HR departments are routinely involved in disciplinary investigations, and the recent EAT case of Dronsfield v University of Reading UKEAT/0200/15  is a further reminder that HR should limit their advice to questions of law, procedure and process and avoid straying into areas of culpability. Significant influence by HR in the outcome of an investigation could potentially compromise the fairness of the investigation process and result in an unfair dismissal.

What are the facts?

Dr Dronsfield was an Associate Professor in Fine Art at the University of Reading (the University). He failed to report a sexual relationship with a student who he was also responsible for supervising and was dismissed for gross misconduct.  

The Vice-Chancellor appointed Professor Green, Head of the School of Construction Management and Engineering, to investigate with the support of Ms Rolstone, an HR partner. They interviewed Dr Dronsfield who claimed that A had openly pursued him. He succumbed to her advances once but there had been no relationship. A had asked him not to report the matter and, while he regretted not reporting it, he already felt vulnerable due to other events in his department which he had complained about. He did not consider that reporting the matter would make any difference to his supervision of A.

Professor Green and Ms Rolstone produced a joint investigation report. Initial drafts were subject to review by the University's HR department and in-house lawyer. The final version of the report omitted a number of findings that would have been favourable to Dr Dronsfield. The report found that, in view of Dr Dronsfield's frankness, honesty and sincerity, it had been unnecessary to interview anyone else. There was no evidence of predatory intent. While Dr Dronsfield's relationship with his head of department had been severely strained, dysfunctional relationships within the department did not override his responsibility to report the matter. There was evidence that he had breached his duty of care towards students.

There were various redactions made to the investigation report following involvement of the University’s HR Department and in-house lawyer.  The Tribunal had failed to ask whether it was reasonable to dismiss having regard to what was omitted in the final version of the investigation report.   The matter has been referred to a fresh Tribunal to reconsider.

What should we learn from this case?

An employer’s procedure on the conduct of an investigation needs to be clear and those undertaking an investigation need to understand what is being required of them.  The role of Human Resources needs to be considered with care as any report by an investigation officer needs to be the product of their own investigations and not a third party.  If any changes are made, the investigation officer needs to explain any changes made following any reviews.  Significant influence by HR in the outcome of an investigation could result in an unfair dismissal.