How to conduct a workplace investigation

How to conduct a workplace investigation

For principals, making sure that an incident at their school is properly investigated underpins not only their legal responsibilities but the ability to avoid a potential scandal.

However, recent findings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse show that the quality of workplace investigations within schools needs improving.

The inquiry found that historically, investigations conducted by some schools were incompetent and not carried out by a qualified person or children were interviewed inappropriately.

Paul O'Halloran, partner at Colin Biggers & Paisley, said flawed workplace investigations now present “a significant legal liability” for schools, and when child safety risks are being investigated, can compromise the welfare of children.

One problem, said O’Halloran, was that there was often confusion about the standard of proof required to substantiate allegations and the threshold for reporting suspected abuse.

“In some cases, this led to offenders continuing to work with children,” O'Halloran told The Educator.

“From a contemporary perspective, countless decisions are being handed down by the Courts in which employers are being held liable for flawed workplace investigations.”

O'Halloran said one common mistake made by schools includes assumptions being made about evidence that are not based on the facts – for example, findings that are not supported by witness evidence.

“Another common mistake that schools make is having the investigator or decision maker is involved in the allegations, which can create bias,” he said.

“Schools must also ensure that the scope of their investigation is not narrow, as getting to the bottom of an allegation requires speaking to all of the people involved and looking at the situation from various perspectives.” 

Below, O’Halloran listed other things that schools should avoid doing when conducting an investigation.

  • Unjustifiable delays in investigating complaints;
  • reliance on hearsay instead of direct evidence;
  • applying the wrong standard of proof;
  • failure to interview key witnesses;
  • failure to explore or consider counter allegations.
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