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To investigate or not to investigate: Either way, act promptly

When there’s been an incident at work, the temptation is to settle the matter as quickly as possible and move on. But a fast resolution isn’t always the right way.

While a quiet word could put matters to bed without undue process, informal means are not always available – and rushed judgements may not be based on sound knowledge of what actually happened.

Employers need to decide whether an investigation is necessary. This might be because:

  • company policy demands it for such incidents, e.g. theft
  • the incident is serious, and may warrant further action, e.g. harassment
  • it’s part of a disciplinary or grievance procedure.

If an informal resolution becomes an option during the investigation this can still be considered.

Investigations give employers all the relevant information at their fingertips enabling them to make a fair, consistent and objective decision on how to follow up an incident.

Act promptly

If an investigation is needed, it should begin as soon as practicable. Acting quickly will allow witnesses to give information while their memories are still fresh. Procedural delays may give the perception of an unfair process.

Employers should therefore promptly establish:

  • the scope and purpose of the investigation
  • the provisional timescale of the investigation
  • who will undertake the investigation
  • that the investigation will be confidential
  • whether temporary measures are needed for relevant employees, such as:
    • temporary transfer
    • suspension.
  • whether the police need to be involved
  • who will make the decisions on the basis of the investigation
  • who will chair any hearings or appeals if further action is necessary.

Get it right

Failure to carry out investigations properly can leave employers vulnerable to claims at an employment tribunal.

In a dismissal, an employer should be able to demonstrate a decision was reached as a result of a fair and thorough investigation.

And when a grievance is not upheld, the evidence collected during the investigation can be used to explain the reasons behind this and show an employee that their grievance was taken seriously.

Acas publications and services

Acas has published pdf  Conducting workplace investigations [573kb], which outlines the essential decisions and actions that employers and investigators must and should make when undertaking an investigation.

Free investigation plan and report templates, as well as sample letters informing employees of an investigation or inviting employees to an investigation meeting, are also available to download from the Carrying out investigations in the workplace page.

Acas experts can visit your organisation and help you address a range of issues related to conducting investigations; see Disputes and mediation: how Acas can help for more information.

Practical training is also available on Investigations, Discipline and grievance, improving Skills for supervisors, Dispute resolution and Handling difficult conversations.


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