What happens if you are under investigation at work?
Published 28 November 2022
Being informed you are under investigation at work can cause alarm, distress and fear, but knowing exactly what to expect can best prepare you to deal with the situation.
Any employee at any time can be the subject of a disciplinary investigation.
Unfounded or unjustified disciplinary allegations can be made against you, or you could face investigation for making an honest mistake at work.
A disciplinary investigation is where your employer will look at any allegation levelled against you, in order to establish the facts surrounding an incident or allegation [1 cited 28.11.22]
As part of a thorough and fair disciplinary process an investigation will usually take place, prior to a decision being made to initiate formal disciplinary action.
Being informed you are under investigation can, understandably, lead you to fear the worse.
The idea that you have done something wrong and may be dismissed for it, when it is human nature to focus on worse case scenario, can trigger a range of negative emotions.
It is why being aware of what is involved and knowing how a fair investigation process should be conducted is vital in helping you to cope with it.
One of the first things you should do, if you are ever informed you are under investigation, is check your employer’s disciplinary policy.
It should detail exactly what the process involves, how it will be conducted and it may specify a timeframe within which an investigation should be completed.
The length of time a disciplinary investigation will take can vary. It can range from a few days to several months in complex cases.
Your employer’s disciplinary policy should reflect the guidance in the ACAS Code of Practice [2 cited 28.11.22]
The Code sets the minimum standard of fairness that workplaces should follow when conducting an investigation and the disciplinary process.
It does advise that the process should be conducted without ‘unreasonable’ delay.
What exactly is considered reasonable time for a disciplinary investigation is not made expressly clear.
However, there is a general expectation, the investigation will be conducted promptly and not delayed beyond what is necessary.
Most employers will be aware of the need to expedite the process and of the risks associated with taking too long to carry out an investigation.
A protracted fact-finding process can later lead to an employment tribunal ruling the procedure was unfair.
The tribunal can find that a prolonged investigation is in breach of the trust and confidence that an employer owes to all of its employees [3 cited 28.11.22]
So what should you expect as part of a fair disciplinary investigation?
Being informed of an allegation
Your employer should not delay informing you if an allegation of misconduct has been made against you.
There should be a discussion with you about the allegation in which it is explained what the allegation is, and what will happen next.
You will understandably want to know all of the details, who has said what and what evidence there is against you.
While there is nothing stopping you from asking for all of this information, your employer will not usually provide it at this stage.
The news may come as a shock to you. Your employer should explain what will happen next, provide any reasonable clarification you ask for and make you aware of any support that is available to you.
After being informed of an allegation
Depending on the nature and seriousness of an allegation there are a number of different approaches your employer may take.
Where an allegation is considered serious you can be suspended from work.
It means you will not be allowed to attend work or carry out your duties. You will usually be advised not to contact colleagues or clients.
You should only be suspended if there is no other alternative.
ACAS published new guidance in September on staff suspensions at work. [4 cited 28.11.22] It means that before taking a decision to suspend you, your employer is advised to consider the following alternatives:
- Change shifts
- Work in a different part of the organisation
- Work from home
- Work from a different office or site
- Stop doing part of their job – for example stop handling stock if you're investigating stock going missing
- Work with different customers or away from customers – for example if you're investigating a serious complaint from a customer
- Stop using a specific system or tool – for example removing access to the organisation's finance system if you're investigating a large amount of missing money
What happens during the investigation?
An appropriate individual will be chosen to carry out the investigation. It could be a manager, director, company HR advisor or external HR advisor.
The person conducting the investigation should not have any involvement in the matter under investigation. This may not always be possible if you work for a small organisation, and ACAS advise it should be done ‘where practicable.’
It is highly likely that you will be invited to an investigation meeting, also known as a fact-finding meeting.
You do not have a right to be accompanied at such a meeting. If the matter does, however, progress to a formal disciplinary hearing you have a statutory right to be accompanied at that meeting [5 cited 28.11.22]
Some employers will allow you to be accompanied at a disciplinary investigation meeting, so check the policy beforehand or ask.
An investigation meeting can be unnerving and unsettling. You will not be provided with all of the information that your employer has to support any allegation made against you, and you will be asked probing questions.
It is important to remain as calm as possible, ask for and take as many breaks as you need in order to help you deal with your emotions and the situation.
An investigation can feel like a fishing exercise, in that your employer is looking for something to use against you.
So, listen to questions carefully, answer the question that is asked with relevant information in a clear and concise manner. Do not volunteer information that does not help to answer the question asked.
If there are any witnesses or information, which you feel can help to prove your innocence provide details at the meeting.
It is also worth noting that even if you were not suspended prior to the investigation meeting, in some instances you may be suspended following it.
The investigation outcome
The outcome of every investigation will not lead to formal disciplinary action being taken against you.
You should be informed of the investigation outcome and what will happen next. There are a few different outcomes.
First, it may be found there is no case for you to answer. Your employer should write to you to explain this.
Secondly, in some cases it may be found that you have committed a minor act of misconduct. In such circumstances your employer may opt to take an informal approach to deal with the matter.
If this is the case your employer should explain to you what the concern is, provide the evidence that supports it and agree with you the action that will be taken. A note of an informal resolution to a case is likely to be kept on file.
Finally, if an investigation establishes there is a case to answer you will be invited to attend a formal disciplinary hearing [6 cited 28.11.22].
Prior to a disciplinary hearing you should be provided with all of the evidence to support any allegation. At the meeting you must be given a reasonable opportunity to state your case.