The role of HR in investigations

29.09.2016

The EAT has overturned a decision of the Tribunal, and has given some useful guidance about the scope of HR’s involvement in the preparation of an investigatory report, in the case Dronsfield -v- University of Reading 2016.
Mr Dronsfield was a lecturer at the University of Reading. It emerged that, in contravention of the University’s policy, he had engaged in a personal relationship with a student without reporting it to the University. The University carried out an investigation, following which the decision was taken to dismiss. The Tribunal held that the dismissal was fair: there was no need to analyse the precise wording of the University’s statutes as the threshold of behaviour required to justify a dismissal (“conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature”) was broadly equivalent to the modern concept of gross misconduct. It also emerged that following advice received from an HR officer, a number of passages had been deleted from the final version of the report. Although the Tribunal was concerned by this, it held that the investigator had signed off the report in good faith and that it accurately represented his conclusions, and as such the report could stand.
On appeal, the EAT disagreed on both counts. It was necessary to consider the wording used in the statutes, and it could not just be equated to gross misconduct. Importantly, the test as regards the report was not the subjective intention of the investigator, but rather objective fairness. The deleted passages were favourable to Mr Dronsfield; there was nothing to suggest the investigator had changed his opinion, or to explain why they had been deleted. The Tribunal should have considered why the passages were deleted and ultimately whether, having regard to the omissions, it had been reasonable for the University to rely on the report when dismissing Mr Dronsfield.
The EAT went on to comment that it had been “surprising” that the report was treated as being the joint work of the investigator and HR officer; rather, agreeing with another recent case Ramphal -v- Department of Transport 2015 (see here), the role of HR should be limited to advising on matters of law and procedure, as opposed to questions of culpability.