journal.