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Workplace investigations: what they are and how to deal with them

Christine Pratt

What are workplace investigations?

Sooner or later, many employers will have to conduct an investigation of their employees. Christine Pratt shares 10 essential questions to ask

Although the investigation process is a daunting prospect for some line managers, it should be embraced wholeheartedly as an excellent opportunity to get any issues ‘out onto the table’ and improve communications. These cases are the ideal platform to identify potential business risk, iron out any creases and agree a mutually acceptable working culture.  Yes, sometimes the process will open ‘cans of worms’, but those cans very often need to be opened – and addressed, to allow the parties to clear the air and move on harmoniously. 

In terms of the interview process, there simply is no set format, no template of questions, no rigid structure. Every investigation can be different.  Try to concentrate on open questions; who, what, why, where and when.

10 questions to ask during an investigation

1. What can you tell me? This generally tends to get the interviewee to open up.  Employees generally like to talk in these situations and to feel that their opinion is valued.

2. What is your role in matters? This can be useful to engage with the interviewee and clarify both roles and areas of responsibility or accountability. 

3. What happened exactly?  This question focuses on the facts (rather than anecdotal reporting or hearsay). It separates fact from perception. It can influence the direction that the investigator takes in ascertaining the facts. A good investigator will ensure that the interviewee focuses on what s/he saw rather than what they learnt from others.

4. Where and when and how long has this been going on?  This enables the investigator to ascertain timing and location and any historic factors, timeline etc.  This is important when considering the historic culture, management practices and analysing the facts prior to completing the investigation process.

5. What did you personally observe? Again, this separates fact from hearsay.  In every workplace there is an element of ‘chinese-whispers’ and a gossip/grape-vine.  The investigator needs to untangle the ‘real’ from the ‘imagined’ and ascertain exactly what occurred – rather than what employee’s believe happened. Follow up questioning and interviewing will clarify facts and, in the employer’s best interest, enable the investigator to get to the heart of the matter.

6. What have you been told and by whom? We occasionally ask this where there is a clique of employees mirroring one another. Collusion and collective bullying is a most serious issue in the workplace. This is a very important and powerful question which tends to identify the perpetrators in bullying cases.

Seek out historic employee complaints, line-management file notes, exit interviews, past appraisal records, absence statistics, medical records and/or any other documentation that is relevant to the case. The main thing is to ensure that the process is structured, consistent, open and transparent.

7. Who was present?  Statements made by employees are far more powerful where witness testimony exists to substantiate the facts. Where matters can be corroborated by multiple parties, the investigation outcome and recommendations carry far more credibility and weight – and can be relied on in any future litigation.   While legal cases hinge on what did or did not happen, employee discrimination and workplace harassment cases can hinge on implied or perceived intent. Therefore, consistency in testimony, the statistics and the entire weight of evidence and documentation can be better evaluated and ultimately relied upon.

8. What was your response? Employees react differently when faced with a contentious scenario.  Some are offended. Others feel threatened or intimidated.  Some become defensive or critical of one or more of the parties.  Others ‘look the other way’ and avoid conflict.  We all react differently in these situations so this question is extremely important to identify roles and even separate the bystanders from the perpetrators.  The responses received in each case can have a bearing on any formal action recommended by the investigator, to the employer.

9. What action did you take? In most workplace bullying and harassment policies today, we talk about the “role of the bystander”.  In reality though, the bystander often (not always) takes little or no formal action.  We know that prompt intervention can often ‘nip a contentious problem in the bud’ and even prevent a case from escalating. Despite this, the role of the bystander is very often overlooked.

10. What action have you taken since? As with the question above, this question ascertains the level of comprehension in terms of accountability, responsibility and/or an understanding of the policies in place. It is powerful when identifying future diversity awareness training and/or remedies to address a bullying culture, in the aftermath of an investigation process.
Ensure that the investigator is both insured and skilled in this specialist area of work. The interview process needs to be handled with sensitivity and care and the questioning process should be structured and consistent. Obviously, additional questioning, or a variation of some of the questions asked, may be necessary and will depend on the Case Briefing, the role of the interviewee and/or his/her response to questions – which will undoubtedly call for additional questioning. The main complainant (or complainants) will want to focus on the content of their grievance statement or their diary – or possibly some other documentation produced to substantiate their case.  All/any documentation produced during the process should be considered most carefully as evidence. 

Seek out historic employee complaints, line-management file notes, exit interviews, past appraisal records, absence statistics, medical records and/or any other documentation that is relevant to the case. The main thing is to ensure that the process is structured, consistent, open and transparent. Endeavour to give all witnesses/interviewees the same opportunity to discuss their personal role in matters – and any impact the case has had on them personally.

Treat everyone with dignity and respect and look out for stress levels. Be prepared to adjourn a meeting if an interviewee is visibly distressed or unable to continue. Follow up by clarifying any situation that comes to light through the process. It is not unusual for an investigation process to uncover important facts which were initially believed to be irrelevant. Further exploration and or interviewing may be necessary. Do not assume anything and don’t form opinions until all witness statements are approved and any/all evidence is collated and analyzed. 

Christine Pratt is a Fellow of ILM and Director of HR & Diversity Management Limited


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