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I'm looking for some guidance, hopefully from a HR professional but any advice is appreciated; for context, this is in the UK so will be subject to our laws/guidelines.

I, along with many colleagues in my department, were recently 'interviewed' individually by a member of senior management. We were each told this was an informal discussion, and that all answers would be anonymous and confidential.

The purpose of the interviews was stated as to perform a 'baseline' of the mood of the organisation, and whether there were any concerns about attitudes.

It has recently been revealed that in reality, a member of the department had received a grievance notification against them and the true purpose of the interviews was to see if anyone would voluntarily substantiate the claims made therein. The testimonies were in fact used to bring a formal charge against the accused colleague (confirmed to me by the senior manager).

I take issue with this approach, as;

  • Participants were not informed their testimonies would be used in a formal capacity
  • Participants were actively misled as to the nature of the discussion
  • The questions asked were (in my experience) leading questions by nature, with long periods of silence held when no immediate answers were forthcoming
  • No opportunity was extended to bring in a representative or 3rd party support/witness.

It has emerged that the senior manager's actions were sanctioned by HR; whats more, the head of our companies HR Department, meaning that should anyone take issue they would be seeking redress against the head of HR for their actions.

Is it possible that the investigation was performed in an unbefitting, or possibly legally dubious manner? While I am not the aggrieved party, I feel as though my testimony was gathered without my consent. Does 'anonymising' the feedback received go any way towards upholding confidentiality, or is the lack of disclosure (and statement of informality) mean confidentiality is not assured by certainty?

  • Do you know for a fact testimonies were used in a formal capacity? – paparazzo Sep 27 '18 at 13:58
  • @paparazzo, I do, beyond certainty. The interviewer has admitted as much, to myself and others. – John Smith Optional Sep 27 '18 at 15:22
  • Your clarification that these off-the-record testimonies were used to bring a formal charge invalidates my answer, so I've deleted it. I don't know enough about the legal position to answer properly, but what your company has done does seem to me to likely be on shaky ground. (Did I caveat that enough?) – AndyT Sep 27 '18 at 15:36
  • @AndyT, it's a shame you deleted the answer, I think it had some interesting merits. The fault was mine for not clarifying that formal charges were brought as a result of these interviews, so I will amend the question. – John Smith Optional Sep 27 '18 at 15:43
  • @Kilisi, you've made a number of false assumptions there, and you seem to be applying hindsight (indignantly, no less!) to what should have been an innocuous meeting. Staff welfare surveys are conducted routinely, it's just in this instance the confidentiality was broken to further ulterior motives. And, I haven't said anything detrimental, my feedback was purely positive. Other people have clearly made detrimental comments, and have been encouraged to do so. I feel that I am in a position to absolve the accused by shedding light on this practise, and am seeking advice on the issue. – John Smith Optional Sep 28 '18 at 10:25
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Is it possible that the investigation was performed in an unbefitting, or possibly legally dubious manner?

I do not work in the UK and IANAL, but this sure seems devious and underhanded to me. And, based on the way this was handled, I would not be confident in the confidentiality aspect of it either.

Since you are not the aggrieved party, I am not certain what actions or outcome you are after other than perhaps to protect yourself from collateral damage. Unless you somehow feel at risk, your best bet is to let this situation die down and don't stir the pot further.

That being said, if you feel you need to do something, I think any next steps you are interested in taking probably should be done with the consultation of an attorney.

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    Thanks for the answer, much appreciated. I suspect my discomfort stems from being an accessory to action taken against a colleague, and also a profound lack of confidence in my HR dept. I would be interested in what 'next steps' may be open to me. – John Smith Optional Sep 27 '18 at 13:33
  • "I do not work in the UK and IANAL" ...then why answer? The question has a pretty specific scope and random guessing isn't all that useful. OP knows it seems underhanded or he wouldn't have asked the question. – Lilienthal Sep 27 '18 at 13:41
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    @Lilienthal Because I had practical advise to offer that did not require either of those things. ( Being in the UK or being a lawyer ). The OP voted for the answer and commented that it helped, I assume you voted against the answer. I find that very interesting.... – Mister Positive Sep 27 '18 at 13:43
  • @MisterPositive I did downvote it because ultimately while useful, you don't answer the clear question that the OP asked. While his comment does discuss next steps, the question is clearly asking about the legal specifics involved in a grievance procedure in the UK. A very specific topic to be sure but an interesting one that I'd like to see qualified answers on because like you the situation described feels off to me. But this and the other answers here don't address the core question at all. – Lilienthal Sep 27 '18 at 15:16
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    I mean, the question as asked was "Is it possible that the investigation was performed in an unbefitting, or possibly legally dubious manner?" and the answer boils down to "yes, it is possible (and if you want confirmation speak to a lawyer)". It might not be the most useful answer, lacking the legal context, but it's a valid answer and recommends sensible next steps to pursue, so I feel it has value. If the question was more specifically "Did they break any laws here and if so, which laws?" then I would agree the answer would be invalid, but that wasn't the question. – delinear Sep 27 '18 at 16:16
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A stretch but they may have just been protecting the person that had the grievance filed against them. They were not sure to honor the grievance or not and wanted to gather unbiased input without disclosing personal information. Even if they said we are investigating a grievance it would have been a disruption to the office.

