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How to handle reluctant witnesses in investigations

Establishing the facts around an incident at work will often rely on witnesses giving statements about what has happened. But sometimes witnesses are reluctant to speak out. What should investigators do to reassure them?

Reluctant witnesses

If an employer initiates an investigation, witnesses to the matter being investigated will usually be asked to provide a witness statement.

Witnesses can be reluctant to discuss the matter because they are concerned that giving information may cause them problems at work or somehow implicate them in the matter. Reluctant witnesses should be reassured that an investigation is  not there to  pass judgement or take disciplinary action but  to establish the facts of what happened.

If witnesses have concerns, it's up to the investigator to explore the issues, put interviewees at ease, and resolve any outstanding problems they have about providing information.

Giving information anonymously

In exceptional circumstances, investigators could agree to anonymise a witness statement. For instance, this might be done where a witness has a genuine fear of reprisal.

An investigator may want to corroborate the basis for these fears, for example, reports of intimidation or threatening behaviour - as well as investigate any reason for witnesses to fabricate them.

Once it's agreed that a witness can talk anonymously, the interview should be conducted in the normal way, but afterwards an investigator should consider what might need to be omitted or redacted to prevent identification.

For the most part, however, anonymity should be avoided as it's likely to put the employee under investigation at a disadvantage. It is much harder to challenge evidence when it is given anonymously.

If the matter is serious enough to become subject to legal proceedings, an employer may be required by a court to disclose the names of anonymous witnesses.

Acas publications and services

Acas has published pdf icon Conducting workplace investigations [445kb], which outlines the essential decisions and actions that employers must and should make when undertaking an investigation.

Free investigation plan and report templates, as well as sample letters informing employees of an investigation or inviting employees to an investigation meeting, are also available to download from the Carrying out investigations in the workplacepage.

Acas experts can visit your organisation and help you address a range of issues related to conducting investigations; see Disputes and mediation: how Acas can help for more information.

Practical training is also available on Investigations, Discipline and grievance, improving Skills for supervisors, Dispute resolution and Handling difficult conversations.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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