Welcome to part 3 of our workplace investigation series; our aim is that, by the end of the series, you will have a compendium to guide your investigations. This part looks at the investigation plan in a bit more detail.
Scope and purpose
Investigators are ordinarily given a scope and purpose for the investigation. Alternatively, investigators may be asked to develop a scope and purpose. Regardless of who develops the scope and purpose, the investigator needs to be clear on what it is they have to investigate. The investigation will only proceed when and if the investigation and the scope of the investigation are approved by the responsible manager.
If at any stage during the investigation the investigator thinks that the scope and purpose need to be changed, they should seek approval for the change. A common pitfall is to lose focus by inquiring into interesting but irrelevant issues; if they are outside the scope and purpose they should be omitted from the investigation. A departure from the scope and purpose may cause unnecessary delays and possibly jeopardise the investigation.
All investigations must be conducted impartially. Investigators must not have, and must not be perceived to have, any conflict of interest in relation to the complaint or alleged misconduct or to the people, the conduct or the policies and procedures that are the subject of investigation.
How to write a plan
There are a number of ways in which an investigator may draw up their investigation plan. Please contact us if you would like an example.
While it is essential to start with a plan, investigations rarely proceed as originally predicted. Investigators should therefore be ready to revise their plan as new information emerges during the course of an investigation.
Investigators should follow the facts, rather than trying to make the facts fit into the plan!
Who should be interviewed and in what order
People are a valuable source of information during an inquiry because:
they may have directly perceived something with their senses – “I saw”, “I heard” etc;
they may have created a document;
they may have used something; or
they may have left a trace when using something.
All witnesses who are relevant to the investigation should be interviewed. As part of the process of preparing the investigation plan, investigators should identify those people who can assist. They should ask themselves: “Who may have information or created documents or used things relating to the subject matter of my inquiry?” If other sources of evidence become apparent during the investigation, the investigation plan should be revised to suit.
For a complaint-based investigation, the first interview usually occurs with the complainant as part of the initial inquiries and planning. The order in which the remaining witnesses are interviewed will depend on:
the importance of their evidence;
their degree of association with the person who is the subject of the complaint, and
When witnesses are interviewed sequentially, investigators should avoid delays between one interview and the next to minimise the opportunity for collusion. Never interview witnesses together. People should always be interviewed separately and asked to keep it confidential. A witness’s evidence can become corrupted, either deliberately or inadvertently, if that person learns what other witnesses have said or done. It can cause some people to change their version of events or alter their perceptions about an event.
As a general rule, the person who is the subject of a complaint or alleged misconduct should be interviewed last. This will allow the investigator to collect as much information as possible from other sources first, putting the investigator in a good position to determine the appropriate questions to ask the person. It also minimises the risk of evidence being tampered with or witnesses being or feeling intimidated.
However, there will be situations when interviewing the subject employee last might not be appropriate. For example, it may be appropriate to interview the alleged perpetrator earlier in the investigation to assert and test a version of events that the investigation will then prove or disprove. In other cases, interviewing the alleged perpetrator early might save time and effort by clearing them early in the process.
Part 4 of this series will start looking at gathering evidence.