TEN ESSENTIAL WORKPLACE INVESTIGATION QUESTIONS
At HR & Diversity Management we have been successfully conducting independent workplace investigations for a number of years. In our experience, employees like to talk – they certainly like to be listened to.
Although the investigation process is a daunting prospect for some line managers, it should be embraced wholeheartedly as it is an excellent opportunity to get issues ‘out onto the table’ and improve communications. These cases are the ideal platform to identify potential business risk, iron out any creases and agree a mutually acceptable working culture. Yes, sometimes the process will open ‘cans of worms’ but those cans very often need to be opened – and addressed, to allow the parties to clear the air and move on harmoniously.
In terms of the interview process, there simply is no set format, no template of questions and no rigid structure. Whether it is a Grievance or Disciplinary Workplace Investigation, every case differs. No two cases are the same. We recommend you concentrate on open questions; who, what, why, where and when. In over twelve years of conducting investigations across both the public and private sector, we have only ever known one employee who refused to cooperate. Here we recommend ten straightforward, essential, questions, for you to put in your investigation tool-kit.
- What can you tell me? This generally tends to get the interviewee to open up. As said above, employees generally like to talk in these situations. They like to feel that their opinion is valued – don’t we all!
- What is/was your role in matters? This can be useful to engage with the interviewee and clarify both roles and areas of responsibility or accountability.
- What happened exactly? This question focuses on the facts (rather than anecdotal reporting or hearsay). It separates fact from perception. It can influence the direction that the investigator takes in ascertaining the facts. A good investigator will ensure that the interviewee focuses on what s/he saw rather than what they learnt from others.
- When did this all start? How long has this been going on? This enables the investigator to ascertain timing and location and any historic factors, timeline etc., and the response provides the means to establish consistency and facts. This is important when considering the historic culture and management practices prior to completing the investigation process.
- What did you personally observe? Again, this separates fact from hearsay and focuses the mind. In every workplace there is an element of ‘chinese-whispers’ and a gossip. The investigator needs to untangle the ‘real’ from the ‘imagined’ and ascertain exactly what occurred – rather than what employee’s believe happened. Follow up questioning and interviewing will clarify facts and (in the employer’s best interest), enable the investigator to get to the heart of the matter.
- What have you been told and by whom? This is a powerful question. We often ask this where there is a clique of employees mirroring one another. Collusion and collective bullying is a most serious issue in the workplace. There may be resistance to the question but the response helps identify ‘ringleaders’ and protagonists or perpetrators in bullying cases.
- Who was present? Statements made by employees in response to this question are far more powerful where there is consistency. Where matters can be corroborated by multiple parties, the investigation outcome and recommendations carry far more weight and may even be relied on in future litigation. Perception can be ‘all consuming’ but it is not ‘fact’. Whilst legal cases hinge on what did or did not happen, employee discrimination or workplace harassment cases have been known to hinge on implied or perceived intent – and this is not ideal. Therefore, consistency in testimony, statistics and the entire weight of evidence and documentation can be far better evaluated and ultimately relied upon.
- What was your response? In most workplace bullying and harassment policies today, we talk about the “role of the bystander”. In reality though, the bystander often (not always) takes little or no formal action. We all react differently when faced with a contentious scenario. Some of us are offended. Others feel threatened or intimidated. Some become defensive or critical of one or more of the parties. Others ‘look the other way’ and avoid conflict. This question is extremely important in terms of separating the bystanders from perpetrators. The responses received in each case can have a significant bearing on any formal action recommended by the investigator, to the employer.
- What action did you take? Focusing once more on the role of a bystander, we can establish whether, or not, prompt intervention will have prevented matters from escalating. As well as ascertaining and confirming important facts relating to the case in question, future training needs may be quickly identified.
- What action have you taken since? As with the question above, this question ascertains the level of comprehension in terms of accountability, responsibility and/or an understanding of the policies in place. It is powerful when identifying future diversity awareness training and/or remedies to address a bullying culture, in the aftermath of an investigation process.
Ensure that the investigator is both insured and skilled in this specialist area of work. The interview process needs to be handled with sensitivity and care and the questioning process should be structured and consistent. Obviously, additional questioning or a variation of some of the questions asked may be necessary and will depend on the Case Briefing, the role of the interviewee and/or his/her response to questions – which will undoubtedly call for additional questioning. The main complainant (or complainants) will want to focus on the content of their grievance statement or their diary – or possibly some other documentation produced to substantiate their case. All/any documentation produced during the process should be considered most carefully. It is evidence.
Seek out historic employee complaints, line-management file notes, exit interviews, past appraisal records, absence statistics, medical records and/or any other documentation that is relevant to the case. The main thing is to ensure that the process is structured, consistent, open and transparent. Endeavour to give all witnesses/interviewees the same opportunity to discuss their personal role in matters – and any impact the case has had on them personally.
Treat everyone with dignity and respect and look out for stress levels. Be prepared to adjourn a meeting if an interviewee is visibly distressed or unable to continue. Follow up by clarifying any situation that comes to light through the process. It is not unusual for an investigation process to uncover important facts which were initially believed to be irrelevant. Further exploration and or interviewing may be necessary. Do not assume anything. Do not form opinions until all witness statements are approved and any/all evidence is collated and analyzed.
Bizarre as it may sound, we enjoy investigation work – probably because we are skilled, successful and thorough in our approach. We can ease your stress by managing the process for you – leaving you free to get on with running your business.
Contact HR & Diversity Management Limited on 07734 701221 for further information.