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Trouble at the top? How best to investigate allegations against senior executives

David Scott is an experienced human resources director, having worked at Board/Executive level for more than 20 years
Associate director

David Scott

Published 1 September 2020 More about David

The CEO of the Jockey Club resigns with immediate effect after an external investigation finds evidence of misconduct.  The board says that her position was untenable in light of the findings of the investigation, and a senior woman’s reputation lies in tatters.  And there is even more disruption and discontinuity at the top of the organisation.

But what was wrong with the process that the Jockey Club chose to follow?  The CEO is adamant that the investigation was not impartial and that it ignored evidence from her and other senior executives.  Worst of all, her perception is that the investigation was designed to achieve a pre-determined aim and it became a “stitch up.”

So, despite the fact that the investigation was “external” it did not pass the impartiality test in the eyes of the CEO. Here at Verita we recognise the difficulties of investigating allegations against the most senior executives.  We advocate trying to keep the investigations in-house if possible and would have recommended that the Jockey Club should have tasked an independent board member, or an executive not connected with the alleged issues to conduct the investigation.

Another option would have been to ask an external, independent organisation to conduct the investigation on behalf of the board.  This would have meant the issues could have been impartially and fairly considered without causing those involved to lose faith in the process.  The regrettable outcome in this case is that the board and the CEO have both moved quickly to entrenched positions and the organisation has lost a leader in whom the board had high hopes just twelve months ago.

In our experience, investigations like this need much more thoughtful handling than the average disciplinary investigation for junior staff. An independent investigation that had the full confidence of all parties might have allowed the CEO and the board to identify some common ground or changes that could have improved the behaviour and style of those involved. But both parties in this case appear to have missed that chance to avoid the nuclear option.

Verita has a well-developed process for dealing with bullying and harassment investigations. If you need any help or advice in handling cases like this, contact David Scott on 02074945670 or via email: [email protected]

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