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How to investigate conflict in the workplace

How to investigate workplace conflict. And what to consider.

Most people prefer not to argue, but disputes and conflicts in the workplace are unfortunately common and can be damaging to both individuals and organisations. In some cases, managers or human resources teams may be required to know how to investigate an allegation against a staff member or manager.

Here, we outline the types of workplace conflict which can require investigation, and what to consider when starting an investigation.

Types of conflict which may require a workplace investigation

Conflict can stem from a wide range of situations in the workplace. However, some common types of workplace conflict include:

  1. Allegations of bullying
  2. Allegations of sexual harassment
  3. Claims of inappropriate management action.

Undertaking a preliminary investigation

The first step in undertaking a workplace investigation is to determine the origins of the conflict, or undertake a preliminary investigation. To start with, find out when the conflict started and how it began. This will offer greater understanding and allow you to raise points from both sides to obtain as much information as possible.

Speak to everyone involved individually and privately, allowing each party enough time to air their views and opinions on the situation – honest communication is key here. Make sure clear ground rules are set and followed and keep the conversation calm and professional, keeping an open mind as you engage with the various parties.

At the information gathering and preliminary investigation stage, seek any documents or communications referred to as part of this process to assist and inform your next steps.

Formal investigations into workplace conflict

A preliminary investigation may identify a way forward, but typically, you will uncover more issues of concern than you will solutions to problems.

The below should be the basic steps of a formal investigation:

  1. Establish terms of reference for the investigation (TOR). This generally clarifies the scope and the aim of the investigation and sets out how the investigation will be conducted by the investigator.
  2. Interview the parties and any nominated witnesses if applicable.
  3. Provide a draft report for feedback on factual accuracy, generally provided to the complainant (person making the complaint) and respondent (person being complained about).
  4. Consider any feedback provided.
  5. Produce a final report which dependant on the TOR, will advise whether a complaint is substantiated or not as a breach of either an organisational code of conduct or any other standard.
  6. The final report may provide recommendations for next steps, or simply whether the complaint is substantiated or not. The employer then can consider what the appropriate next steps are.

Using an independent third-party investigator

Undertaking a formal investigation internally will generally be more cost effective than using an outside party. However, there are a few things to consider.

First and foremost, it means that you become both the investigator and the decision-maker. This can make you vulnerable to charges of bias and claims that you have found what you expected to find and are therefore not actually impartial.

Secondly, the task of proper investigation is time-consuming and can be emotionally draining for those involved. Be aware that an investigation will take you away from your other responsibilities, and make sure before you start that you have the capacity — and the support if needed — to complete the investigation thoroughly.

An independent, suitably qualified and competent outsider can undertake the formal investigation and give you a report that cannot be challenged for bias. If an outside party has completed the investigation for you, you’re free to make the final decisions on the report and its conclusions, and to move forward without any allegations of bias.

Next steps

Depending on the outcome of the investigation, you may need to continue with formal employment processes. Alternatively, it may be appropriate to utilise either mediation or facilitation to resolve the matter.

Conflict can be difficult to manage, and our team includes experienced workplace investigators, as well as mediators and facilitators who can assist with getting to the bottom of workplace conflict.

Contact us to find out how we can help.

Disclaimer

This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.

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