How to Conduct Workplace Investigations

Young female secretary makes notes on a laptop while other business people are shaking hands in the background. Daylight, indoor, office.

Dr. Purushothaman
December 6, 2013

Understanding how to conduct a workplace investigation is essential to dealing with cases of bullying, harassment or discrimination within the office.

Let’s focus on the case of Bilson v Mission Australia [2010] FWA 6297, in this particular case Ms. Binder lodged two complaints about Mrs. Bilson, her manager at Mission Australia. The complaints were in regards to her alleged intimidating and harassing behavior. Mrs. Bilson was later dismissed for serious misconduct. This dismissal was then found to be harsh, unjust and unreasonable. Mrs. Bilson was awarded $18, 225 in compensation.

Another case of Gilroy v Angelov & C&T Botting Cleaning Co [2000] FCA 1775 involved a complaint from Ms. Gilroy, an employee being harassed by Mr. Angelo, another male employee. The complaint was ignored and no investigation took place. Ms. Gilroy took the complaint to court as nothing was done to prevent the behavior from reoccurring. She was awarded $24,000 in compensation - payable solely by the employer.
If this complaint had been taken seriously from the beginning and had been investigated properly, appropriate action would have been taken against Mr. Angelov and Ms. Gilroy would have felt supported and comforted in relation to the harassment already endured. However, because nothing was done the employee continued to be harassed and then employer suffer an extreme penalty.

As you can see the consequences of failing to conduct an effective workplace investigation can be costly and it is important to establish an appropriate investigation process that should be followed for each case that arises.

This is a two phase process:
Phase 1: Investigation made by the investigator
- Overall allegation
- Factual findings that prove or disprove allegation
Phase 2: Outcome made by the decision-maker
- No action?
- Disciplinary action?

To avoid all workplace investigations in the first place it is important to have policies in place that your company lives by like HR consultancy to avoid conflict on employees. Some policies that you may consider appropriate might include, discrimination, harassment and bullying policy, grievance handling policy, disciplinary and termination policy and occupational health and safety policy.
If an investigation needs to be conducted ensure that you have read through all your policies and procedures, ensure that the complaint is in writing and contains specific details, ensure interim measures are available, witnesses should be provided as well as their witness statements. Witnesses are allowed to have a support person present at all times and even a note taker, make sure you offer them these benefits before the interview and be sure to avoid generalisations - ask them to be as specific as possible. Remember to ask witnesses to read and sign the notes taken to ensure they agree that they are true and accurate. Keeping records of everything throughout the investigation is a necessity. Once this in-depth process has been conducted, you may then attempt to find an outcome and action your decision.

When it comes to interviewing witnesses keep in mind the memories fade so this process should occur as soon as possible after the complaint has be lodged. It is crucial to keep copies of all evidence that is presented for example, print off emails, print screen Facebook pages, retain CCTV surveillance etc.

The timing of the workplace investigation, the evidence provided, the witnesses and their witness statements, the policies that the employer has effectively implemented in their workplace and actually exercised with all incidents as well as the clarity of the case being put forward will ultimately determine whether the behavior or action taken by then employer against the employee in question is considered procedurally fair, harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

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