Are we on Mars? It’s 2013 not 1973!

One of my favourite TV shows of the last ten years was Life on Mars, the cleverly written UK cop show that was based around the premise that a modern day policeman could have a serious accident and then find himself back in 1973. I would like to think I was the Gene Hunt of HR, an avuncular wise-cracking, hard drinking, hard case of a man. But sadly I would always be more like Sam Tyler, the hapless modern day policeman who doesn’t break the rules and who suddenly finds himself back in time dazed and confused.

A running theme throughout the series was how Sam Tyler tried to introduce his 70’s colleagues to more modern best practice policing methods like recording interviews with suspects and preserving crime scenes for forensic examination. In one of the early episodes, Tyler decides to record police interviews using the cutting edge equipment of the time (an old tape recorder) much to the amusement and scorn from his colleagues who preferred the traditional methods of threats and violence in interviews to get a confession!


I was reminded of this last week when I read an article suggesting that audio recording should be “best practice” in workplace investigative interviews. Now, I don’t know about you but the thought has never occurred to me before. However, when you think about it there is a certain amount of common sense in the suggestion and I wondered why HR has never gone down this road before. To paraphrase Sam Tyler, are we mad, in a coma or back in time? It’s 2013 not 1973.

First of all I have a confession to make. A few years back a good friend of mine got into difficulty with his employer and was invited to attend a disciplinary interview with his managers. He asked me for advice and I offered to go to the meeting as his support person. It was clear to me that they were probably going to dismiss him. But it was also clear they had no real grounds to do so, had pre-determined the outcome and were not following a fair and reasonable disciplinary process. In short, they had no idea what they were doing which is not surprising as they are a large company that was proud of the fact it had no HR department!

My friend owned a small dictaphone-type device and asked me whether we should record the meeting. I said that I thought that if we asked his employers they would object, but if he wanted to record it secretly it might help us later. He did so, they sacked him and it helped him and his lawyer enormously when he put his successful personal grievance together for unfair dismissal. We were able to say word for word how they had pre-determined the outcome, responded to our protestations about the decision and comments about the evidence they had. The tape itself was never required to be produced as evidence and to this day I have no idea if they know we recorded the meetings, but it did mean that my friend and I were able to produce a pretty much full transcript of the meeting discussions which his employers could not dispute because in their ineptitude they chose not to take notes of the meetings. Perhaps a case of gamekeeper turned poacher for me. But he deservedly won substantial compensation at mediation.

As an HR Manager, I have also had an employee ask if they could record a meeting discussion which I reluctantly agreed to. I say reluctantly, it seemed an unusual request but I thought about it very carefully but then decided we had nothing to hide and were not going to do anything illegal so why not?

The article suggested that if it is a formal investigation involving serious allegations that could result in dismissal or amount to criminal conduct, then audio recording should be the method of choice over taking notes to collect evidence. If it is a minor issue that could perhaps result only in a warning, then taking notes would be sufficient.

This actually makes perfect sense with the technology available today, so why don’t we just do it? We are starting to use technology more and more in HR so why not in this area? In most complex investigative interviews I have been involved in, one person is usually tied up taking notes of the discussion (usually the HR person) which then have to be deciphered, written up and agreed. Sometimes it is hard to write word for word what is said, or capture the tone in which it was said or the full context. With audio recording, you would never have that problem although it would need to be fully transcribed.

I guess you would need the permission of all involved in such meetings, but then it would be relatively easy to produce a transcript and a copy of the recording for the “other party.” Similarly, if there is a simple guide for best practice in this area it would be easy to implement and fairer to all concerned. I would be interested to know if anyone is doing this anywhere in the world and what people’s thoughts are on the subject.

Thinking logically, this could evolve over time. You could “live stream” the investigation meeting direct to the decision maker anywhere in the world without them having to be there, or have the disciplinary meeting arbitrated by a mediator before the decision is made! People sometimes give evidence in court by video link so why not? Now there’s an idea for any HR software companies out there…

If you haven’t read last week’s post, please check out HR at the crossroads

3 thoughts on “Are we on Mars? It’s 2013 not 1973!

  1. TashHR says:

    I have used audio recording before in investigation meetings, it is required that all parties agree to it, if you want to use it later as evidence it can be dismissed if all parties were unaware of such recording. Having recorded the meeting during the investigation process it helped us as HR capture everything, and it helped us confirm that the employee had signs of aggression and confrontational behaviours. I definitely recommend it in more serious cases, but as you say – less serious (written warning) there isn’t so much need. I would definitely however use it when there are a lot of allegations to cover and address. Nice post HRMan. Very useful and thoughtful. It is 2013 not 1973.

    1. hrmannz says:

      Thanks Tash – good to hear some people are actually doing this! I must admit it had never occurred to me before, or others judging by the feedback so far.

  2. Paddy says:

    Good article Richard. We have been using recordings as a tool for reference checking for sometime (always ensuring that the referee is happy). Where a persons language is non-effusive but the message is very complimentary, the recording can be used to showcase enthusiasm in support of the commentary. Recordings, with modern technology, can also besent as files easily (though most organisations still like a written transcript).

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