Workplace investigations allow employers to review complaints or concerns of wrongdoing, misconduct or ethical issues.
Depending on the nature and seriousness of the issue, the investigation may take different forms. Often, they can be completed internally by human resources, but in some cases, it may be more appropriate to have the investigation completed independently. Either way, the point of the investigation is usually to determine the credibility and extent of the issue, and provide recommendations for the employer. These recommendations may be anything from disciplining specific employees, to providing specific training to all employees. Either way, investigations are intended serve as a guide for employers, to assist in fixing current issues and to preventing future ones from arising.
This week, the Supreme Court of British Columbia issued the decision of Golob v. Fort St. John (City), 2021 BCSC 2192 that raised some question of the value of workplace investigations.
In this case, the Deputy Fire Chief was terminated following an investigation into complaints about his attitude, specifically as it related to his undermining of the authority of the Fire Chief. An internal investigation was conducted, but found to have been completed in a way that was biased towards achieving the result of the Deputy Fire Chief’s termination.
Ultimately, the Court upheld the termination as being for cause-based for insolence. The Court was clear that the investigation was poorly done and did not factor into the Court’s decision to terminate. Rather, the cumulative impact of the findings of insolence both at the time of the termination and acquired after the termination, led to the finding of the termination for just cause. In this case, the investigation was a nullity.
So, what is the point of workplace investigations?
- Even though the Court was clear that a workplace investigation may have little relevance to a court’s determination on whether a person has been wrongfully terminated, a properly conducted investigation may provide the employers with the evidence needed to uphold a termination by the courts.
The concern with an improperly conducted investigation is that at best it will be a nullity, as it was in Golob. However, if a court finds that an employee was wrongful terminated, an improperly conducted investigation could open an employer to aggravated or punitive damages – as in, damages in excess of what would typically be awarded at severance pay.
- Other claims, such as with human rights complaints, do assess whether a properly conducted investigation occurred. In some cases, for example with sexual harassment claims, an employer could be liable for failing to properly investigate the claim – even if the claim itself is unable to be proven.
- An workplace investigation may also assist employers prevent future issues from arising. Often a little prevention and training prevents much larger issues from arising.