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What has the Tesco horseburger scandal taught us about investigations?

Although the French (and probably many other nationalities) have cheerfully eaten horsemeat for years, we in the UK don’t. It would be akin to a human Narnian eating a talking animal – it’s an article of faith that one simply doesn’t do things like that. So when earlier this month some Tesco burgers were found to contain up to 29% horsemeat, constituting a serious contamination, there was an immediate investigation. The recently departed film producer and restaurant critic, Michael Winner might have said “Calm down dear! A bit of horsemeat won’t hurt you”, (which is true) but the news caused more than a little flurry of worry

The processed food chain is a long and complicated business. Tesco bought the burger product from the Silvercrest facility in County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland. Silvercrest is part of the ABP Group. An internal investigation found that the meat used by Silvercrest came from outside the UK and Ireland. This was contrary to Tesco’s policy.

Food standards authorities in the Irish Republic are now confident that the horsemeat found in supposedly beef burgers came from Poland. Investigations have begun in Poland to find out how beef and horse were mixed. It is as the Mouse might have observed to Alice (in Wonderland) a long and sad tale.

Tim Smith, Tesco’s Group Technical Director at Tesco, has said Tesco would introduce a "comprehensive system of DNA testing across our meat products" to stop horsemeat from entering the food chain again.

So Tesco have assessed what’s happened and are taking action to ensure the avoidance of a repeat problem. Other employers can learn from this.

When things go wrong (and they do – that’s just life),the first thing to do is to establish the facts. In the workplace we’re always having to look at problems with conduct or poor work performance. The fundamental purpose of a disciplinary investigation is to collect the facts. It's no more than that, but far too many managers simply skate over the surface and either do not collect the relevant data or fail to take a sufficiently robust approach to data collection.

A good investigation enables you to gather the facts. It also ensures that you comply with your company’s policies and procedures and employment law; it prompts you to undertake a risk assessment and take precautions if necessary and it helps you to ascertain whether there is a case to answer and, therefore, whether any disciplinary action should follow. If action of any kind is to be taken it must be fair and reasonable, and must take into account all of the circumstances, including any mitigation, offered. The purpose of your investigation is to ascertain what those circumstances might have entailed.

Problems with employees come in all shapes and sizes, from small matters such as timekeeping through to complaints of harassment, money or property going astray, poor work performance and accidents and injuries. When problems such as these occur, employers must investigate and determine, as far as is reasonably possible, what really happened. There is no magic formula for conducting workplace investigations. They vary based on the issues and the people involved. Some investigations will be completed quickly with no need to interview witnesses.

The most frequent problems are as follows:

  • The investigation has to be done as soon as you become aware of an issue. Not only is it more difficult if you leave it longer, the argument can also be put that by leaving it, the there’s a clear indication that the matter isn’t serious.
  • Get professional help if needed. Use private investigators if you need to (especially where there are concerns that an employee is working elsewhere) or digital forensic experts to examine a computer to establish the history. If you are considering this type of expert help, remember that information must be gathered in a way that is lawful and doesn’t breach human rights.
  • In a conduct matter, employment tribunals expect the investigation to be done by one person, the discipline hearing by another and the appeal, if any, by yet another. This is to ensure the fairest possible process. If the investigating officer also chairs the discipline meeting he will be both ‘judge and jury’.
  • Preserve the evidence. Where evidence may be destroyed or may deteriorate, take steps to quarantine or preserve it.
  • Get the full picture. Even where an employee throws up his hands and confesses, make sure you complete the investigation to ensure that you have gathered all the relevant facts, including mitigating circumstances.

Avoid these problems and you’ll find that your investigations go more smoothly.

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