The importance of impartiality: 3 top tips for an effective investigation
The recent high court case brought against Deloitte by one of their former managers has garnered the type of headlines such prominent organisations strive to avoid:
Deloitte denies protecting ‘stalkerish’ ex-partner after affair with junior(fnlondon.com)
Deloitte denies it failed to protect former female employee from bullying and harassment| Financial Times (ft.com)
Deloitte denies failing to protect ex-employee from bullying (cityam.com)
How has this case managed to reach the high court?
The case involves serious allegations by a former employee that she was subjected to “stalkerish” and “abusive” behaviour on the part of one of Deloitte’s (now ex) partners following the breakdown of a relationship between the two of them in around 2016/17. She alleges that she has suffered psychiatric harm and that Deloitte failed to prevent the abusive behaviour towards her.
According to the reports, after raising the matter internally with HR and it being highlighted to the firm’s ethics officer, the former employee alleged that the ensuing investigation was not impartial as it was conducted by a person who sat in the same team as the alleged perpetrator. Deloitte is reported as saying that its “informal ethics investigation” was appropriate and not aimed at defending its partner or the firm.
The matter has now escalated to high court litigation which could take months or years to be resolved, will be distressing to the people involved and potentially create reputational damage to the firm.
The importance of impartiality
This case highlights the risk of seeking to run a more informal investigation into potentially serious allegations. It seems likely that the intent here would have been to design and operate a fair and timely process. However, in order to address the concerns raised, an appearance of any lack of impartiality can be fatal to the objective of bringing resolution to the situation.
Whilst an objectively impartial investigation will not guarantee “successful” resolution, being able to demonstrate fairness and the application of a clearly defined procedure will help ensure a robust process that can stand up to scrutiny and maintain the confidence of those involved. The importance of ensuring that parties to an investigation (including the complainant, the subject and other witnesses) have confidence that their voices are being heard and that there is transparency in the process cannot be overstated.
Having reflected on the reported case, our 3 top tips for an effective investigation are to ensure:
· applicable internal policies and procedures anticipate the reality of how different people might raise concerns and what will happen in practice;
· the appointed investigator can act without bias or a perception of bias; and
· investigators are required to act with fairness, empathy and respect, to create a supportive environment where witnesses feel safe engaging with the process.
In our experience, this approach is most likely to ensure engagement and facilitate fair outcomes, as well as enable decision makers to make well-grounded decisions and support or restore the parties’ trust and confidence going forward.
Information on our resolution services, including independent workplace investigations, can be found here.