The HR investigation process can appear tricky and complex for employers. We could write plenty (and we have) about deciding what action needs to be taken when an issue comes to HR’s attention or when a complaint is made. Do employers deal with the issue formally or informally, for example. This decision alongside following the legal framework for managing an investigation can give HR professionals and line managers an understandable headache.
In this blog we are putting complexity aside for a minute and focussing on when employers are really in the thick of a HR investigation. Abayomi Alemoru, a high-profile investigator working with British Cycling, board level NHS and Plc’s gives us his four top tips for perfecting the investigation interview, gathering evidence and writing an investigation report:
1. Witness interviews are a conversation
My golden rule for investigating a workplace dispute is to go where the evidence takes you. Don’t rely on a checklist. Witness interviews are conversations, use your natural instincts to uncover the story – almost as you would if you were in the pub! Let me explain that analogy…
You’re in the pub and you want to find out what happened, without realising you will naturally use technical questioning techniques such as open questions, closed questions and echo questions. Open questions will get the story flowing, things like “what on earth happened?”; closed questions will check the facts of the case and get to the point (“you didn’t…did you?”), and echo questions will encourage the person to reflect on what they’ve said, things like “come again? You’re not really telling me she said that?”. These techniques will provide you with a solid structure to gather your evidence.
2. Don’t form premature opinions
Be clear about your remit and what part you play in the decision-making process for that case. Start by defining what is being investigated; whether it’s a grievance allegation, misconduct, a company enquiry or to audit a process. It seems obvious, but with knowledge comes assumptions, most of which won’t be your friend when it comes to your investigation report.
On to the premature opinions. There is a temptation when starting a HR investigation to take assumptions in with you. You might think “could that really have happened” ….” would he/she really do that in front of everybody?”. Resist the temptation. Follow the evidence. Stick to facts. Record them dispassionately. They are the foundation for the findings that you as investigator are required to make.
3. Foster an intimate relationship between the evidence and findings
The evidence and the findings must be compatible. You must always ensure that there is a strong connection between the key findings of fact that you make and the evidence that you have in front of you. This is a balancing exercise. Say why one (or more) pieces of evidence cause you to make your findings. If you can’t build a bridge between any of your findings and the evidence, then you are more than likely giving weight to your opinion or instinct.
4. Finally, just write
You can go through torture when trying to put everything together and write the report……where should it start? What goes where? You might feel that until you have worked that out, you can’t even begin. That’s not the best way. Remember, nobody is marking your work! So just write and don’t worry about making it perfect. Like the skilled plasterer, just slap the plaster on the wall and then take a step back and begin smoothing it over to get that ‘egg shell finish’. You can go away, do something else and come back with a fresh and critical eye. You will iron out the contradictions and your findings will crystallise as you go through this skimming process.
Absorbing these tips and tricks when you are in the thick of a HR investigation will encourage a successful outcome. Going back to our ‘golden rule’, a good investigation is one that is fact based, stays true to the evidence and is conducted by an impartial investigator.
Workplace investigations can be involved, emotional and complex situations. In cases that fit this description, outsourcing an investigation can provide a lot of benefits; independence, valuable expertise, ability for forensic examination, a trained ability to marshal the evidence and the reassurance that the process will withstand scrutiny by tribunals and courts, although let’s hope we don’t get that far. Take a look at our Mock Employment Tribunal events if you’re unsure what to expect, and how a claim might be considered in the tribunal.
If you would like more information regarding Vista’s investigations service, you can find it here.