As a solicitor I get to see the whole panoply of good and best practice, but I also get to see the actions HR shouldn’t be proud of too. Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly angry at the way organisations see fit to treat other human beings and worry that we are losing our basic humanity sometimes and forgetting to remember, jaded as we become by all that we deal with, that we are dealing with people’s lives.
The sad case of Carl Sargeant’s death has brought this into stark relief with his family criticising the Welsh Labour Party for a failure to observe the principles of natural justice, and to give him sufficient information about the investigation he was facing. Whilst I’m aware that we don’t get the full story from headlines and soundbites, I’m concerned that is just an illustration of what I see time and again and that somehow, we think it’s acceptable to not give someone details of what they are accused of when we drop the bombshell that they are under investigation.
When I train managers on how to suspend people we always talk about putting ourselves in the shoes of the person who is being suspended to think about the things you would want to know. Top of that list will naturally be questions like “why am I being suspended?” and “how long will the process take”. Often delegates will talk about how it would be a good idea to have an initial discussion about the subject of the investigation: not only is this best practice because it enables the individual concerned to understand why they are being suspended but it also enables you to get an immediate reaction from those involved before they have the time to develop and embellish their evidence.
Whilst it’s tempting for a manager not relishing the prospect of suspending someone to ‘just get it over with’ taking some time and listening could be invaluable. They might just get an admission of guilt if they discuss the issue with the accused person which will then mean the investigation can be more straightforward than when someone denies misconduct. The simple act of empathy and thinking ‘how would I feel?’ will ensure better letters without the need for advice from someone like me.
However, I see many cases where these basics are lacking. An example might be a teacher suspended for ‘safeguarding issues’ without being informed what those issues might be, the finance person suspended for ‘financial irregularities’ who some 26 weeks after being suspended had not yet been interviewed, or the person suspended for ‘racial harassment’ without being told what the act they were supposed to have committed was. It shouldn’t be any surprise that such individuals can make themselves very unwell worrying about what they were facing even where they knew hand on heart that they hadn’t done anything wrong. Just imagine being accused of something you have no means of understanding let alone defending?
In such cases the employment relationship is broken at the point of suspension and if the employee is strong enough to pursue the employer they may well win their constructive unfair dismissal case.
Next time you are involved in suspending someone remember statements like ‘this is just a precaution’ and ‘no decision will be made until an investigation has taken place’ are relatively meaningless to non-HR experts. They will feel that they have been tainted by any accusations and are on the back foot. Exclusion from the workplace will make them feel everyone is talking about them and they will feel threatened by reminders that they must keep things confidential. For that reason, it is incumbent on us to make sure the investigation is dealt with promptly and as soon as practicable: are we prioritising these things? Let’s not be like the employer of a friend whose been waiting over 6 months to be interviewed. This is their life, it matters.