The key to effective workplace investigations – one that reaches the best outcome for all parties involved – is trust, impartiality and fairness.
But, bias can unintentionally (and, indeed in some instances, intentionally) seep into a workplace investigation, compromising its integrity. As organisations and their people strive for unbiased and objective outcomes, it is essential to be aware of the risk of bias in the investigation process and implement strategies that minimise bias at each stage.
These are our practical steps for mitigating bias when conducting a workplace investigation.
Understanding bias in workplace investigations
Bias refers to prejudice or misconceptions held against a particular person, group, or outcome, which can cloud judgment and lead to unfair treatment. For workplace investigations, bias can arise from personal beliefs, cultural stereotypes, previous experiences, or external influences.
As an investigator, it is crucial to recognise that bias can be at play at every stage of the investigation process, from gathering evidence and questioning techniques to reaching conclusions and report writing. By acknowledging this potential for bias, investigators can take proactive steps to interrupt its influence, counteract its impact and ensure impartiality throughout.
Establishing a clear and consistent approach to workplace investigations
The foundation for an unbiased workplace investigation lies in the establishment of a clear and consistent approach. As well as comprehensive guidelines that outline the entire investigation process, including steps such as reporting, evidence collection, interviews, evidence evaluation, and reaching conclusions, every investigator should undergo effective training in conducting workplace investigations.
Workplace investigation training ensures that every investigator in your organisation is equipped with the same level of understanding and skill to handle complex cases with impartiality and professionalism but also empathy and sensitivity. The training should also include an in-depth exploration of the biases that can undermine an investigation’s integrity and demonstrate what an inclusive investigation process involves.
Choosing an impartial investigator
Choosing impartial investigators is vital to conducting a fair workplace investigation. As mentioned above, all in-house investigators should be trained on the principles of neutrality and develop the skills to recognise and dismantle their own biases.
It is also important to consider the level of seniority of the investigator and the person/people being investigated. If the grievance involves senior employees, or if there are not enough levels of seniority to escalate the case, an external investigator may be required. Similarly, the existing relationships between the investigator and those being investigated need to be considered to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Finally, ensuring you have access in-house or externally to investigators from diverse backgrounds can help mitigate affinity bias by introducing different perspectives into the process.
Collecting and evaluating evidence
A workplace investigation is a fact-find mission; therefore, the effective collection and evaluation of evidence is the most critical stage of any workplace investigation.
To minimise bias, investigators should adopt an evidence-based approach, relying on objective and relevant information. Ensure that evidence is collected from multiple sources and that statements are corroborated whenever possible. Encourage witnesses to provide detailed and factual accounts rather than subjective opinions. It is also essential to be aware of confirmation bias, which occurs when investigators unconsciously favour evidence that confirms preexisting beliefs.
Conducting impartial interviews
Interviews are a key component in gathering evidence during workplace investigations. Effective communication is crucial. The investigation process can be stressful, upsetting and anxiety-inducing for everyone involved. Frequent, open communication to ensure all parties are well-informed from the very beginning of the process can help alleviate these stresses and make for more effective evidence-gathering.
It is also the investigator’s responsibility for creating a safe and non-judgmental environment for every person being interviewed to ensure they have an opportunity to explain their side of the story. To minimise bias, investigators should approach interviews with neutrality and refrain from asking leading questions that serve to confirm pre-existing beliefs. Active listening and empathy are essential to foster trust, encourage open discussion and ensure that all perspectives are heard and evaluated objectively. It is also important to ask for clarification if you do not understand a response or if you are unsure of what has happened to avoid making assumptions based on incomplete evidence.
Reaching fair and objective conclusions
When reaching conclusions in a workplace investigation, it is essential to consider all evidence objectively and without personal bias. Investigators should thoroughly analyse the evidence collected, including direct and circumstantial, and document findings in an investigation report.
Again, at all stages of the investigation process, it is important to bear in mind that this is a fact-find mission. The report is a documentation of those findings. This is not a whodunnit. Therefore, findings should be presented in full and demonstrate a logical and unbiased chain of reasoning for reaching a conclusion.
Workplace investigations require objectivity to determine the facts associated with a grievance and to reach fair resolutions. But not only that, a commitment to impartiality and challenging bias sends a clear message to your people that your organisational is built on a foundation of respect, trust and empathy.
At Tell Jane, we can support your organisation in conducting fair and impartial workplace investigations through training in-house investigations or carrying out investigations on your behalf. Talk to us today to learn more.