In this short article Michael McNally and Lorna Shuttleworth from our employment and pensions team consider the use of external investigators when carrying out workplace investigations. They look at why an organisation may instruct an external investigator, the benefits of doing so, and the issues to consider when instructing external investigators.

On 21st April 2023 the Government published Adam Tolley KC’s investigation report into complaints about the conduct of the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab MP. Mr Raab resigned the following day. A few days later, on 24th April, the CBI wrote an open letter on the recommendations of Fox Williams, an external law firm, following its appointment to carry out an investigation after reports in The Guardian in early April of a ‘toxic culture’ at the CBI and other serious allegations. Both stories involve external lawyers being appointed to conduct investigations into serious workplace issues. Whilst these are two high profile examples, organisations will often instruct barristers, law firms, and other independent professionals to investigate serious issues that arise in the workplace.

In this article we look at why, based on our experience of carrying out external investigations on behalf of organisation, an organisation may instruct an external investigator, the benefits of doing so, and the issues to consider when instructing external investigators.

  1. Seriousness

External investigators are usually appointed when a matter concerns the most serious types of allegations and/or relates to senior individuals. This was the case in both the Raab and CBI investigations. For example, in the case of the CBI, the external investigation was focused on “whether the CBI’s leadership was aware of any of the events before the recent media reporting, and if so what steps they took or failed to take in response.” In relation to that particular issue, it would be very difficult for someone within the CBI to have looked into that question because it specifically concerned the actions of the CBI’s leadership.

  1. Perception

That last point leads on to the next reason why an external investigator may be appointed, namely ‘perception’.

In the case of Mr Raab, the CBI, and other examples such as the allegations of discrimination at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, it could undermine any findings if the organisation was seen to “mark its own homework”. This principle is also true of lower profile, albeit serious, matters.

To be able to draw a line and move on, it’s not enough that an organisation takes the matter seriously, it must be seen to have taken it seriously. Interested parties need to have confidence in the findings. History is littered with examples of investigations and inquiries that are perceived to have been a “whitewash”. Whilst instructing an external party to investigate concerns will not always ensure the right perception, it can certainly help to do so.

  1. Complexity

Workplace investigations need to be handled properly and thoroughly. If they are not, there can be serious legal, financial and reputational consequences for the business.

In respect of grievances for example, Acas states that it is highly recommended that anyone appointed as an investigator should be trained in the relevant area wherever possible. If there is no one within the business who is suitably qualified, experienced, and confident to deal with the investigation, it is advisable to instruct a third party with the relevant experience.

The process of identifying relevant issues, questioning witnesses, analysing the evidence, and making findings can be difficult and external investigators will often be chosen for their skills in these areas. For the most serious issues, which as mentioned earlier are usually the subject of external investigations, it is vital that these things are done as well as possible.

  1. Neutrality

Best practice is that an investigator is impartial and acts fairly and objectively. For day-to-day workplace issues it will usually suffice that the investigator is not directly involved in the matters being investigated. However, for more serious matters the issue of neutrality needs to be carefully considered.

If the investigator is found, or even just perceived, to have been biased,  it leaves the findings of the investigation open to challenge. Appointing an external party, seen to be a neutral actor in the process can also help in ensuring witnesses are willing to co-operate and are candid when giving evidence.

However, one thing to consider on this point is to what extent the investigator is said to be independent.

Depending on the nature of the investigation external investigators may conduct the investigation on behalf of the organisation (in the same way an internal member of staff might). Whilst this may not be independent in the strictest sense of the word, the fact the issue is being looked at by someone from outside the organisation with specialist skills can still be beneficial. Alternatively, whilst the organisation may ultimately pay the external party for their services, some external investigations are conducted with a view to them being truly independent, for example we have seen published reports that will make it clear that the investigator’s fee will be paid before a report is delivered. If instructing an external investigator it is important to consider the exact nature of their role and ensure that is clearly communicated to anyone with an interest in the process.

  1. Privilege

In some circumstances, including where litigation is anticipated, an investigation report may be legally privileged. The scope of this privilege may be wider if lawyers, rather than other third parties, carry out the investigation. Legal privilege is particularly helpful where the organisation does not know what the investigation will reveal, enabling a confidential investigation into  the concerns in order to determine how best to deal with them. Without the benefit of legal privilege, some organisations might well be deterred from carrying out an investigation for fear of what they may find.

We know from our experience of carrying out, supporting, and advising on workplace investigations that these issues play a part in deciding whether to appoint an external investigator. And, whilst we are not privy to the thought process of those who instructed external investigators in the examples cited in this article, no doubt some of these considerations played a part in their decision.

If your business has an issue which requires further investigation, please contact michael.mcnally@pannonecorporate.com.

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