Workplace investigations are a critical component of maintaining a safe, respectful, and productive work environment. People often initiate them in response to allegations of misconduct, policy breaches, or other serious concerns. The outcomes of these investigations can significantly impact the individuals involved and the broader workplace culture.
Our author explores the potential outcomes of conducting a workplace investigation. Those include disciplinary action, reinstatement and compensation, and the impacts on the workplace.
We’ll also discuss the importance of conducting these investigations with fairness, thoroughness, and compliance with Australian law. Understanding these potential outcomes can help you navigate the complex landscape of conducting workplace investigations.
The workplace investigation results in no action
This happens when the investigation finds that the accusations are either baseless or don’t have enough evidence to support them.
Those who find allegations to be baseless or not supported by any factual evidence may consider them unfounded. This might be because the alleged incident did not occur as claimed, or the employee was not involved.
Evidence may be insufficient. For instance, the alleged incident might have occurred but there is not enough credible evidence to prove it. This could be due to a lack of witnesses, conflicting testimonies, or absence of physical or documentary evidence.
In both these scenarios, the employer may decide to take no action against the accused party. For example, where it would be unfair to penalise someone based on unproven allegations. However, this does not preclude the employer from taking other actions. These other actions may include providing additional training or updating workplace policies.
Disciplinary action as an outcome of workplace investigations
If the allegations are substantiated, disciplinary action may be taken. Disciplinary action aims to fix the behaviour, keep the workplace safe, and discourage other employees from doing the same.
Examples of disciplinary action
Verbal or written warning
This is frequently the initial move when dealing with minor wrongdoing. The employee receives a formal warning regarding their actions and the repercussions of repeating them.
Suspension of the employee
The employer may temporarily remove the worker from the job while conducting an investigation. This is an appropriate step when there are allegations of sexual harassment.
Demotion to a lower role
The company may demote employees who engage in substantial wrongdoing that doesn’t qualify for termination to a lesser position or rank.
Termination of employment
The employer may terminate the employment agreement of the employee in circumstances of serious misconduct. When other forms of punishment don’t work or the conduct is serious, firing the person is usually the last choice.
The company may also end the employment of employees who have lodged a malicious workplace complaint. Some employers engage an employment law firm before taking this step.
How employers can influence the dynamics of the workplace
Disciplinary actions and policy changes following a workplace investigation can significantly influence the future dynamics of the workplace in several ways:
Disciplinary actions set a precedent consequence for violating workplace policies which deter employees from engaging in similar misconduct. This will promote a more respectful, safe and professional work environment.
Required training or counselling can fix bad behaviour and teach employees how to handle similar situations better in the future.
The way leaders carry out disciplinary actions and policy changes can impact employee happiness and satisfaction. This, in turn, can affect their productivity and job retention.
Policy changes that result from a workplace investigation
In the conduct of workplace investigation, it might become apparent that certain policies or procedures are unclear, outdated, or ineffective. For example, an investigation into a safety incident might reveal that the company’s safety protocols are not comprehensive enough. An inquiry into harassment claims may reveal that the company’s policy against harassment is unclear or not well communicated to staff.
In such cases, the organization may decide to revise its policies or procedures to address these gaps or issues. This could involve clarifying ambiguous policies, incorporating new legal requirements, and improving communication and training on policies. It may also involve implementing new procedures to better handle similar incidents in the future.
The goal of policy changes is to prevent similar incidents from occurring again. This can be achieved by adhering to workplace rules and laws more effectively. Additionally, these changes aim to create a safer, more respectful, and more efficient work environment.
Policy changes can improve the workplace
Changes to workplace policies can positively impact the workplace and company culture.
- improved compliance with workplace regulations and laws which reduces the risk of legal issues
- enhanced understanding which leads to improved performance, better decision-making, and fewer conflicts
- increased trust in the employer through a clear workplace investigation process
- demonstrated commitment to health and safety
Clear policy changes can increase employee engagement. Involving employees in the process and ensuring they understand the reasons and benefits achieves this.
Training or counselling for staff
Training or counselling may be required where there is a need for further education or support.
This could be necessary if the investigation uncovers a lack of understanding or knowledge about certain workplace policies or procedures. An inquiry into sexual harassment claims may find that employees don’t know the company’s anti-harassment policy well enough. Therefore, it might be necessary to conduct additional training to ensure everyone understands what constitutes harassment and how to prevent it.
If the investigation reveals personal issues that contributed to the situation, the counsellor might recommend counselling. Employers may provide individual counselling for those involved. If the investigation uncovers larger issues in the workplace, the whole team may receive group counselling.
The aim of this training is to solve current problems found in the investigation and avoid similar incidents in the future. Training improves workplace culture and ensures a safe and respectful environment for all employees.
Mediation or conflict resolution
Mediation or conflict resolution is also a potential outcome of a workplace investigation. This may involve a process where a neutral third party helps the parties involved in a conflict to communicate. It can also help people understand each other’s perspectives, and negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution.
The mediator does not impose a solution but facilitates a conversation to help the parties find their own resolution. This process can resolve confusion, enhance communication, repair relationships, and create a better work environment.
In some cases, the mediator might be an internal person trained in conflict resolution, such as a human resources manager. In other cases, especially when the issues are complex or sensitive, individuals may engage an expert mediator.
Mediation aims to resolve current issues and teach conflict resolution skills to prevent future conflicts.
An investigation into workplace conduct may result in legal action
Legal action may arise when a workplace investigation uncovers severe wrongdoing or illegal activity.
Unlawful behaviour could include actions such as theft, fraud, assault, serious safety violations, or other criminal activities. In such cases, the employer has a legal obligation to report the matter to the appropriate authorities in Australia.
Most workplace investigations resolve matters internally within the organisation. However, all employers have a duty to uphold the law and ensure a safe and lawful working environment.
Reinstatement or compensation
“Reinstatement or Compensation” is another possible outcome of a workplace investigation. It may come about if an employee makes an unfair dismissal claim. This is a common outcome where employees believe the workplace investigation was unfair.
The Fair Work Commission may award reinstatement of compensation if an employee has been unfairly terminated.
Here are some key takeaways from Farrah’s article:
- remember that the purpose of a workplace investigation is to determine the truthfulness of allegations
- during this process, individuals and employers often engage an employment lawyer
- workplace investigations can uncover underlying issues within the workplace
- a poorly conducted investigation can result in legal liability
Employers can effectively address issues in the workplace by conducting fair, transparent, and thorough investigations.
Farrah Motley, Director
I am the Director of Prosper Law. I founded our online law firm in 2021. I wanted to create a better way of doing legal work and a better experience for customers of legal services. You can find me on the Queensland Law Society register of solicitors.
I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Law and Accounting. I was admitted to the Supreme Court of Queensland in 2014.