How do you investigate a bullying complaint?

  • Dispute Resolution
Three workers sat around a table in a meeting.
James Potts - Legal Services Director at Peninsula

James Potts, Legal Services Director

(Last updated )

Former Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab resigned following an investigation into bullying complaints. And it reveals some important takeaways for HR.

In his report, senior lawyer Adam Tolley KC said that Raab behaved in a way that was both ‘intimidating and insulting’ during his time in office. And while the report found that Raab didn’t shout or swear at staff, he would abuse and misuse his power to undermine them.

Sometimes, workplace bullying is obvious. Sometimes, it’s not. It might take the form of a bad attitude towards a colleague. It might be a put-down in a work meeting or a harshly worded email.

Whatever the case, it’s important to handle it right. Because if your worker doesn’t feel you’ve supported them, they may resign and have grounds to claim constructive dismissal.

That’s why it’s important to follow these essential HR steps if your worker ever does make a complaint.

Start off with an informal one-to-one

As an example, let’s say your employee has raised a grievance about a colleague.

Perhaps, they’re unhappy about their colleague making jokes at their expense or singling them out in group settings.

Firstly, you should try to resolve the issue informally. Pull your employee aside to find out more about the issue and how they feel. Once you’ve got a clearer idea of what’s going on, you can ask them what they want to do next.

It might be that they want someone to have a word with the person or an apology from them. You should try to accommodate their preferences where possible. You may want to suggest an approach to tackle the situation, like using mediation for example.

In some cases, a less formal approach might be more appropriate.

Decide whether you need to deal with the complaint formally

Sometimes, an informal approach is enough to deal with a misunderstanding between colleagues. Other times, it’s not.

If your employee wants to make a formal complaint, a formal approach is your only option.

You should have something about making a bullying complaint written either in a workplace policy or in your company handbook. It should explain what to do if your employee wants to make a formal complaint.

It means you may need to follow a formal grievance procedure (more on that later). You may also need to consider disciplinary action against the accused employee.

You should have separate policies on how to handle bullying and harassment. So, follow the one that’s most appropriate for the situation. If you don’t have a policy or handbook, you should seek legal advice.

Prepare to investigate

If you can’t deal with the complaint informally, you’ll need to carry out a full and fair investigation.

Ideally, the person leading the investigation should be neutral and have no involvement. But if that’s not possible, then they have to be fair and show no bias.

You’ll also need to consider:

  • who else to involve in the investigation
  • how serious the allegation is
  • any evidence you have already
  • what you need to investigate further
  • how the person raising the complaint wants you to handle the situation
  • how you’ve handled similar cases in the past
  • if you’ll need to take any other steps, like a disciplinary process
  • whether you need to temporarily separate the employees involved (e.g. putting them on separate shifts)


When you investigate, you’ll need to follow a formal grievance procedure. This means you’ll need to:

  • interview those involved and any witnesses
  • gather information and evidence - this might include CCTV footage, phone records, or paperwork
  • keep it confidential

When you’re gathering evidence, you’ll need to make sure you’re finding evidence to support both parties.

Try to complete the investigation quickly but be thorough and pay attention to detail. Depending on the type of complaint, your investigation could take anywhere from a day to a few weeks.

You should tell your employee how long the investigation should take and give yourself more time if you need it.

While you’re investigating, also keep a record of all your findings in an investigation report. The person investigating (that might be you) can then suggest an outcome.

Decide on the outcome

When you’ve finished your investigation, you’ll need to decide on an outcome.

You might decide you don’t want to take it any further. You might think a warning is enough. Or, you might want to invite the accused employee to a disciplinary meeting.

Whatever you decide, it’s important that the employee who made the complaint gets the support they need.

A bullying investigation can be very stressful and even traumatic. Your employee might need further specialist advice or counselling. So, you might want to direct them to your employee assistance programme (EAP) if you have one and any external organisations that can help them.

Prevent workplace bullying with an anti-bullying policy

You can help prevent the likelihood of staff raising bullying complaints by having an anti-bullying policy.

Some employees might not even be aware that what they’re doing is ‘bullying’ behaviour. And sometimes, it’s not easy to spot toxic behaviour from workers until it’s too late…

That’s why establishing rules for what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in a policy is important, as well as the consequences for breaking them.

Everyone has a right to feel safe and comfortable in their environment. So, it’s up to businesses to do what’s in their power to help prevent workplace bullying from happening. And if it does, you have legal documentation to fall back on to protect yourself.

For more advice on how to handle a bullying complaint or create an anti-bullying policy, get in touch today on 0800 028 2420

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