From investigating allegations of misconduct at work to investigating allegations of workplace bullying and harassment, witness statements in the workplace are often a vitally important step in that crucial investigation stage.
Obtaining a workplace witness statement may seem straightforward enough on the surface, but the difference between a good witness statement and a bad one often comes down to how they’re obtained.
In this article, we look at the essentials of a good employee witness statement, from what they should include to who has the right to see them, as well as answering some frequently asked questions along the way.
The 7 key essentials of a good employee witness statement:
It sounds obvious, but we often receive witness statements in the workplace where the author of the statement is not clearly identifiable. You know who the statement is from, but Avensure doesn’t, and neither will an Employment Tribunal.
The employee witness statement should start with the full name of the person, their job title, and any other relevant personal information. For example, if the person they are making a statement about is someone they report to or who reports to them, make this clear.
It is also helpful to know a little about that person’s role and how long they have worked for the company.
A good witness statement at work must contain a clear, factual account of what has been witnessed.
If the individual was present during an incident of misconduct at work or a series of incidents, they should set out the specifics, such as dates, times, locations, who was present (this enables other potential witnesses to be identified), where they stood or sat, and what exactly they saw or heard.
Witnesses at disciplinary hearings should not speculate or offer opinions. For example, they should not claim to be direct witnesses to something they have heard on the grapevine: ‘I didn’t see anything, but Paula told me that she saw… Statements such as ‘I think they should be sacked!’ are also best kept out of a witness statement, as this is an opinion.
However, in the case of misconduct at work, such as harassment allegations, it is acceptable for someone to provide a workplace witness statement of second-hand information if they have been confided in. Likewise, if an event or incident has been reported to someone in a managerial position, they can provide a statement to that effect.
It is acceptable, however, for witnesses at disciplinary hearings to state how events made them feel. For example, someone who is providing a statement alleging they have been the victim of harassment or who has been a witness to a violent altercation’s feelings and the impact of what they have witnessed is relevant.
As stated above, a witness statement at work must not indulge in hearsay, but it should also stick to the facts of the case.
If a witness wishes to introduce additional information, this must be relevant. For example, it is not appropriate to include in your statement how a similar matter was dealt with at a previous place of work.
Additional information may be relevant if, for example, the witness has seen or heard previous allegations of the same or similar nature as those under investigation. The person taking the employee witness statement should ask the witness to clarify how any additional information directly impacts the specific matter under investigation.
A witness and the person collating the workplace witness statement have a duty to be impartial.
Witnesses can be guided as to what they should and shouldn’t include, for example, by instructing them to stick to the facts, avoid hearsay, and so on, but witnesses should not be led, nor should words be put in their mouths. Their statement should be in their own words.
Witnesses must also be instructed not to discuss their witness statement at work with anyone else, nor should they collude with anyone else when putting their statement together.
5) Painting a Full Picture
Remember, you are building a full picture of what has happened; this includes obtaining evidence both for and against whatever allegations of misconduct at work you are investigating, and you cannot do that if you are selective about whom you approach for a statement.
It is, therefore, important to ensure that all relevant witnesses are asked to produce an employee witness statement. For example, when investigating an allegation of misconduct at work, such as an altercation between two staff members, everyone who was present should be asked for a statement. This includes those who may have been present but didn’t hear or see anything directly.
It’s important that, whatever is being investigated, any witnesses are identified and spoken to as soon as possible.
The longer the gap between the incident and when witnesses are spoken to, the greater the potential for memories to fade. It also increases the likelihood of witness evidence within any witness statements in the workplace being hampered by the rumour mill.
It’s vital that a witness statement at work or interview be signed and dated. It is also advisable to ask witnesses to add to their statement that their account is true and accurate to the best of their knowledge.
What if Witnesses Do Not Wish to Come Forward?
Witnesses cannot be ‘forced’ into coming forward, nor should they be put under any duress.
There may be circumstances where employees are duty-bound to cooperate with investigations and give disciplinary hearing witness statements, for example, in a care or childcare setting where there has been an alleged breach of care standards or safeguarding.
Can Witness Statements Be Kept Anonymous?
An employee accused of misconduct at work does have the right to know who has provided evidence against them ahead of any formal disciplinary proceedings because this is key to their defence and ensures they have a fair hearing.
Witnesses should be informed that their testimony may be used if formal action is taken.
Where witnesses are concerned about coming forward because they fear reprisals—this may be especially relevant where there has been an allegation of violent conduct, threatening behaviour, or harassment—their witness workplace witness statement can be kept anonymous temporarily until the investigation is concluded.
The witness should also be assured that if they are subject to any form of intimidation or harassment, they should notify you immediately.
Is It Better to Interview Witnesses Rather Than Ask for a Statement?
Either (or both) is acceptable, but it is recommended that whatever approach you take, it be consistently applied to all witnesses.
Don’t assume that witnesses know how to provide witness statements in the workplace; chances are it will be the first time they have had to do so, and it can be quite daunting.
The benefits of witnesses being interviewed by the person investigating the allegations are that they can ensure the witness knows what information they are being asked to provide, and you have a better chance of safeguarding against speculation and hearsay, resulting in a better-quality statement.
Dos and Don’ts of Interviewing Witnesses:
- DO explain the purpose of the meeting with the witness, and make it clear that it is a confidential discussion that must not be discussed outside the meeting.
- DO focus their attention on the material facts such as dates, times, locations, etc.
- DO ensure that the witness knows they may be held to account if they deliberately provide information in disciplinary hearing witness statements that they know to be false or misleading in any way.
- DO NOT seek personal opinions or indulge in hearsay.
- DO NOT ask leading questions or put words into the mouths of the witness; let them tell you what they heard or saw in their own words.
A good workplace witness statement versus a bad one can really make the difference in the handling of a case; it may also be the difference between a won and lost employment tribunal.
Avensure will be able to advise you on how to obtain a witness statement at work to help you avoid the common pitfalls. For support, please contact our employment team. Simply click here: Avensure Contact!