To investigate or not to investigate, that is the Q

Posted on Aug 27, 2014 in Investigations,Latest Articles . 0 Comments.

Is investigation a form of workplace conflict management?

I was at an amateur production of Hamlet (loved it!) and all of the skulduggery had me thinking about how I would conduct a ‘workplace investigation’ into Hamlet’s conduct. Then it had me thinking, actually… rather then an investigation, let’s face it, as “poor Yorick” had already left the business  I could not I interview him (that’s his skull in the pic above) … would it not be better to follow a process that could actually deliver some effective business outcomes???

Workplace Investigations

The purposes of an investigation is to determine facts so that findings can be made ‘on the balance of probabilities’. This allows decision makers to take action.  Theoretically this should be a vehicle to resolve the actual conflict, however, it generally results in establishing who was responsible for the wrong. That is, who is to “blame”. The investigation process by its very nature is adversarial, pitting people against each other. It reduces levels of trust and confidence between people, team mates and all bystanders. Not the ideal backdrop for conflict resolution! As such in the world of workplace conflict resolution, investigations are a poor cousin.

However there are particular times when establishing facts are more important than resolving the conflict and in those circumstances an investigation is recommended. For example:

  • Serious misconduct that may result in the termination of employment
  • Breach of WHS/OHS laws
  • Discrimination or sexual harassment
  • Bullying
  • Inappropriate workplace conduct that may result in a lesser (then termination) disciplinary action
  • If policy requires it after receiving a formal complaint/grievance

So, do you investigate or not?

We often coach our clients to make an assessment of whether they want to resolve the conflict or investigate the matter. Whilst they aren’t always mutually exclusive they have very different purposes and outcomes and it’s crucial to identify this up front. This requires a careful diagnosis of the scenario and then a clear balancing of a range of risk, cultural, legal and outcome factors that the business wants to achieve.

Investigations have an important role to play. But in conflict resolution terms use them with caution.

In the world of workplace conflict resolution, investigations are a poor cousin.

What’s the best approach?

One of my clients summed up my approach well when he said “Tony, you’ve taught me that I only investigate if it looks like someone is going to need “punishment” in this case I think there has been low level wrong done but I need them to work together so please come and mediate.”

A different client wanted to enforce a “we’re tough on bullying” stance as the complainant used the term bullying. Contrary to our advice, they choose to investigate the situation even though it was clear that it was fairly minor and was predominately systems related. Unfortunately our predication eventuated and the respondent (a historically solid performer and well regarded employee) spent a great deal of time on stress leave before returning to the workplace but never truly engaging again. The process dragged on and rather than the business appearing to be tough on bullying, most staff thought they were poor at dealing with ‘conflict situations’.

Investigations have an important role to play. But in conflict resolution terms use them with caution. How to proceed and whether to investigate is a judgement call and every case needs to be considered on its own merits. Now, in my humble view, in Hamlet’s case there really was “something rotten in the State of Denmark” and a full cultural change program was required, not an isolated investigation or an informal conflict process!!!

Do you need assistance with a workplace investigation? Is there workplace conflict in your business or team that you could receive assistance with? Don’t let the situation become “Denmark”, please give us a call to discuss the many different options and opportunities.

Upcoming Training
On Wednesday, 19 November & Thursday, 20 November, Zandy and I are running our highly successful Better Workplace Conflict & Investigation Training for Human Resource Professionals course in Melbourne. For more details please click here or give us a call.

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