Mitigating Bias for Impartial Workplace Investigations

The goals of any workplace investigations should revolve around achieving fairness, addressing wrongdoing appropriately and reaching resolutions that restore harmony. They should reinforce your organisation’s values.

So it’s vital that any investigation, from a simple grievance to a more serious disciplinary matter, is conducted in an impartial way. This approach is vital in maintaining the integrity of the process. Investigators should set aside personal opinions, prejudices, or predispositions to ensure an impartial examination of established facts and evidence.

In an impartial investigation there’s no room for opinions because opinions lead to bias and bias leads to possible unfair outcomes.

Biases can damage the integrity of any workplace investigation. In cases of organisational bias an outcome is effectively decided before the investigation has taken place.

But is it so easy? Do you recognise your own biases?

The Importance of Unbiased Workplace Investigations

Bias, whether explicit or implicit (that which we don’t outwardly recognise) can hugely impact workplace investigations. It clouds your judgement and leads to unfair conclusions. Bias can cast doubts on your entire investigation process.

But unbiased investigations are crucial for objectivity within any organisation, and not just from a transparency and fairness perspective. At the very least a tribunal will expect to see that reasonable steps have been carried out and in an impartial way.

But Everyone is Biased

It’s true. Everyone is biased. The thoughts and feelings we have towards everyone and everything are influenced by our backgrounds, our experiences, our culture, our teachings and the media we consume. It is also a survival mechanism and our brain’s way of making sense of the world.

However, if investigators can’t learn to mitigate those thoughts and feelings and ensure impartiality during workplace investigations, or if there’s any suggestion of an already held opinion coming into play, the entire process can be called into question.

This can lead to further employee conflict, wasted time, a poor reputation for the organisation and the possibility of legal action.

The Importance of Establishing Facts Not Opinion

Because bias can distort evidence, influence witness statements and impact decisions it’s vital to establish the facts, free from any opinions.

Properly establishing facts only adds to the credibility and legitimacy of any workplace investigation process.

To start, investigators should recognise their own biases and accept that they are biased. Investigators are also responsible for:

 

  • Understanding the influence of biases on decision-making
  • Recognise that bias can be at play at every stage of the investigation process
  • Interrupt biases before they influence decision-making
  • Challenge their own decision-making to further dismantle bias

 

Recognising and learning how to overcome bias in workplace investigations is vital. Investigators can then develop effective strategies and best practices to mitigate any bias in workplace investigations. This way organisations can create an environment where impartiality is present at all stages of the workplace investigation.

Defining clear guidelines and protocols at the outset of an investigation sets expectations for all involved parties. Clearly outlining the steps, responsibilities, and expected outcomes also helps maintain transparency and fairness.

And consider seeking external expertise or third-party assistance, especially in complex cases or where conflicts of interest are apparent. This can only enhance the objectivity of any investigation.

Mitigating Bias – Types of Bias

The investigator’s role is to establish the facts of the case and that includes information that is relevant for both sides.

To help mitigate any bias, it’s worth taking time to recognise the common types of bias that might be present in workplace investigations. Understanding these biases is crucial as they can affect the investigator’s objectivity, consciously or subconsciously.

 

Affinity bias

Affinity bias is a subconscious preference for people who share similar characteristics, backgrounds, or experiences. It leads investigators to favour those who they perceive to be similar to them in some way, whether it’s based on race, gender, ethnicity, culture, education, hobbies, or other shared traits.

People tend to feel more comfortable and connected with individuals who resemble them in some manner. This leads to a tendency for preferential treatment or opportunities to those perceived as similar.

Attribution bias

This is the tendency to attribute people’s actions to internal characteristics (for example their personality or character) rather than considering external factors or situations that might have influenced their behaviour.

When interpreting the actions of others, a person with attribution bias may make hasty judgments about character without fully considering external influences.

Confirmation bias

Here people seek, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms or supports their pre-existing beliefs or expectations. A person might selectively focus on information that aligns with their existing viewpoints while ignoring or downplaying contradictory evidence.

Conformity bias

Conformity bias occurs when people change their opinions or actions to match the majority or to comply with social norms, even if it contradicts their personal beliefs or judgement. Peer pressure is a good way to think of it.

 

There are many such biases that can come into play during a workplace investigation. Others include the halo or horns effect – either demonising or hero-worshipping a person, as well as beauty bias, name bias, height bias, weight bias.

External pressures or conflicting interests can influence the investigative process too.

An organisation’s culture plays a huge role in the shaping of biases too. Organisational biases are those within the structures, processes, cultures, or practices of an organisation. These can often influence decision-making, policies, and interactions within the workplace, potentially leading to unequal treatment, limited opportunities, or exclusion of certain groups or individuals.

Creating an environment that values diversity, inclusion, and fairness builds a culture where biases can be identified and challenged.

 

Final Thoughts

Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, can significantly impact the outcome of workplace investigations. To ensure they are carried out without judgement or personal bias, establishing the facts and getting that all-important impartiality are key.

Recognise biases, or the potential for them, and then adjust your investigation to remove them from the process. It’s essential for maintaining the integrity and credibility of any workplace investigation.

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.