It’s crucial that employers act swiftly when an employee raises a concern or complaint about another employee, and ensure it is sufficiently investigated.  

Situations that require action include bullying, sexual harassment, breaches of company policy or work (occupational) health and safety (WHS) procedures, damages or misuse of company property, and stealing. The costs for not investigating these issues can be severe, particularly concerning sexual harassment and breaches of WHS obligations, and it is far less costly to investigate the issue than ignore it.  

Who should investigate? 

The investigation should be undertaken by a supervisor or manager that is impartial to the complaint. 

They must not be named by the complainant as being part of the issue. If the complaint is against a supervisor, or the employer themselves, they cannot conduct the investigation. If there is no one available within the business to conduct the investigation, a third party should be engaged to do so.  

Investigative procedure 

The investigation should begin as soon as practicable after the incident, or after an employer is notified of the incident.  The purpose of the investigation is to gather information and determine whether, on the balance of probabilities, the alleged incidents have actually occurred. The findings of the investigation will influence the response the employer has upon its conclusion. 

Step 1

When an employee comes forward with an issue, the first step is to ask that employee to submit a formal written account of their complaint, clearly outlining the incident(s) as well as any relevant witnesses.  

Step 2

After this, the investigator needs to interview all parties involved, including the party accused of the misconduct. To maintain privacy the investigator should only interview people with first-hand knowledge of the accusations, rather than interviewing uninvolved parties that might spread hearsay. These interviews should be recorded in writing and signed by the employees to confirm they are factual. 

 

The investigation should access any other information available, such as security cameras within the workplace that can provide empirical evidence concerning the alleged incident.  

 

It is also important to be aware that reports of certain incidents, such as severe sexual harassment, or theft, may also require police intervention.  

Step 3

Once all relevant evidence has been compiled, the employee that is the subject of the complaint should be given a final chance to respond. A meeting should be held and the employee afforded the opportunity to bring a support person. Their response to the allegations should be considered prior to a final decision being made as to whether, on the balance of probabilities, the incident did indeed occur. 

Investigation outcomes 

#1 If you do not believe the incidents have occurred

In this instance, it may not be necessary to move forward with any disciplinary action. However, even if after completing the investigation you are unable to state that on the balance of probabilities the alleged incident(s) did occur, the business and the employer should still monitor the situation at hand in case it further develops.  

Further steps may include updating workplace policies to ensure all employees understand expected standards of behaviour and performance, as well as engaging in any relevant training and development (i.e., anti-bullying training).  

Even if there has been insufficient evidence to substantiate a complaint or incident, it may also be necessary to conduct a conciliation meeting between any two disputing parties to try and resolve lingering issues.  

#2 If you do believe the incidents have occurred 

A meeting should be held with the individual who committed the offence to inform them of these findings and allow them a chance to respond. After this, an employer may consider disciplinary measures, as well as any additional steps taken across the entire workplace.  

If the incident was only a minor transgression, a first written warning might be appropriate. However, more severe misconduct may prompt a first and final written warning, or termination of employment. This response should take into account the severity of the misconduct and any previous disciplinary warnings, as well as any mitigating circumstances. 

In cases of serious misconduct such as theft or sexual assault, an employer may also have grounds to summarily dismiss the offending employee without notice. Procedural fairness is critical here. 

Contact the HR Advisory Service for further advice if you are considering summarily dismissing an employee.  

In summary 

It is important that all businesses have systems in place to respond to workplace complaints and conduct thorough investigations. The investigator should not take sides, and should merely determine whether the incidents did in fact occur. While the investigation allows the employer to respond to the incidents and develop an appropriate course of action, these complaints also often reveal deficiencies in workplace policies and procedures that should be examined and rectified to prevent future workplace incidents.  

Need more information? 

For more information about this article, please contact the APodA HR Advisory Service on 1300 620 641 or hrhotline@podiatry.org.au. A suite of online resources is also available for members 24 hours a day, seven days a week at podiatry.org.au.  

Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is general comment and is not intended as advice on any particular matter.  No reader should act or fail to act on the basis of any material contained herein. The material contained in this publication should not be relied on as a substitute for legal or professional advice on any particular matter.  Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd expressly disclaim all and any liability to any persons whatsoever in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by any such person in reliance whether in whole or in part upon any of the contents of this publication.  Without limiting the generality of this disclaimer, no author or editor shall have any responsibility for any other author or editor. For further information please contact Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd.
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