Report & Support LSHTM Series. 1. Understanding What An External Investigation Is and What It Is Not
Dear BLM LSHTM community,
*********************Before we get down to it, and if you haven’t done so already, we urge you to sign the petition to revoke government funding cuts to global health research, and even ask friends and family to do the same. Why? Because the decision to cancel funding as early as July 2021 affects the stability of staff and staff-PhD students, international staff on sponsorships who will be asked to leave the country immediately, overseas staff and more in a period of global recession . Here is the link and feel free to ask if you have any questions*********************************
Back to business.
We have been relatively “quiet” of late, but we’ll update you on our ongoing activities in the upcoming newsletter. Since the publication of our first “16-months to nowhere” post (read by 863 people and counting), we have been working on decrypting the current reporting system at LSHTM.
After countless emails and Zoom meetings with the School asking us to review and comment on the existing reporting system and other elements of the LSHTM structure and procedures (for free and behind closed doors), our emailed request for recognition of our time and labour went, quite literally, unanswered.
To tell you that we are surprised would be a lie. Fortunately, our work has never been dictated by SLT’s interest or their invitation to have a meaningful seat at the table. We will not allow the School’s unwillingness to engage to get in the way of our goal: for you to be informed, aware and equipped to challenge current injustices; or simply to improve your own practices.
Our upcoming report and support series will cover the experiences of students and staff, both academic and professional services, using the School’s “Report & Support” system. If you would like to share your experience to allow us to better understand this system, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The series will be based on testimonies from the LSHTM community, our research and our investigations into the information publicly available on reportandsupport.lshtm.ac.uk.
This first post will focus on “What an External Investigation is and what it is not”.
The announcement of an external investigation to deal with the “16-months to nowhere” complaint was met with conflicting reactions. While some were surprised that the matter couldn’t be dealt with internally, others saw it as a signal of good governance and a willingness to be transparent.
At the FAIR Network we believe that “self-complacency is the enemy of progress”; so even when something looks like a “victory”, we try to base our judgment on facts only. Below we have compiled some commonly asked questions about external investigations and the complaints procedure and tentative answers based on our investigations.
Q.1. When is appointing an external investigator a good idea?
According to Pure Employment Law UK:
1. When internal investigators lack adequate time to investigate
2. When the matter is complex
3. To maintain impartiality
4. To benefit from outside expertise
5. To gain objectivity or preserve credibility
6. When conducting investigations with criminal and regulatory issues
7. To ensure confidentiality and/or legal privilege
Q.2. What is an external investigation?
We understand an external investigation to be the decision by an organisation or institute to engage a reputable external organisation to undertake an investigation and provide findings and recommendations upon which to act.
Q.3. How does this work at LSHTM?
We are not sure. There is no mention of an “External investigation Officer” in the current 2021 version of the Student Complaints Procedure guidelines (here).
Article 3.3.3 only talks about the use of senior staff member as Investigation Officer (internally) and states “The Head of Registry will refer the complaint to a Dean of Faculty, Head of Professional Service or similar senior staff member from outside of the Faculty or Service complained about who will act as Investigating Officer and undertake to investigate the complaint.”
We also looked at the Anti-bullying and Harassment policy but again found nothing. It is unclear under what circumstances a complaint would be handed over to an external investigator, and how .
We also wondered if the School provided any support (e.g. mental health, leave, etc.) to the complainants forced to relieve their traumas.
Q.4. What is the objective of an External Investigation at LSHTM?
It is unclear.
As mentioned above, there is no information available on External Investigation in current LSHTM policies. We were not able to ascertain who was carrying the burden of proof between the complainant(s) or the perpetrator(s).
Generally, it would be good to know if the objective(s) to:
Investigate the complainant(s) and ensure their honesty?
Investigate the School's responsibility in the complaints?
Gather evidence against perpetrators in an impartial way?
All the above?
Q.5. Does everyone contacted have to engage with the External Investigation at LSHTM?
