Conducting workplace investigations – an overview

In terms of roles and responsibilities, the investigation of grievances, alleged harassment or bullying, and disciplinary issues are kind of the ‘Dark Side’ of management and HR. Not, of course, in the sense that carrying out workplace investigations is somehow wrong (or evil!) but that it’s the part of our roles that we perhaps prefer not to think about, avoid even. It’s not the bit that gets us bouncing out of bed in the morning, all wide-eyed and eager for the day. In an investigation, there’s usually at least one person who is feeling miserable and/or aggrieved and it’s our job to deal with the situation (and them) fairly and decisively.

Grasp the nettle

Conducting an investigation is the duty/responsibility/function that comes into play when things have gone wrong somewhere along the line (in fact, the “line” is often exactly where things have gone awry!) The hope is that by grasping that responsibility firmly, any situation or scenario can be dealt with early, i.e. while the matter is still internal.

It’s true that some workplace disputes are practically destined to end up at an employment tribunal hearing, but a competent and efficient investigating manager and HR support can do much to prevent things getting that far.

The investigating role

Usually, management takes the lead in the process, appointing an ‘investigating manager’. The HR role, while it may vary depending on your setup, is usually in line with the professional standards in the CIPD’s HR Profession Map. In the Employee Relations section, it says that the HR support to an investigation should:

“Provide accurate and timely information, data and advice to managers and employers on organisation’s policy and procedures and employment law.”

Escalating to,

“…support managers to deal with difficult people issues in a fair, straightforward manner and without delay.”


“Assist with disciplinaries by following agreed procedures…”

Know your internal procedures

In the UK, it’s almost certain that your investigation policy and procedure will be informed by ACAS best practice (if not, it should be) and looks broadly like this:

  1. Decide when and how to investigate.
  2. Determine the complexity of the investigation and who is the best person to carry it out (i.e. appoint an investigating manager).
  3. Take immediate action to avoid the situation worsening while you investigate – this may include suspension, temporary redeployment, etc.
  4. With HR support, plan the investigation.
  5. Conduct interviews and take witness statements.
  6. Gather other evidence, as required.
  7. Evaluate the evidence.
  8. Make a recommendation .
  9. Document the investigation.
  10. Next steps, according to the decision(s) taken.

Beware, the risk of not following your own procedures

Many businesses may see the setting up (and carrying out) of clear people procedures and processes as just too onerous. Beware. If you end up in front of an Employment Tribunal, you’ll be glad you did. A key element in any tribunal decision is the question of whether the employer organisation followed its own stated procedures (and that those procedures are in line with best practice – ACAS again!)

A recent example of a case that would have likely gone the employer’s way but didn’t (because they didn’t follow their own investigative procedures) was Sidhu v. Rathor t/a Allenby Clinic/Northolt Family Practice (in which a GP practice manager was dismissed for awarding herself unauthorised pay rises by forging the practice owner’s signature, resulting in a salary almost twice the industry standard – clear cut justification for dismissal scuppered by the ‘technicality’ of the employer ignoring its own policies).

The necessary HR and management skills and behaviours

It depends on your precise input and role at each stage of the process but certainly those in management and HR who  are involved in an investigation will both require the following:

  • Knowledge of the relevant employment law; e.g. discrimination legislation for a diversity/difference-related issue.
  • Objectivity/neutrality
  • Rapport-building, listening and questioning
  • Patience
  • The ability to delve beneath the surface of “he said, she said…” to explore what was driving the situation and what exactly where the outcomes for all concerned

And finally, in any investigation, remember that all is not always as it seems…

“You must pursue this investigation of Watergate even if it leads to the president. I’m innocent. You’ve got to believe I’m innocent. If you don’t, take my job.”

–Richard M. Nixon


If you’d like to know more about workplace investigations, check out our website for details or give us a call on 01582 463462 – we’re here to help!

Categories: HR

Recomended Posts