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What the Post Office IT scandal can teach us about conducting workplace investigations


Helen Russell from Harrison Drury’s employment and HR team reflects on the Post Office IT scandal and what learnings can be drawn for how investigations into alleged workplace wrongdoing should be handled.

The Post Office / Fujitsu / Horizon IT scandal, which saw hundreds of post office managers wrongly proesecuted for fraud, has not left the headlines in recent days, and with good reason.

Those of us who undertake workplace investigations have found ourselves wondering how, despite the safeguards which are supposed to facilitate fair hearings and prevent miscarriages of justice, this happened for so long, and to so many people.

It is clear that not just one of the checks and balances failed in spectacular fashion, they all did.

A systemic failure

The published details seem to suggest that the allegations were being produced on an industrial scale. They appear to have been a juggernaut, steaming with a frightening inevitability that the conclusion would be “guilty” in all of them, and riding a coach and horses through the principles of a fair hearing and an objective investigation in the process.

The Collins Dictionary has the following definitions:

“System” – A system is a way of working, organising or doing something which follows a fixed plan or set of rules.

“Failure” – Failure is a lack of success.

“Systemic failure” is defined by Science Direct as “…a reproducible type of failure of the system.  Mostly this occurs due to error in design, operation, the production process, installation, and / or maintenance…”

It is clear that what happened here was repeated systemic failure across a number of organisations on a staggering scale.

The lessons for conducting workplace investigations

How then can investigators, who are often operating in a system of one sort or another, play their part in safeguarding the integrity of their investigations, and ensuring that their findings are fair and will stand scrutiny?

  • Be respectful to those you are interviewing; remember that people are innocent until proven guilty.
  • When you are making decisions about what to investigate, or not, ask yourself “If I was asked why I didn’t follow this up, would I have an answer I’d be happy to give in a court room?”
  • Be curious.  Ask “Why?” (or What?, When?, How?, Where? and Who?) until you are happy you have got to the root of it.
  • If you are not an expert, or have been given evidence you don’t understand, speak to someone who can help you to ensure you have properly grasped the concept, and that you can apply it in context.
  • Don’t assume that the evidence will be handed to you; gathering it all together to inform your decisions is YOUR job.
  • Have an open mind and listen to both sides, giving each equal credence.
  • Remember that in a work context peoples’ livelihoods and careers can be at risk; how would you want the issue dealt with if you were the one responding to allegations?
  • Challenge, and be aware of organisational blinkers and group think. Management will almost always want an issue resolved as quickly as possible, and it may be more convenient if the issue went away, but if there are issues it is in everyone’s best interests if they are identified and resolved as soon as possible.
  • No-matter the scenario, have in mind that at some point you may need to account for your decisions and actions so make sure that you are happy with them; it could be you in the witness box.

We may all be “small cogs” in an organisation, but we all have a part to play. As investigators we should be happy to be accountable for our actions and decisions because they matter. I am minded of the E Burke quote (though I paraphrase): “all it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing”.

I don’t think any of us wants to look back and be the person who stood on the side-lines, nodding it all through as someone else’s responsibility; I should imagine defending that in the witness box would be very uncomfortable indeed.

Helen Russell is an HR Consultant with over 20 years of experienced in advising SMEs on HR matters, including workplace investigations. To speak with Helen about a HR or employment issue, call 01772 258321.

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