No, you have no contractual obligation to talk to the External Investigator if you are invited to. It is recommended if you want to support a complaint but we also imagine that some people might refuse to participate to not self-incriminate themselves or by fear of retaliation.
So what if nobody wants to talk??….this would be an important metric of organisational culture…...
It might certainly be different if the investigation was conducted internally under the Human Resources department. Can you say "no" to a conversation with HR?
Q.6. Can anyone reach out to the external investigator?
You can use the report and support system but unless you are willing to include your name and information, you won’t be able to support a complaint.
What this means is: if you corroborate facts anonymously, even by using a third-party like the FAIR Network, your testimony won’t be included in an ongoing investigation unless you agree for your information to be shared with the School (which totally negates the idea of anonymity…).
“ ...the investigation officer is only able to contact those individuals that have been either named in the original statement submitted or who came up as part of the ongoing investigation.”
Q.7. Can the FAIR Network speak to the external investigator on behalf of the anonymous complainants or share their information directly to the external investigator?
Before reaching out to an external investigator, the School has the authority to define what is known as the remit of that investigation. (More on the Complaints Committee in a forthcoming blog post). The remit is the area that a "person or group of people in authority has responsibility for or control over". (Cambridge dictionary). As such, the remit of the investigation document presents background into the allegations/concerns that were identified as warranting an investigation, including potentially the list and the number of witnesses to be interviewed.
The FAIR Network is happy to be interviewed and share the contact details of consenting students and staff who can corroborate facts anonymously; but the External investigator cannot reach out to us or any other witnesses unless it has been approved by the School and our roles as third parties is recognised as part of the remit of the investigation.
Q.8. So what happens to anonymous complaints?
Essentially, nothing. “Information that you provide through reporting anonymously will be used for statistical purposes and to inform prevention work”. Confidentiality Note
According to article 1.6 of the 2021 version of LSHTM Student Complaints Procedure, “Complaints require full investigation to enable resolution. Where a complaint is made anonymously, it will not be possible to undertake such an investigation. For practical reasons therefore, no action will be taken in the event of a complaint made anonymously”
More information regarding anonymous reporting can be found in the Confidentiality Note that confirms that “LSHTM will not generally take steps such as investigating the complaint, initiating disciplinary or other formal proceedings or passing information on to third parties in order to take the report further, unless you have chosen to report with contact details (and you agree to this action).”
This seemed quite standard but is disappointing, considering how the new system has been promoted as a solution to combat the entrenched racism, discrimination and bullying at the School.
We were very impressed with the Cambridge University student anonymous complaints system which allows for a very detailed tracking of the type of behavior and reporting. Check here for the link and the type of report here. UCL is also using the system “to monitor trends at UCL and to inform our proactive and preventative work” here but they are a way bigger university with a leadership that is more clearly separated from daily activities.
Q.9. Would LSHTM investigate the alleged perpetrator(s) of an anonymous complaint(s)?
The simple answer is no.
“Please note that if a member of staff, a student or other individual is named and/or identifiable within the report, their name and/or other identifiable information will be removed from the report and it will not be stored. The only exception to this is where an alleged perpetrator is identified in an anonymous report and the incident or pattern of behaviour reported gives rise to a safeguarding risk in accordance with our Duty of Care Guidance.” Report and support - Confidentiality Note
There is a double conditionality here - 1) anonymous reporting and 2) the type of incident:
It is unclear how any patterns will be established if all identifiable data is deleted
How many reports will not be stored with full information as they, in the first instance, may not be considered “serious enough”?
If the first, second and third reports are unidentifiable, how will it be known that the same person has offended again?
Currently the EDI department is in charge of report & support but shouldn't HR be involved?
