Why workplace investigations go wrong

Guest Blog by Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP Resolutions, www.cmpresolutions.com


Put people together into a pressured environment like the workplace and there are always going to be misunderstandings, clashes, and occasions when emotions boil over to the surface. Greater sensitivity to any form of discrimination, a sense of ‘rights’, along with the new opportunities for niggling via digital comms means disputes are only getting more complex.



We’re in a new place when it comes to allegations of inappropriate behaviour at work. Confusion over what might have been flirting, what was a joke or an awkward attempt at starting a relationship – even what might be the perks of being in a senior role – is now looking and feeling very different. Employees have the models, precedents and language to speak up about what has happened or is now happening to them.


Investigating conflict and claims of harassment at work is a minefield for HR and line managers involved – a serious threat in terms of the use of time and resources, organisational reputation and working environment. You need to have a clear idea of the potential pitfalls, and when it’s time to bring in independent expertise. From our experience, these are the most common reasons that investigations go wrong:


1. Overconfidence
Inexperienced managers who already feel they know and understand the people involved in the dispute will leap to conclusions about what’s been happening: they judge people and not the evidence. Managers think they know how to spot a “wrong ‘un”. They may not have a full awareness of the skills necessary for investigation, what’s going to be involved and the time commitment required.


2. Skipping evidence
A common problem is when the appointed investigator carries out the first interview with the employee who’s made the complaint or the target of the complaint and become convinced by their argument. On this basis of belief they stop looking for more information – thinking there’s no need because they know the truth. The manager will unconsciously filter information which backs up their judgment, and filter out information which contradicts it.


3. Attack and defence mode
There’s a serious potential for a negative cycle of poor rapport and confrontation. An investigator who, perhaps unconsciously, has concluded the respondent is guilty of the allegations, may go on to ask leading questions and interrupt their pleas for mitigation. The respondent in turn gets angry and challenging, perhaps causing the investigator to react defensively to the frustration. This perpetuates a cycle of attack and defence, and it is all too easy to conclude that the party must be guilty of bullying; after all, just look at the way they have behaved to the investigator!


4. Fear of controversy
In-house investigators will tend to make judgements and provide conclusions in a way that avoids upsetting any of the employees involved. They’re very conscious of future working relationships and opening up any new causes for conflict – they’re rushing as quickly as possible to a comfortable outcome. Sometimes there are situations where investigators have to tell it like it is, in order to be fair, and to ensure there’s a genuine outcome. If someone has raised a complaint maliciously, for example, then this needs to be made clear, not glossed over.


Watertight investigations are critical. There are many risks associated with mishandled investigations. The potential for investigation conclusions being challenged, claims of bias leading to employment tribunals, collapsing cases and humiliation; the cost of extensive management time up to senior levels; cases that keep running over long periods; the effects on staff morale, relationships and the work environment for the long-term.


HR need to think about being pro-active in encouraging openness and communication. As a starting point, they need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just, do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward? Having a ‘Clear Air’ culture in the workplace is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour, pressures and secrecy.



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