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Never make assumptions about colleagues

Investigation 18th September 2018

We trust ourselves to be fair-minded. We’re not ones to leap to conclusions. But whenever it comes to other people, our prejudices – and a pretty basic lack of knowledge – are what tend to rule. It’s just like when anything goes wrong at work: if it involves us we immediately think in terms of mitigating circumstances; when it’s someone else we assume they’re probably just the kind of person who makes mistakes.

A recent employment tribunal has shown how problematic this can be. A primary school teacher who was openly gay had been given a written warning back in 2002, accused of ‘inappropriate and unprofessional’ contact with a pupil. An agreement had been made that the teacher wouldn’t be left alone with a pupil unless it was in a public area. Years later, in 2015, the headteacher came across the teacher alone with a male pupil, offering them a packet of Rolos.

An investigation was carried out by the school into allegations that he’d breached the agreement and was involved in a further inappropriate situation. There were a string of disciplinary hearings over months, during which time the accused teacher was suspended. Critically, the investigation decided that his “actions could be considered to constitute the early stages of grooming”.

The tribunal found that although the teacher had occasionally made misjudgements, the school’s response had been out of proportion with the events themselves. There had been an underlying assumption that because the teacher was gay he was also likely to be a paedophile – an unfounded conclusion, and one that wouldn’t have been made so quickly if the teacher had been heterosexual. The school had seemed to make up its mind in spite of the facts, and even allowed the headteacher to play a major part in the investigation team.

When a situation at work is serious enough to require a formal investigation, it’s critical that the employer can prove they’ve taken a professional approach:

  • a system in place that conforms with legislation and best practice, and the capability – either through trained staff internally or external support – to carry out watertight investigations, that aren’t going to lead to further challenges and disputes;
  • they’ve not used inexperienced managers who already feel they know and understand the people involved. They will often judge people and not the evidence. Managers think they know how to spot a “wrong ‘un”. They may not have a full awareness of the skills necessary for an investigation and the time commitment required;
  • the investigator hasn’t fallen for ‘conclusive’ early evidence. There’s a common problem with investigators who become convinced by the evidence first interview they carry out – they stop looking for more information, they know the truth already and unconsciously begin to filter information which backs up their ideas;
  • in-house investigators haven’t looked for a more comfortable judgement that would upset the least number of people in the organisation (in the example given here, that meant agreeing with the headteacher). Investigators have to tell it like it is, in order to be fair, and to ensure there’s a genuine outcome. If someone has raised a complaint maliciously, for example, then this needs to be made clear, not glossed over.

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