Why It Matters
Employee investigations are necessary and important for addressing major workplace issues. However, understanding their potential impact and building in compassionate support for those going through them must be an integral part of the process.
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Improving Investigations to Reduce Avoidable Employee Harm

By IHI Team | Thursday, October 20, 2022
Improving Investigations to Reduce Avoidable Employee Harm Photo by Markus Winkler | Unsplash

The number is sobering: 156 days. This is the average time our human resources (HR) colleagues determined it takes to investigate violations of workplace rules, job-related misconduct, or workplace complaints. This means that, on average, employees are left wondering for nearly six months if they will have a job at the end of the process.

Thankfully, many employee investigations conclude more quickly, but others take much longer. Some last well over a year.

Our employee wellbeing team regularly supports colleagues going through these incredibly challenging and stressful periods in their working lives. Almost without exception, the subjects of employee investigations experience high levels of anxiety throughout the process. Some employees have suffered from PTSD and other health concerns during or following the conclusion of an investigation, with individuals experiencing fears for their reputation and ability to work again. While some level of stress is likely inevitable during workplace investigations, some of the harmful impact can and should be avoided.

Tragic Consequences

Sadly, poorly delivered investigations can have serious, even tragic consequences. A review into the death by suicide of Amin Abdullah, a staff nurse working in London, highlighted that he experienced severe mental health issues during and following a seriously flawed, unfair, and protracted workplace investigation and disciplinary procedure.

Learn More About Workforce Safety at the IHI Forum

Employee investigations are a necessary part of organisational life and important for addressing major workplace issues. However, understanding their potential impact and building in compassionate support for those going through them must be an integral part of the process. This focus on the human part of the process has shaped the Employee Investigations: Looking After the Process and the People training that we have developed for our organisation.

It is worth noting that the individual being investigated is not the only person who can be harmed by a poorly run process. Employees responsible for coordinating an investigation — who may have been given insufficient training, time, or support — can find themselves in unnecessarily charged and stressful situations. Those who have been called as witnesses, provide HR support, or act as representation for staff can also be harmed.

Culture as a Casualty

Organisational culture is often another casualty of badly managed investigations. Though these processes are meant to be confidential, word of a failure to treat individuals with respect or to run investigations in line with espoused values often spread through an organisation and lead to a loss of confidence in those who lead it. Worse, this can contribute to an unsafe and unhealthy culture for both patients and staff. Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust is an example of an organisation that has been transparent about the challenges they have faced with their employee investigations and their efforts to “create an open and honest culture by asking what happened? instead of who is responsible?”

Our work has caused us to reflect on whether a formal investigation is always the most appropriate course of action. We reviewed cases and found that only 50 percent had led to a sanction over a 15-month period. This prompted consideration of alternatives to formal investigations. Such options could address concerns in a less harmful, resource-intensive process that is more collaborative and restorative. These alternatives may also enable employees to resume duties more quickly.

Reducing Investigations

Some situations will always require formal investigations, but major negligence or serious misconduct are fortunately rare. Our contention is that a more discerning approach to the initial assessment stage of the process — a fact-finding exercise that informs next steps — will lead to a reduction in the number of formal investigations required. This will create capacity to spend the time and resources needed for more complex cases.

Our work has been shaped by employee experience, HR insights and data. This has not only helped us to identify the key issues but also how they can be addressed. We continue to learn from colleagues within our organisation and others beyond it who are on similar journeys. Our hope is that by learning together we can ensure employee investigations not only safeguard our organisation, but the wellbeing of all those going through them.

Dr Adrian Neal is the Head of Employee Wellbeing at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board (NHS Wales, UK) and Andrew Cooper is their Head of Programmes and developed the Employee Investigations: Looking After the Process and the People training. For further information, email Andrew.Cooper4@wales.nhs.uk.

Learn more during the online session, VW15: When Work Harms - Addressing Avoidable Employee Harm, on Tuesday, December 13, 2022, from 11:30 am - 1:30 pm Eastern Time during the IHI Forum.

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