Investigations into cultural practices: when should HR bring in outside help?

Proper external investigative practice requires impartiality, significant resources, and a detailed understanding of the organisation’s culture, experts have warned.

The publication of the Independent Office for Police Conduct’s (IOPC) report into cultural failings within the Metropolitan Police this week (1 February) has highlighted the need for proper investigative practice.

The IOPC’s investigation started as a single allegation of bullying and sexual harassment was made against the Met Police, but this eventually led to 14 separate allegations of officer’s behaviour. 

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This led to a conclusion that there were  “cultural and structural issues” within the Metropolitan Police. 

Home secretary Priti Patel blamed a “failure of leadership,” calling the behaviour shown “sickening.”

So when there’s a cultural failure, what should HR do? 


Be impartial

Stephen Simpson, principal employment law editor at XpertHR, told HR magazine that while many employers will handle investigations internally, having an unbiased investigator is key.

He said: “The single most important rule of thumb when conducting an investigation is that it has to be impartial.”

Employers, he added, should avoid the common mistake of having their investigating manager involved or associated with any wrongdoing.

He said: “Enlisting outside help can go a long way to heading off accusations of bias and unfairness in the investigation.

“If the issues being investigated are systemic, an external investigator can provide a valuable outsider’s perspective - for example when a root-and-branch review of an organisation’s culture is being undertaken, or the issues are potential criminal or regulatory breaches that could cause serious reputational damage to the organisation.”


Consider business politics

Sophie Forrest, of consultancy ForrestHR, agreed, saying that the often political nature of businesses can threaten the integrity of investigations.

“Whether it’s the relationships between senior staff members, or emotional pressures from an unspoken workplace culture, there are many threads and ties that can make sensitive issues, internal complaints or upsetting situations feel amplified. 

“That’s why it is the role of HR teams to always be unbiased and open to bringing in external help if they want to deal with investigations and complaints effectively.”

The cost of a biased investigation can be extreme, she added, as if staff don’t believe in the grievance process, a damaging atmosphere will develop where the team feels unable to air their complaints.

“Ultimately, this can lead to unresolved issues that are left to continue growing, a fall in staff morale and motivation, a drop in employee retention and even the possibility of severe offences being committed if the appropriate actions are not swiftly taken.”

Kate Palmer, HR and consultancy director at consultancy Peninsula, added that a real risk of tribunal claims should make businesses think twice about not following proper procedure.

She told HR magazine: “Where bias or prejudice is found in the disciplinary or grievance process, there is a significantly increased risk of unfair dismissal, constructive dismissal or discrimination claims being raised. 

“Employers should assess the situation and, in some cases, put their personal preferences on the back foot and bring in an external individual who can ensure the process is undertaken fairly.” 


Properly manage resources

Many companies will find themselves without the resources for a thorough investigation, said Simpson.

He added: “Employers should never underestimate how much of a time and human resource drain a properly conducted investigation can be – complex investigations can involve interviewing dozens of witnesses, for example.”

In this case, the right decision would be to engage outside help, or risk the investigation dragging on interminably, he said.

According to Angela O’Connor, CEO of consultancy The HR Lounge, proper resourcing can make or break an investigation, and companies have to be serious about addressing allegations.

She said: “We have turned down reviews when the resource proposed was inadequate. 

“There is no point accepting work that cannot be done well. Reviews are very resource intensive with desktop reviews, interviews and focus groups, and lines of enquiry development, etc. 

“You can't do it on the cheap, and we certainly do not want to be involved with any review where it is not taken seriously.”

Resourcing can be a particular problem for small and medium sized companies.

When handling the matter internally, a responsible strategy is to divide duties, but smaller businesses can find themselves running out of managers, Simpson warned.

He said: “The three key branches of handling a grievance [investigation, grievance hearing and appeal] should be conducted by different managers, so they need to be wary of running out of human resource during the grievance process.”

For reviewers, concluded O’Connor, it is vital to remain focussed.

“Overall, it’s about being clear about what you are reviewing and why.”

A detailed commissioning conversation, with set objectives, she added, is a great starter and ensuring access to all levels of the company will help investigators reach results quickly.

“You have to go into these reviews with an open mind and a determination to do the job well, and remain curious and open.”