HR lessons from the Horizon Scandal

'Mr Bates vs The Post Office' aired in January

Internal investigations are back in the media spotlight, after a TV drama fuelled fresh momentum for the long-running campaign in favour of people affected by the Post Office IT scandal. Will recent criticisms of the Horizon software impact how HR and business leaders conduct investigations in the future?

More than 20 years after the Post Office first rolled out its Horizon IT system, the hundreds of people impacted by its failings continue to fight for justice. It’s a story that more than 10 million people now know much better, thanks to ITV’s four-part drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which aired in January.

Read more: The Post Office scandal proves we need to listen to grievances now more than ever

Renewed public outrage and political will has fuelled significant progress. The European head of Fujitsu, the company that developed Horizon, has admitted that the business should financially compensate the Post Office scandal’s victims.

The leader of the Post Office during the height of the scandal has also bowed to public pressure and will now return the CBE she was awarded in 2019 for services to the Post Office.

Multiple investigations have been launched due to the scandal, and the public inquiry continues. Of the many questions that the Horizon scandal raises, one for HR leaders must be: how can the investigations process be improved in future?

HR professional Phil Rimmer says that the errors made by the Post Office were down to “a lack of transparency and integrity, which are just two of the ingredients required throughout any investigation”.

The scandal “serves as a stark reminder of the critical role that robust internal investigations play when businesses face allegations of any wrongdoing”, adds Simon Gilmour, head of employment at the law firm Harper James.

Former Post Office investigator Stephen Bradshaw described himself as “not technically minded”, during a session of the public inquiry into the Horizon Scandal on 11 January. But HR professionals cannot afford to use that excuse when conducting investigations.

The consensus is that, as investigations often rely on the use of technology and the analysis of data, HR professionals need to know how to use technology, whether they are technically minded or not. Technology offers data that can be influential to decision-making.

But, as the Horizon scandal shows, IT systems can also be a root cause and a catalyst of investigations.

“The Post Office scandal is in essence a case of the ‘computer saying no’, allowing technology to dictate decisions and outcomes on the belief that the system must be infallible,” says Shakil Butt, CEO of the consultancy HR Hero for Hire.

“Any system can give out false results.”

That’s why data always has to be put into context, according to Ruth Cornish, director of HR consultancy firm Amelore.

She says: “Most business leaders would consider IT systems as only one element to bear in mind when forming an opinion.”

Butt also argues that context is key, especially when preparing for an investigation. “Internal investigations are very dependent on how HR has been positioned within an organisation,” he says.

“HR should ask whether it is regarded as an extension of the management function, or as an independent, impartial advocate for the workforce. Can management sway the investigation’s scope, influence or findings? And, does HR have the capacity and technical capability to carry out an internal investigation?

“These questions might necessitate an external party being better placed to investigate.”

Cornish agrees: “It is always good practice to appoint an external investigator,” she says.

“This is especially important if external stakeholders are impacted.

“Organisations have their own cultures, power bases and unconscious bias that can create a narrative that is not fair or accurate. ‘Groupthink’ can occur, and that is when you can get grave miscarriages of injustice.”

Butt says: “Given the lessons from the Post Office scandal, complex investigations are more likely to be outsourced to those with both technical competence, capacity and independence, with terms of reference shared upfront to ensure the scope and expectations are clear around timeframes, outcomes and accountability.

“This introduces more transparency into the process and helps to minimise tampering or collusion by management.”

Cornish argues that above all, internal investigators should be properly trained. She also notes that organisations are starting to see conducting investigations as a skill that can sit outside of the HR function.

With regard to process, Helen Watson, head of employment law at Aaron and Partners, points out that it is best practice for investigators to speak to key witnesses, to analyse documents and to review photos, media, CCTV footage, policies and procedures.

“They should ensure that no stone is left unturned, and that a detailed investigation report is prepared to document both the investigation process and its findings,” she says. “This should all be supported evidentially.

“All businesses need grievance and disciplinary policies that clearly detail the investigation stage of the internal process,” she adds. “These policies should be kept up to date, and all staff should be trained on the policies regularly.”

From a legal perspective, a thorough and fair disciplinary process is vital, not least to avoid any challenges and to defend a tribunal claim.

“The investigation process should be used to gather evidence in a fair and unbiased manner,” says Charlie Wood, partner at SAS Daniels.

“Arguably, relying on a single source of information would not be seen as a thorough investigation.” And Gilmour adds: “It is usually incumbent on the employer to follow a fair disciplinary process, in accordance with the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures”.

So what shape might future investigations take?

In light of this scandal, HR professionals should act with a lot more caution and ensure they don't rush into taking disciplinary action based on a flawed investigation process, according to Wood. When dealing with investigations, HR must not lose sight of common sense.

He adds: “What is more likely: that hundreds of people are criminals, or that there is a fault with an IT system?”

As victims of the Post Office scandal continue their fight for justice, HR has a key role to play in ensuring that business leaders follow best practice during investigations. This work can go a long way in ensuring fairer processes for the next generation of employees.


This article first appeared in the January/February 2024 print issue of HR magazine.

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