The ins and outs of workplace investigations

Workplace investigations are becoming more commonplace, yet there is still a lack of understanding about the mechanics of investigations, and when they are needed. Below we set out briefly some of the reasons why you would consider an investigation, the key steps in the investigation process, and the pros and cons of different types of investigations.  


When do you need a workplace investigation?

Workplace investigations can be required for a range of different situations. Whenever one or more allegations are made in a workplace and facts need to be determined, there are grounds for an investigation. Allegations may include claims of bullying, discrimination or harassment. Other common triggers include complaints of misconduct or other employee grievances.

If allegations are made against one or more employees, an investigation  becomes necessary to accurately determine the facts, to work out what actually happened or is happening, and to afford procedural fairness to all those involved. What might start as one complaint could lead to other complaints – and even cross-complaints – creating a potentially difficult situation.

What is a workplace investigation?

There is not one single definition of the term ‘workplace investigation’. The situation and the approach adopted by each workplace determine the scope and content of the investigation. A good workplace investigation should include the following key aspects:

–          The collation of detailed allegations

–          An opportunity for those complained against to respond to these allegations

–          The collection of relevant evidence and witness accounts if applicable

–          A report setting out the findings

An external investigator may also provide recommendations in their final report.

Once findings of fact have been made, the next step is advising those involved of the outcome and taking disciplinary action if needed.

External vs internal investigators

Workplace investigations can be conducted by a person who specialises in workplace investigations, either  internal or external to the business. Several  factors may determine the most appropriate type of investigation. These include the complexity and breadth of the issue(s) as well as the availability of someone with the requisite skill set internal to the business.

For simpler issues that are isolated in nature, or for large companies with well-resourced human resources departments, an internal investigation may be a viable option. Indicators for an external investigation include smaller businesses, or complicated or more serious allegations.

The advantages of using an external investigator include the opportunity for greater detachment and objectivity. An external investigator can provide a neutral and objective perspective on a situation. In practice, this may encourage people to speak more openly and fully to the investigator, which in turn would allow for a better assessment of the facts. 

Preventing problems at the outset

Many workplace grievances are preventable. Good policies and processes prevent issues arising and provide avenues to deal with problems if they do occur. Our advice to all employers is to make sure that problems do not get put in the ‘too-hard basket’. 

If a complaint is made it needs to be actioned quickly and responsibly before the situation escalates. A well-conducted workplace investigation can determine the facts, provide a resolution to the problem at hand and provide recommendations to help prevent similar issues occurring again in the future.

Please contact us for further information or to obtain a quote on a workplace investigation.


Sarah Waterhouse, Solicitor, BlandsLaw


Image courtesy of ponsulak /

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