Investigations: getting the balance right

We are reminded by a recent decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) that the purpose of an investigation should be limited to an investigation of the facts. It is important not to cross the line and move into decision-making territory. An issue that arises is whether recommendations about disciplinary action being taken can reasonably form part of the investigation. In addition, what information can be excluded?

In Dronsfield v. The University of Reading the claimant was a professor who was dismissed for gross misconduct after he had admitted to having a sexual relationship with one of his students. We wrote about this case as a result of it making the headlines in 2016 (re-read here). The claim has in fact been heard by both the Employment Tribunal (ET) and EAT twice.

According to the University’s governance rules, the professor could only be dismissed for conduct of an “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment”. The head of Dronsfield’s department, Professor Green, was appointed, along with an HR colleague, to jointly carry out an investigation to ascertain whether any such conduct had been established.  

Professor Green and his HR colleague drafted an investigation report and submitted it to the university’s in-house lawyer for review. Following the solicitor’s advice, Green omitted certain parts of the report that would have been favourable to Dronsfield’s case. These included Professor Green’s opinions that there was no evidence that Dronsfield’s conduct had been immoral, scandalous or disgraceful, or that it was an abuse of power or breach of duty.

The investigation recommended that disciplinary action should be taken.  Dronsfield was ultimately dismissed and appealed the dismissal, which was rejected. He then brought a claim for unfair dismissal on the grounds that the amendment of investigation report rendered his dismissal procedurally unfair. However, the ET found that the dismissal had been fair. Although the investigation report had been amended, the ET held that it fairly set out the investigators’ position and the amendments did not mean that it represented a false or incomplete position. The EAT also found that he had been fairly dismissed and, on appeal, the case was remitted to a fresh tribunal.

The fresh tribunal found that the dismissal had been fair as it was fair and reasonable for the investigators to rely on the advice of their solicitors and to omit any “evaluative opinion” in the report. The tribunal found that the report set out the investigators’ position fairly and the amendments did not render it false or incomplete. They found that such opinions should be left to the disciplinary panel and not be contained in the investigation report.

Although the university was ultimately successful in defending the claim against it, this case acts a reminder of the extent of conclusions that should be set out in an investigator’s report and what the investigator’s role is. The investigator should be limited to deciding whether or not there is a case to answer.  The case also referred to now fairly well settled law that HR’s advice in relation to disciplinary matters should be restricted to matters of law and procedure, rather than questions of answerability, which should be reserved for the investigating officer.

Investigators should be trained to ensure that they act within the scope of their role and need to understand what is being required of them. Disciplinary allegations should be narrowly drafted and the procedure to be followed when investigating matters needs to be clear.

To discuss training of investigation managers or a policy review, please get in touch with your usual Dentons contact.

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Claire McKee

About Claire McKee

Claire is an associate in the People, Reward and Mobility practice. Whilst advising employers and employees on a wide range of employment issues, Claire focuses on advising clients on contentious employment, discrimination and equal pay matters. She appears before the Employment Tribunal in Scotland and England on a regular basis.

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