An employee investigation is the first step you take when addressing concerns that have been raised. They may be raised by a colleague in a grievance situation, or the business where there could be a potential disciplinary. Employee investigations must be carried out within a reasonable time-frame of the concern. The sole aim of an investigation is to establish the facts in fair and objective way.
It’s important before beginning an employee investigation that you ensure you understand what you are investigating and why. As your investigation progresses you may uncover things that weren’t obvious or present at the start that also need to be investigated. At times you can find yourself under pressure to rush an employee investigation or to reach a certain outcome. You shouldn’t give in to this pressure, a rushed investigation will likely cut corners of the process and you may miss key information. You should always follow the correct processes to ensure a fair and thorough employee investigation.
Take time to process the information you have gathered through your investigation. Managers and employees alike need to understand that the investigator is looking to ensure fair actions have been taken. At each stage of the process, it needs to be clear that the investigation has been thorough . This will decrease the risk of appeal from the employee. In the worst case it will give you a strong argument if a case was to reach employment tribunal.
It is also imperative that each time a concern is raised an investigation takes place. We hear of situations of employee’s poor behaviour or performance which has been left unchallenged, and the manager has now reached breaking point. Acting on concerns as soon as they arise can be beneficial to stop concerns going further. This can be as simple as starting the process by having an informal conversation. Making an employee aware of the issue and giving them the chance to improve before any formal action is taken.
How should you approach an employee investigation?
Plan out who will conduct the investigation, disciplinary/grievance hearing and any appeal. At each stage it should be someone new to review everything with fresh eyes. They must remain impartial and as much as possible. They should not have any prior knowledge of the case until they are involved to carry out the next stage.
In some small businesses it may not be possible to have a different senior member of staff carry out each stage of the process, but all attempts should be made to make the process fair, such as using external HR Consultants.
It is also key that you familiarise yourself with your own company procedures and that you follow them. Failure to comply with your own internal processes could led to decisions being overturned at an appeal or not being upheld should it reach a tribunal.
The employee investigation…
It’s an easy one but we can’t tell you how many times managers or employees discuss situations amongst themselves leading to a breakdown of the process at some stage. Make it clear to all involved that the investigation is not to be discussed and that is it strictly confidential. Ensure that the employee being investigated is aware of the reason why and give them an ideal of when you expect to finish your investigation. Keep them updated if you exceed you original estimation so they are not left wondering what is going on. In some circumstances you decide may place them on paid suspension pending investigation. In rarer situations it may not be right to inform the employee of the investigations. For example there may be a concern that they would be able to destroy evidence you need..
Your main aim is always to establish the facts. Opinions are not facts and you should not allow yourself to be swayed by them. Base your decision making on the factual evidence presented, this is critical. At times you may find your investigations cause for emotional responses. You need to listen and understand the situation however, actions following an employee investigation must solely be based on facts. If an employee is sharing some concerns with you that were not present in your first investigation you may also wish to ask them if they want to raise a grievance. For example they are feeling bullied. It’s hard to do a fair disciplinary process (should that be the outcome) if you have not proven the facts during the investigation and not followed up on everything the investigation presents you with.
Ask open questions. Be warm and encouraging and let everyone involved know you are a safe space and that you are there to listen. The more an employee opens up to you, the more information you will find out that may aid your investigation. Be relaxed and pen yourself, this will encourage the employee to be the same. Giving someone the chance to speak with open questions allows you to listen. If you ask closed questions, you won’t achieve the information you are there to obtain. You are not there to judge them on their actions, you are there to fairly evaluate what has happened and suggest the appropriate next steps.
What information do you need?
Each investigation will have a different set of requirements. It could include reports, witness statements, emails, CCTV, or return to work forms. Use all the resources you can to conduct an employee investigation. The more information that helps support or refute the allegations the better. It helps for you as the investigator to feel you have explored every avenue and have reached a fair conclusion from your investigation. This won’t always be disciplinary action. Other outcomes could be more training, mediation or a performance plan. In some situation there may be no need for any further action.
If you feel that you can stand by your investigation and that if someone were to inspect it. They will find that you had done everything you could and you had been fair and accurate then you have likely completed a good one.