IANAL but I doubt this is against the law.

Yes I get you were deceived but not much you can do about it.

  • Thanks for the answer. I would agree with your assessment of motive, however I am still of the opinion that a breach of confidentiality would indeed be against the law. The methods are the issue; if the discussion was 'informal', the statements would be off the record. They have been put on the record; which I believe is entirely inappropriate and should be discounted. – John Smith Optional Sep 28 '18 at 10:56
  • I get this is an emotional issue to you. Maybe you should consult an attorney. – paparazzo Sep 28 '18 at 11:01
  • @paprazzo, not emotional per se, but troubling. If this behaviour is deemed acceptable, it significantly affects employee rights in our workplace. For example, if senior management can request an informal discussion, but retrospectively make this part of a formal procedure, how is anyone ever permitted to speak confidentially? Any discussion would require a third party present for assurance of confidentiality, which is A; impractical, B: untenable, and C: defeats the purpose. – John Smith Optional Sep 28 '18 at 11:04
  • Can't help you. Good luck. – paparazzo Sep 28 '18 at 11:37
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Just in case you haven't realized it yet, investigators often misrepresent who they are and why they are asking questions. It prevents people from refusing to cooperate or saying what they think will benefit them or their friends instead of the truth. Whether your rights were violated in the UK, I can't say. My guess would be that there is significant leeway in how the company can gather information from you if you aren't the target of the investigation.

You should assume that almost any conversation that is prefaced by "this will remain anonymous and confidential" may come back to haunt you. Even if the person sincerely believes the conversation will remain confidential, they may not have the ability to keep it that way. If someone without the legal obligation to keep your conversation confidential approaches you and offers you confidentiality, you should be very cautious about what you say until you understand what is going on.

When someone is informally interviewing you and it is not clear that there is any benefit to you to provide the information they're asking for, you should just smile and say something equivalent to "I don't really have anything to say about that." unless they're asking about a simple verifiable fact. Don't be confrontational, just don't volunteer anything unless you understand how your statement will be used.

If the company needs your cooperation, they can explain the nature of the situation, and if they want to compel you to answer, they can make it a more formal interview. The simple fact that they were using more aggressive techniques to prompt answers (like the long silences) should be a red flag that they were misleading you about the nature of the inquiry.

That said, you have a moral obligation to come forward if you witness serious infractions of company policy (and illegal stuff, but that goes without saying).

  • Thanks for the comment. I've made a comment above to @kilisi about the benefits of hindsight, but I take issue with the notion of 'You should assume that almost any conversation that is prefaced by "this will remain anonymous and confidential" may come back to haunt you.' Confidentiality in the workplace is a legal privilege in the UK, I believe (could anyone clarify?) As you've said, I'd have a moral obligation to come forward if this was considered serious, especially if it absolves a colleague. The accusations are spurious at best. – John Smith Optional Sep 28 '18 at 10:35
  • @JohnSmithOptional I'm not familiar with the laws in the UK. What I meant was unless someone has the legal obligation to keep something confidential (a medical professional, ombudsperson, etc.) you shouldn't trust that it will remain confidential. A manager at your company can promise that you will remain anonymous, but they may not have the legal authority to keep that promise. – ColleenV Sep 28 '18 at 12:23
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Who revealed the "true" nature of the interviews? Secondhand information or something concrete from management? Keep in mind whenever sudden interviews pop up, there are a few "tin foil" teammates that think there is some sort of ulterior motive behind the interviews. Over the years, I interviewed HR randomly with the rest of my team. There is one guy on the team who comes up with conspiracies ranging from we're going to be laid off, to somehow government taking over the company and starting Jade Helm operations of a UN take over by calming the staff down. It's wild. So unless you heard about it from HR, I wouldn't do anything.

Imagine if you went to HR and said, "I heard you interviewed me falsely to help your own lawsuit by figuring out if anyone else would help collaborate the individual filing the suit." And there isn't a lawsuit. You'd either be the laughingstock there or fired on the spot.

Think of it rationally. If there is a lawsuit, the lawyer for the person filing it would seek out teammates that could help. By HR figuring out individuals who can collaborate, they risk exposing that person and potentially aiding the person filing the suit. "I just got fired for knowing X, and now I'm helping person A."

  • Thanks for the answer, but this is no conspiracy unfortunately. Action has been taken against the accused, and the interviewer has since disclosed that the 'interviews' were indeed a smokescreen, sanctioned by HR. The excuse extended for the mis-direction was that the alternative was to discuss openly the charges and ask for validation, which would also have been the wrong thing to do. However, I see this as a false dichotomy; there are plenty of ways this could have been conducted. – John Smith Optional Sep 27 '18 at 15:30

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