When conducting a workplace investigation, it is crucial to be able to demonstrate that appropriate procedures have been followed. This is essential in defending any subsequent action that may be taken.
It can be helpful for employers to create an action plan utilising Terms of Reference (ToR) and the services of an external investigator to keep the investigation process on track.
The ToR is a framework that provides structure and a plan for the investigation. Without it, an investigation runs the risk of becoming too broad or unwieldy. There are three basic guiding principles for employers to keep in mind when drafting the ToR.
This sets out why an investigation is necessary, which people are anticipated to be involved (at least the complainant and respondent) and the key questions which need to be answered as a result of the investigation.
The remit section provides the parameters for the investigator's involvement and identifies what the investigator is supposed to do.
In certain circumstances, the investigator will be required simply to engage in a fact-finding mission, in order to collate information for the employer to make a final determination or outcome. Alternatively, an investigator may be tasked with dispute resolution, or even providing disciplinary recommendations.
This section can also identify what, if anything, is 'off limits'. For example, an investigator may be prohibited from having access to commercially sensitive information.
However, it's also important to note that an investigator will be hampered if there are too many restrictions placed on them.
This practical aspect of the ToR identifies in what format the final report is to be provided. The due date and expected distribution list should also be noted in the ToR.
In order to maximise the success of the investigation, the TOR should be drafted as soon as possible after a decision has been made to investigate a complaint.
Even the most experienced HR professional may struggle to undertake a completely unbiased investigation. Cross allegations and accusations of unfairness can cloud issues and throw the investigation off-track.
By outsourcing investigations of this nature, employers can prevent any perceived or actual apprehension of bias. External investigators are impartial, and in some cases, better able to conduct an objective investigation than someone internal.
An external investigator is particularly helpful in circumstances where:
External investigators also have a level of experience and expertise that can be difficult to match in-house. Even with clear ToR, an internal investigator may find investigating the allegation and writing the final report challenging.
Appointing an external investigator can also save time. Often, the person chosen to head an investigation internally, will also still have their core duties to perform.
When you engage an external investigator, it's a good idea to write a letter of appointment/engagement. This should set out clear instructions and confirm the scope of the investigator's role. The ToR should also be included.
If you require assistance in defining the scope of your investigation, or would like to engage an expert to tackle workplace matters requiring investigation, our investigators are committed to dealing with complaints independently, providing expeditious, thorough investigations with integrity. Visit our website or contact WISE to find out more.
WISE Workplace is a multidisciplinary organisation specialising in the management of workplace behaviour. We investigate matters of corporate and professional misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and minimise the impact of inappropriate behaviour through our whistleblower services.
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