On 14 June 2022 at the Justitia office in Melbourne, AAWI sub-committee convenor Sarah Rey hosted a local circle meeting of the Australasian Association of Workplace Investigators – the first in some time. The hybrid event brought together 17 workplace investigators across Australia, New Zealand and India to discuss how conducting workplace investigations during the pandemic age has changed the nature of an investigator’s role and led to new innovations in the field.

Most workplace investigators expected a decrease in office conflicts during the height of the pandemic, but the reality was starkly different. These investigators saw a significant uptick in requests, mirroring the emergence of new interpersonal conflicts as the workforce transitioned to “Work from Home”. This increase in workplace investigations has been compounded by new mental health concerns emerging from a post-lockdown world.

The role of the investigator has evolved significantly due to the changed circumstances for conducting investigations. Some investigators revealed a change in interview dialogue. As virtual interviews are conducted offsite, investigators feel compelled to ask whether the interviewee is in a safe environment and able to speak freely. Participants agreed that online meetings seemed to foster a more intimate and comfortable environment for interviewees. However, without in-person interviewing, workplace investigators cannot wholly observe and interpret body language and other subtle notifiers of emotion. These identifiers are, rightly or wrongly, often attributable to credibility, and without visual cues, investigators may have difficulty affirming the emotional state, if not the credibility, of an interviewee.

The hybrid model provides interviewees with enhanced conditions and agency to be comfortable during the investigation process. The interviewee, for example, may have the increased comfort that a support animal provides. Virtual interviewing also affords participants additional privacy and confidentiality, as interviewees are not required to revisit traumatic locations or encounter other interviewees or colleagues in the hybrid model.  For complex investigations involving bullying and harassment in the workplace, virtual interviewing affords witnesses and claimants more control over their surroundings to feel safe while recounting difficult events and answering multiple questions. Where an interview exceeds two hours, the hybrid model makes it feasible for an investigator and interviewee to reconvene at a later date or time.

Despite some drawbacks, the virtual and hybrid models for workplace investigations on balance permit faster turnarounds for non-local matters (due to reduced travel), as well as a greater capacity to investigate complex matters with multiple and/or counter allegations. In this new landscape, investigators are better able to cater to client preferences as interview schedules become more flexible and the process more cost efficient. Workplace investigators also gain additional time for preparation to tailor their questions and investigative approach to each interviewee.

Investigators also have access to further recording options through Zoom and Teams. At least one participant utilised (and supplemented) the free transcription facility that has been offered more recently through Teams. Interviewees are less hesitant to be recorded as a consequence of everyone adapting to online settings. Interviewees can be sent their online recordings quickly, or after the investigation is concluded when there is no further risk of disrupting the integrity of the investigation process. With this technology available to everyone, all investigators must presume that the interviewee might be recording the interview.

There was agreement that the hybrid model of conducting workplace investigations is here to stay. Protocols continue to be needed in terms of ensuring confidentiality, managing security risks for virtual data uploads, and navigating conversations about alternative options to formal investigations. Although in its infancy, the hybrid model for conducting workplace investigations has proven versatile, safe and cost-effective, with a wide array of benefits still being explored.

This article was written by Elle Henriksen | Legal Research Assistant