What Employers Can Learn from The Post Office Scandal

Home ADVICE & GUIDANCE What Employers Can Learn from The Post Office Scandal
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The Post Office scandal has faced fresh scrutiny and condemnation in recent weeks owing in part to the ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’, where the human impact of the scandal was laid bare and beamed into our living rooms.

Of course, the matter is still subject to ongoing investigations and legal proceedings. Still, aside from a flawed Post Office computer system, much is emerging about how the sub-postmasters were treated during their ordeals and flawed investigations that took place.

In this article, we take a look at some of these criticisms and examine what lessons can be learned.

The Background

Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted for theft. The Post Office computer, the Fujitsu Horizon system, was falsely reporting financial shortfalls across the Post Office network. Despite numerous complaints from sub-postmasters that they had not stolen the money, the discrepancies were due to a fault with the Fujitsu Horizon system. Some 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted. Many faced jail and financial ruin, but the human cost to the scandal was the impact on the lives of the sub-postmasters and their families, from children being bullied at school to addiction problems and, in some cases, the loss of life, was devastating.

Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennell was forced to resign and has subsequently handed back her CBE following a massive public backlash. Politicians are scrutinised, convictions are being squashed, and compensation is due. Still, some of the focus has centred on the way in which the investigation into the financial discrepancies was handled initially by the Post Office investigators, with some of their behaviour being branded as akin to that of ‘mafia gangsters’ during the ongoing inquiry.

Following on from our article last week on grievance disciplinary and short service dismissals, we’ve compiled our top 10 tips to avoid some of the common problems associated with disciplinary investigations:

1. The Role of The Investigator and The Purpose of The Investigation

The most common mistake the investigating officer makes is to misunderstand their role.

The investigation is part of the evidence-gathering stage. It is the role of the disciplinary chairperson to examine why someone is alleged to have committed the allegation/s they are accused of. The person conducting the investigation is there to establish the basic facts, i.e., the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ & ‘where’.

2. Keep An Open Mind and Focus on The Bigger Picture

The investigating officer must be fair and transparent about what they are investigating.

The investigating officer is there to establish all evidence for and against the allegations to determine if there is a case to answer at a formal disciplinary hearing. The onus should not be on building a case against the employee. If it is, then the person investigating is approaching the investigation from a position of bias, and chances are the findings of that investigation will be flawed.

3. Is The Investigating Officer the Appropriate Person for The Task?

Sometimes, especially with gross misconduct allegations, feelings run high, which is understandable, but the job of the investigator is to be as impartial as possible. If old grievances or personal feelings affect your judgement, pass the baton to someone else.

4. Is The Investigating Officer A Witness?

A huge ‘no no’.

Witnesses to the allegations under investigation cannot impartially investigate because there is a clear conflict of interest.

Similarly, if the employee under investigation has raised a grievance against the person investigating them recently, the fact there is an ongoing dispute involving both parties will again leave the investigator open to allegations of bias, so it is better if they step away.

5. Timescales

Investigations need to be carried out in a timely manner. The investigating officer will not only be required to interview the employee facing the allegations but also any potential witnesses. Memories fade over time. The sooner this process can commence, the better and the more reliable the evidence will be.

Likewise, if the employee under investigation is on suspension, they are on full pay, so it’s important that whoever is assigned the investigation task has the time to dedicate to the task to prevent someone from suspension for any longer than necessary.

6. Gather ALL Material Evidence

Any evidence that may shed light on the allegations should be sought in a timely manner. Such evidence can include (in addition to witness statements):

  • CCTV
  • Emails
  • Minutes from meetings
  • Receipts/financial records
  • Rules, procedures and training records

Remember, the employee under investigation is also a witness. If they highlight any lines of inquiry relevant to their case (such as bugs or flaws in computer software), they should be listened to and followed up.

7. A Good Paper Trail Can Be the Difference Between a Won and Lost Employment Tribunal!

The importance of comprehensively documenting everything at the investigation stage cannot be underestimated.

The investigation stage is informal, but all meetings with witnesses and the employee under investigation must be documented.

Minutes of meetings should contain all questions that have been asked and all the responses given; they don’t have to be verbatim, but summaries and heavy paraphrasing should be avoided. Likewise, opinions and commentary can be freely communicated to your HR adviser but should not be included in meeting minutes.

8. Signatures and Dates

So much evidence, such as witness statements and meeting minutes, is not signed and dated; ensure you get a signature, and the dates are also included on any investigation documents.

Email statements are acceptable, but make sure that the date and time are visible; print them off and get a signature just to be doubly sure.

9. The Dos and Don’ts of Gathering Witness Evidence

  • DO explain the purpose of the meeting; make it clear that it is a confidential discussion and must not be discussed outside the meeting
  • DO focus on material facts such as dates, times, where, what, etc.
  • DON’T seek personal opinions or indulge in hearsay
  • DON’T ask leading questions or put words into the mouths of the witnesses; let them tell you what they heard or saw in their own words
  • DO ensure that their interview or statement is signed and dated

Sometimes, a witness interview is more appropriate than a witness statement, and sometimes, it may be relevant to obtain both.

For more information on gathering witness evidence, please see our ultimate guide here.

10. Listen and Be Professional

Don’t shut the employee down. You are there to listen.

We often see an employee under investigation raising counter allegations, alleging bullying, or presenting personal or health problems as mitigation, only to be told ‘that’s irrelevant’.

Remember, you are investigating during disciplinary investigations, which means looking at evidence and any mitigation. You don’t have to sit there for three hours whilst the investigation meeting turns into a grievance hearing, but don’t assume the explanations or mitigation being raised is irrelevant.

Also, don’t make the same mistake made by the Post Office investigators- keep it professional. Ask a question more than once if you must, but don’t badger or bully the employee with your questioning in the hopes of hearing what you want to hear.

Further reading – For more advice on disciplinary investigations with police involvement, please see our previous article here.

And finally,

If you require on-site assistance with any aspect of the processes surrounding disciplinary and grievances, don’t forget Avensure Plus, which offers on-site, in-person, or remote HR support. Click here to Download Our Brochure. For more information on how we can help you and your business with our On-site services, email our team today at Plus@avensure.com. 

As always, this article is a guide and not a substitute for taking advice; please contact Avensure for specific advice for your business. Click here: Avensure Contact!