Business owners and HR managers are required to work lawfully and fairly when dealing with a grievance or complaints. This process becomes more complicated however if an employee is making false allegations at work. A false allegation is an untrue claim of wrongdoing.
In some cases, an accuser may make a false allegation out of malice. In others, the accuser may believe that the false allegation is completely true. Either way, false allegations can be worrying and distressing for the accused, especially if the allegations are serious.
The way employers deal with false allegations at work is critical, and the issue needs to be resolved lawfully at all times. If dealt with incorrectly, a tribunal claim could be brought on the part of the accused against the employer.
What are false allegations at work?
False allegations are untrue claims made against an individual or group in your company. These accusations could be about:
- Sexual harassment
Even if there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the truth of the allegations, the employer must approach any complaint fairly and objectively. This means adhering to the company’s internal grievance policy and internal complaints procedure.
If your company does not have a grievance policy or complaints procedure, you should follow ACAS guidelines on disciplinary and grievance procedures to ensure a fair process.
Dealing with false allegations at work: conducting an investigation
When allegations are raised, a workplace investigation should be conducted to look into them in more detail. Evidence will need be gathered, and relevant witnesses spoken to through independent, private discussions.
Witnesses should be given the opportunity to provide their own notes when being interviewed. They should also confirm that any notes taken during investigative proceedings are a correct and true reflection of their interview.
All parties should sign and date notes taken during the meeting, and should be made aware of the timescales involved to resolve the matter.
The following key questions should be answered in the investigation:
- Can the accuser provide supporting evidence to back up their claims?
Does the accused have evidence proving their defence?
- Have the accuser and accused had any prior history in terms of disagreements?
- Is mediation appropriate to resolve the issue more quickly?
Ensuring a fair investigatory process
Employers should ensure that the person conducting the investigation is unbiased and doesn’t have prior involvement or knowledge of the people involved or the matter being escalated. For SMEs, this may mean hiring a third party contractor who can conduct the investigation.
For larger organisations, the responsibility can be given to a HR manager or a manager from a different department who has no links to the accuser or accused.
The investigator should conduct the investigation as soon as possible, and will need to act with confidentiality, impartiality and care – especially if the allegations involve serious issues such as sexual harassment.
The accused should be given an appropriate and reasonable amount of time to respond to the allegations.
Deciding the outcome of an investigation
When deciding the outcome, the impartial investigator must consider how strong the evidence is, and make a decision without unnecessary delays. They will also need to measure how consistent witness statements are, without pre-empting a decision.
A report should be compiled summarising evidence reviewed during the investigation. The summary should include any inconsistencies, and determine whether or not the allegations can be proved false. It should also determine whether the accuser believed the allegations to be true, or if they were created out of malice.
If evidence suggests that the accuser deliberately made false allegations which they knew were untrue, then disciplinary action should be taken against them in line with company disciplinary policy.
If however the evidence suggests that the accuser did genuinely believe the accusations to be true, this would not result in disciplinary action.
The accused may also decide to raise their own grievance if the complaint filed against them is lacking in foundation. This grievance will also need separate investigation.
Disciplinary action for false allegations at work
Both the accuser and accused should be informed of the investigation outcome, and whether or not false allegations have been determined. The accused should be informed of the evidence relied upon in the investigation that brought the conclusion, and they should also have the opportunity to respond.
If a mistake is made during the disciplinary or investigative proceedings, an employee can make a claim for unfair dismissal. If an employee has been dismissed and the company’s disciplinary process has not been correctly followed as per their contract of employment, this results in a breach of contract by the employer.
A breach of contract claim and claims for unfair or wrongful dismissal can be brought against you in either the County Court or High Court, which will result in a case being heard in an employment tribunal.
If an employee has worked for you for less than two years, they will not have the right to bring a claim of unfair dismissal, but they will be able to pursue a breach of contract claim.
Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to give a verbal or written warning to the accuser making the false allegations. In order to issue any formal warning you must ensure that you follow a fair disciplinary process. If this is the preferred course of action, factors such as their previous conduct and years of service should be considered.
If you decide that the employee making the false allegations has demonstrated behaviour that amounts to gross misconduct, you must clearly communicate that the accuser’s behaviour has destroyed the confidence and trust you had in them as an employee. If you don’t make this clear, the employee could bring a claim at the employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.
Some disclosures and complaints made by employees can be either ‘protected’ or ‘qualifying’. This relates to whistleblowing and for the complaint to be held in the public interest.
Therefore, if an employee believes any of the following has occurred within a company, this is protected under the The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA):
- Lack of compliance with legal obligations
- A ‘Miscarriage of Justice’
- Danger to health and safety
- The deliberate concealment of information
- A criminal offence
- Environmental dangers
If the complaint is protected under this legislation, the person making the complaint is protected from unfavourable treatment or dismissal. In this case, an employer should follow its whistleblowing procedure.
Handling false allegations at work: potential risks
If an employer fails to correctly address and handle false accusations at work, this could lead to a potential tribunal claim being made against the company.
Employers should take the following steps to minimise risk:
- All relevant evidence should be provided at investigative meetings.
- The accused should have appropriate time to prepare a defence.
- Before taking any disciplinary meeting or action against an employee, you must give them a written or verbal warning first.
- Whistleblowing procedures should be followed if the complaint is a protected disclosure under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.
- Avoid relying on a single source of evidence or one witness when undertaking investigative proceedings, as this might not provide sufficient grounds for disciplinary proceedings.
- Any employee facing disciplinary action has the right to appeal a decision taken against them.
- Appeals processes should be unbiased, fair and conducted by an independent person who has no part in previous investigations and processes.
- Clear, accurate records must be kept during disciplinary and investigative processes – and all parties must sign or agree to these records. If an employee disagrees with the accuracy of a record, you should ask them to provide a correct version (so that both versions can potentially be used as a reference).
- Unexplained or unnecessary delays are not looked upon favourably by employment tribunals, so you should try to resolve the case in a matter of weeks rather than months, and explain any genuine reason for delays (such as a need to investigate further evidence for more complex cases).
Seek expert advice
To speak with our expert team, complete the short quotation form or call us on 01244 893776.