Here is the important disclaimer – this is not a guide and should most certainly not be regarded as an authoritative statement of the law. This post is about the dark and gritty side of leadership ad the importance of compassionate leadership.
As most school leaders will attest, experience is an unforgiving teacher. I was a few weeks into my Vice Principal role when I was told that I needed to investigate a serious staff grievance. Other than that, there were very few instructions or directions. The timer had started, staff relationships surrounding the grievance were fraught and the testimonies were decaying as I sought reassurance.
From my perspective, I had not read the school policies, nor my own Code of Conduct. My own induction was… and I could only presume staff had faired little better. There was an expectation I had the knowledge, experience and the skills to proceed. I did not. I had an expectation that there would be guidance or procedures to follow. I was wrong. Without question, I was acutely aware that I was about to take my first tentative steps towards employment legislation.
What did these situations and experiences teach me? Not all leadership is about being the leading light. There are important dark and gritty duties to be undertaken. Whilst these duties are unlikely to be the drivers for which we pursued leadership roles in the first place, these situations provide an opportunity for both courage and compassionate. Courage to make the tough decisions difficult situations demand and the compassion to support staff in the midst of an extremely destabilising process.
The dark side of leadership
Forewarned is forearmed.
Before taking up the senior leader post you have been striving for – read the staff contract thoroughly and your own contract. As a senior leader you will encounter disharmony (even though it may not be of your own doing) so read the discipline / grievance section, you will often have to ask for the associated Disciplinary or Employment Policy. Ask for it and read it. Thoroughly and meaningfully, read your Staff Code of Conduct. Read the policies directly associated with your role.
Acas provides information, advice, training, conciliation and other services for employers and employees to help prevent or resolve workplace problems.
Before starting an investigation, ensure an investigation is absolutely necessary and can not be resolved through informal processes or restorative conversations (even these informal processes and conversations can destabilising). In my experience, listening actively, conscientiously and courteously (without distractions) to individual parties involved is in itself a positive act for those directly concerned and those around the fringe. Preparing and sharing a considered response (time and place), another positive act when “take up time” is afforded (allowing colleagues to take that away from school and reflect.) Here’s hoping that these steps are indeed restorative and an investigation not required. However, to ensure that situations are dealt with fairly and consistently within an organisation, an investigation may be the best option.
What is an investigation?
An investigation is a fact-finding exercise to collect all the relevant information on a matter. A properly conducted investigation can enable an employer to fully consider the matter and then make an informed decision on it.
Making a decision without completing a reasonable investigation can make any subsequent decisions or actions unfair, and leave an employer vulnerable to legal action. – Acas
If an investigation is necessary – act promptly. Remember, an informal resolution of the matter should still be considered as an option at any stage of the process.
Acas present 6 steps in their “At a glance chart” p5, then offer a number of templates including the Investigation Plan and Investigation Report. Working in schools, I used this format a few times before combining them into a single form. The single form can then be part-returned to named parties, providing the plan, summary and reported details.
(Parts 1, 4 and 5 to staff directly involved)
|Introduction (Part 1)|
|Investigation authorised by: Most likely the Head teacher|
|Investigating Officer: Name and role (this is an important decision – do they have the knowledge, experience and the skills to support the process. Availability? Is this a serious or complex situation? In exceptional circumstances, it may be appropriate to appoint someone who is as detached from the matter, such as an external consultant.)|
|Reporting Officer: Name and role (the reporting officer, in most cases, should be senior to the investigating officer should this investigation warrant further action / formal hearing.)|
|Date investigation began and time frame:|
|Terms of reference:
What the precise purpose and scope of this review. Exactly – the investigator’s remit.
The extent to which the investigation takes precedence over the schools daily business needs eg to take teachers out for interview, protecting PPA time.
It is important to note and remind the oneself, that this process is aimed to support a resolution.
Who the report will be shared with.
What policies, standards, codes are related to this investigation.
Do policy contain inherent guidance or time frames?
|Background to the investigation:
Be clear and succinct – what exactly is being reviewed. Dates, times, places, named parties (not witnesses or observers for example).
|Process of the investigation (Part 2)|
|The investigation process:
Acas offer a very clear guide to the investigation process on p21.
An investigation should usually be kept confidential. Even if it becomes known that one is being conducted, the details of the investigation should be kept confidential wherever possible. Keeping the matter confidential can:
Transfer or suspension are options.
If investigation meetings are necessary, an investigator needs to plan how they will be recorded. Having a note-taker for the meeting can allow an investigator to focus on exactly what the interviewee says and consider what additional enquiries are necessary to establish the facts of the matter.
Note any refusal to answer a question or adjournments.
Is an employee entitled to be accompanied?
While there is no statutory right to be accompanied at an investigation meeting, an employee may still have a contractual right if not being accompanied would leave them unfairly disadvantaged.
In my school experience, most investigations have resulted from professional interactions or clashes, or as a result of weak professional standards.
Arrange and agree witness statements
|Evidence not collected:|
Identify who might need to be called to an investigation meeting.
If an employee is under investigation, they should be informed in writing of the allegations against them and that an investigation will be carried out. They should be notified of who to contact if they have any questions during the investigation. This is typically the investigator, their manager, or HR. Acas has developed a range of template letters that an investigator can use and adapt for their own needs.
Establish who can accompany employees at the meeting;
|Persons not interviewed:
Not all parties need to be called. Investigation are complicated. Keep them an simple as possible.
Throughout the investigation an investigator should also liaise with any line managers who are responsible for employees attending an investigation meeting.
|The investigation findings (Part 3)|
|Summary of written and physical evidence: While a written report is not always necessary, many investigations will benefit if its findings are recorded in writing. An investigator will need to decide whether, on the balance of probabilities, they could justifiably prefer one version of the matter over another and explain why.|
|Summary of evidence:|
|Facts established: The terms uncontested and contested are useful in this section.|
|Facts that could not be established: Sometimes referred to as “unsubstantiated claims.”|
|Other relevant information:|
|Conclusion (Part 4)|
Formal action, informal action or no further action.
|Further details on recommendation:|
Name and summarise each document contained, set out how the evidence supported or did not support your findings.
|Reporting Officer Comments (Part 5)|
| In reporting the information to the named parties – observations may support the resolution process.
Further professional support may be required.
Retain the report for an appropriate period of time.
Ensure any recommendations unrelated to the matter are considered.
|Date documents shared to named parties:|