· News

What HR can learn from the Post Office Horizon scandal

"It should prove a stark reminder to look deeply at 'evidence' from different perspectives" - ©alice_photo/Adobe Stock

The Post Office Horizon scandal saw over 700 subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft due to a faulty computing and accounting system called Horizon. 

Although the scandal has been ongoing since 2000, it has received further attention after an ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, aired on 1 January, depicting the story.   

Many of those pursued by the Post Office were told to plead guilty to crimes or face jail, according to lawyers who have represented dozens of those impacted. 
They were forced to pay the Post Office money it claimed had gone missing, meaning many lost their jobs, homes and lifesavings.  

Thankfully the case was eventually overturned, after a High Court case found that bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system had caused the discrepancies. 

So what can HR learn from the scandal?  


Organisations cannot fully rely on technology  

Gemma Dale, senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University 

“The facts as they are published appear to indicate an organisation that put total faith in an IT system, and were completely unwilling to entertain any other explanation for financial shortfalls other than the personal actions of subpostmasters.   

“They formed this belief and disregarded other credible evidence.  They appear to have leapt to the first, and possibly easiest answer – dishonesty, rather than consider other options or look properly for the cause of errors.  

“It there is anything that HR can learn from this it is that, in any investigation into potential disciplinary matters, an open mind is fundamental. Without this, the process cannot be fair, and any action taken as a result cannot be either.”   


Read more: Modernising HR at the Post Office

 HR must challenge toxic behaviour 

Yvonne Anderson, founder of HR consultancy Prospero People   

“This whole debacle raises so many questions about culture and leadership, in particular a culture that supported a belief that a significant number of its partners and employees were thieves, and set out to gaslight them and their concerns about Horizon.  

“HR needs to be in and about the business and its culture, sitting at the top table and being prepared to challenge leadership behaviour and beliefs, and providing support for change.  

“There also seemed to be little accountability for incompetence over the years. It is HR's responsibility to create effective systems and understanding of the importance of feedback and continuous improvement.” 

Read more: How to spot a toxic leader

Investigations must be thorough and timely 

Martyn Dicker, director of people at Unicef UK 

“The tragedy which saw over 700 subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft is a serious warning to business and HR.   

“The extent of this tragedy, which resulted in hundreds of lives being ruined, should prove a stark reminder to ensure that investigations are not only thorough and timely, but that they also look deeply at 'evidence' from different perspectives.  
“With an increasing reliance on IT systems, including AI, we risk taking the proof at face value rather than considering and exploring other alternatives, which this case proves can have a devastating impact."

Read more: When does legal privilege apply in internal investigations?