HR investigation ‘paralysis’ often occurs because the investigator is unsure about how to properly interview witnesses (including the complainant) and how put what the witness says into a comprehensive statement format.
An inexperienced HR investigator may be aware generally about what needs to be done but crucially – not knowing how to do it.
So instead of confidently commencing an investigation, an uncertain HR investigator may end up:
- Cutting corners;
- Failing to recognise key evidence;
- Collecting the wrong information;
- Incorrectly writing off the complaint without investigation; or
- Carrying out a flawed or superficial investigation.
But it doesn’t end there. Even experienced HR professionals can make fundamental errors when dealing with complainants and witnesses.
Why is it absolutely critical to know how to take good statements?
There are many reasons. Here are five.
1. A good witness statement ‘paints the picture’
The effectiveness of a workplace investigation will largely hinge on the quality of the evidence gathered from the complainant and other witnesses. A written statement paints a ‘word picture’ of that witness’s evidence.
The content of a statement is relevant to the allegations or matters being investigated and is drawn from the witness’s direct knowledge. It will set out the witness’s evidence in a logical format and not leave out any relevant facts.
2. The evidence in a good witness statement supports or rebuts the complaint of wrongdoing
Take for example a complaint by ‘Melanie’ that ‘Steve’ sexually harassed her in the workplace.
If the Steve denies the allegation (without the corroboration of Melanie’s version by a witness) a decision maker would be left with the conflicting versions of Melanie and Steve.
Whereas if Melanie nominated Mike as standing nearby when the alleged event occurred and Mike confirmed Melanie’s version, the complaint would likely be substantiated.
Alternately, if Mike’s evidence supported Steve’s denial, (in the absence of other witnesses) Melanie’s complaint would not be substantiated.
3. A witness statement ‘locks in’ the person giving it
Employee witnesses more readily realise the seriousness of a matter if what they are saying about it is being put in writing.
It will be clear that what they are saying is not ‘off the record’ or somehow a casual conversation with HR staff.
Having to sign one’s name at the dotted line is an added incentive for a witness to not give false or misleading evidence.
Committing a witness’s version to writing reduces the likelihood of a witness later wanting to ‘flip flop’ and change his/her evidence.
4. A witness statement is part of the ‘procedural fairness chain’
Affording procedural fairness to an alleged wrongdoer is a fundamental requirement under unfair dismissal law.
In order to be afforded procedural fairness, an alleged wrongdoer must be given an opportunity to respond to the allegations.
An alleged wrongdoer cannot properly defend against the allegations or have a reasonable opportunity to convince the employer that the allegations do not constitute a reason for dismissal if he/she is not provided with sufficient detail of the allegations.
A proper statement will contain that sufficient detail which will in turn form the basis of the questions put to the alleged wrongdoer in a face-to-face meeting about the allegation(s).
5. A witness statement is a record for forever and a day
A statement is part of the documented history of an HR investigation.
At some point following the finalisation of an investigation, statements will need to be reviewed.
Sometimes a review may be undertaken well after an investigation’s completion.
There may be a need to reopen an HR investigation.
There may be questions asked internally about the outcome of an investigation thus needing recourse to the statements taken.
HR personnel involved in an investigation may have moved on. Memories can fade.
It is important, therefore, that witness statements are available for review at any time in the future.