Conducting high quality grievance and disciplinary investigations

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Conducting high quality grievance and disciplinary investigations

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Written by John Berry on 23rd August 2017. Revised 8th November 2023.

3 min read

InvestigationInvestigations are an essential part of company procedures. Any grievance claim or launch of disciplinary procedures requires that management investigate the circumstances and find facts.

‘Fact’ is of course an interesting concept in a legal environment that needs only reasonable belief. But more on that later.

Investigation question

Investigations start with a broad investigation question and end with a report to management about events.

That broad investigation question is key: few employees or managers can phrase a claim well. For most it’s a jumbled mix of assertions with relevant and irrelevant supporting statements – but it’s all no less significant in getting to the bottom of events.

So an investigation uncovers information. It might focus on the claims, but generally little is discovered from a narrow brief.

Information gathering

Most investigations involve the investigating officer interviewing managers and staff. Many will also require analysis of communications like email and information such as time clocking, expenses claims and phone records. The investigating officer must have good knowledge of employment law, accepted procedures and business practices. And the investigator must understand the way commercial firms, charities and government organisations work.

Typically the investigating officer goes where the information threads lead – without fear or favour. In complex cases, they gather anything up to 500 pieces of information.

Clearly even 50 documents or other pieces can’t be presented to the chair of a grievance or disciplinary meeting as discreet documents – it would waste their time and be impossible for them to assimilate. It’s the investigating officer’s job to analyse the gathered information; to make sense of it so that the chair doesn’t have to.

This leads us to the nub of the investigation and the huge added value of a good investigator.

Information, not evidence

The investigating officer must root out high quality information. It’s not evidence and it’s not always fact.

Evidence, by its definition, is information that supports assertions. But as already argued, few managers or staff can form coherent claims. It would be unfair to them to centre only on their claims and associated evidence. It would discriminate against a person with a possibly valid assertion hidden somewhere in their missive just because they were not a ‘legal beagle’. In company procedures, we need information, not evidence. A disciplinary or grievance meeting is not a court of law.

Fact is a difficult concept when dealing with people. There’s no DNA testing, fingerprints or phone tapping. There’s just normal social life that, from time to time, takes a dramatic turn, leading to the disciplinary or grievance. Certainty is difficult. Proof is even more so and that’s why the chair of the grievance or disciplinary meeting will seek to judge on grounds of ‘reasonable belief’.

Succinct report

So first, the investigating officer must gather high quality information. Interviews must be rich in open questions and awake in developing trails to follow from the replies. Information must be as wide as the investigation question allows.

And second, the investigating officer must distil the huge information base to a report of between four and 20 pages setting out the key issues. That’s where our trade secrets lie. There are techniques for doing just this – as those completing higher studies in the social sciences will attest.

So the nub? Good investigation centres on high quality information-gathering and highly effective methods of reducing this information to a few pages of A4 for the chair to digest. It’s a simple concept but a task requiring high skill and knowledge.