Investigations- when to conduct internally or externally

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When it comes to conducting workplace investigations there is a threshold of questions as to whether it should be conducted internally or externally. Each investigation must be undertaken with sensitivity, impartiality and insight.

The decision whether to have a complaint investigated internally or externally is an important one. In many circumstances the decision to undertake an investigation internally is entirely appropriate. Utilizing internal resources to conduct investigations is not only cost effective but has some additional advantages. Internal investigators have the benefit of knowing the parties involved, understanding the unique culture of the organization and are well positioned to monitor the implementation of decisions taken based on their recommendations.

On the other hand there are circumstances where it will be appropriate to engage an independent third party to conduct the investigation. When assessing whether an investigation should be conducted internally or not, iHR Australia recommends that organizations consider the following factors.

1. Objectivity

It might be difficult for an internal investigator to remain unbiased throughout the investigation, often knowing one or more of the parties involved either directly or indirectly.

If there is risk that the investigation might be challenged as not having been objectively handled due to a real or perceived conflict of interest, then utilising an independent investigator can go a long way to demonstrating that those involved have been treated fairly and without prejudice.

2. The seniority of the parties involved

How senior are the parties involved? Internal investigators might feel uncomfortable or unwilling to conduct an investigation where the complainant or respondent are more senior within the organization than themselves.

Furthermore, if required, it may be difficult for an internal investigator to critically assess senior management, organizational culture or operating frameworks. The ability to recognize issues is often enhanced by an independent person with a ‘fresh set of eyes’.

3. Availability of resources (including capability and time)

Do the internal resources have the capability, skill and time required to conduct a thorough investigation? Rushed, poorly planned or executed workplace investigations pose significant risk to organisations. Complex investigations can involve 30 to 60 hours of an investigator’s time. It is important to ensure assigned resources have an appropriate amount of time to dedicate to the investigation, keeping in mind that the scope of an investigation can expand as the investigation progresses.

When assessing the likely timeframe for an investigation the number of allegations, people involved and the geographical location of parties should be taken into consideration. The timely handling of an investigation is essential to avoid the undermining of workplace morale and damage to organizational reputation.

4. Third party involvement and / or potential for litigation

Where the investigation potentially includes allegations of adverse action, workers compensation claims and / or involved industrial negotiation this may influence a decision to involve an independent investigator.

Organizations should also consider circumstances where a third party such as a union is likely to be involved and whether they would consider an internal investigation to be appropriate in all the circumstances. If not, this may present a higher risk of the findings being subsequently challenged externally.

About the author

John Boardman is director, workplace relations, iHR Australia

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