Is there a link between PDR and complaints? Rumors is that people get promoted despite having complaints against them and it ends up with complainants being replaced or changing team
“Anonymous: whereby no names or other information that could be used to identify the individual making the report are provided. LSHTM encourages individuals making an anonymous report not to include names or other information that could be used to identify a third party (such as the alleged perpetrator or witnesses). Nevertheless, we acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which it is appropriate to make an anonymous report containing such information” Report and support - Privacy Notice
So this raises the question - why report at all?
Q.10. Are there any exceptions?
The Duty of Care document presents the exceptions, but some aspects remain unclear, such as “serious allegations of sexual assault” (whatever that means) or this in particular:
“Investigate the matter further in accordance with LSHTM’s internal policies. In deciding whether to investigate in such circumstances LSHTM will consider, for example, the seriousness of the incident or where multiple allegations have been made against an individual.”
Who decides on the seriousness?
How can they know about the multiple accounts based on the above (Q.7.)?
Is the data stored or not stored?
The intimation is that unless you put your name, the account will not be believed. There are options like an “environment investigation” whereby they can look into the accounts by asking around to see if other people have seen/heard/witnessed/experienced the same situation, but this is not LSHTM’s policy at the moment.
Q.11. Is there a way to change that?
Many organizations use third party companies such as whistleblowing private hotlines to allow anonymous reporting to be investigated 24/7 and in different languages. We mentioned the necessity for a mechanism such as this during our exchanges with SLT. The refusal to investigate anonymous complaints is a leadership decision.
What it means is that EVERY single anonymous testimony that was shared on the Black Lives Matter letter in June 2020 will probably never be investigated. This is extremely concerning as it serves only to reinforce the existing power imbalances that prevent victims from moving forward with a complaint, or even raising it in the first place.
It potentially exposes complainants to underhand forms of retaliation, such as not providing a recommendation letter to a student or delaying it, not renewing a contract, writing negative feedback, not offering appropriate academic support - to name but a few.
You can imagine the additional worry and mental health impact of this, on top of the trauma imposed by the initial incident that warranted the complaint. The burden that is placed on complainants under such systems leads to students abandoning their studies and future career prospects, staff leaving their roles, and a culture of mistrust and fear permeating the institution.
Q.12. Is an external investigation company the right investment for LSHTM under the current policies?
You decide but using findings from Q.1
1. When internal investigators lack adequate time to investigate - There is currently no decision-making process available explaining what goes to External investigator vs what is managed Internally
2. When the matter is complex - There is currently no decision-making process available explaining what goes to External investigator vs what is managed Internally
3. To maintain impartiality - There is currently no information about the remit of the investigation process and the relationship between External investigators and SLT. Our impression is that everything needs to be approved first by senior staff members.
4. To benefit from outside expertise - There is currently no information about how the recommendations are being used and whether the School has any obligations to implement them or if there is a timeframe.
5. To gain objectivity or preserve credibility - The lack of transparency from SLT is an open secret, so yes, maybe this could help. However, not if they define what the investigation will be.
6. When conducting investigations with criminal and regulatory issues - There is currently no decision-making process available explaining what goes to External investigator vs what is managed Internally
7. To ensure confidentiality and/or legal privilege - There is no information on how and where the final report from the External Investigation is being stored. There are no options for witness anonymity which makes them vulnerable to retaliation and more.
The FAIR Network final diagnostic
The use of external investigation is positive on paper and could really promote awareness and accountability. However, we are not convinced that LSHTM’s approach can actually bring about such results.
An external investigation at LSHTM IS NOT an external investigation in the true sense: where the investigator conducts the interviews and the investigation processes that they believe to be the most appropriate. Rather, they can only work within the remit that they are given.
It means that if you submit a complaint about someone that countless others have made complaints about in the past, unless the School mentions prior claims and includes proof in the remit of the external investigation, the investigation will treat your complaint as a single issue rather than being able to potentially establish a larger pattern.
It means that if you report something that happened to your friend or colleague and that person wants to remain anonymous, unless they agree to share their personal information with SLT, their complaint, and yours on their behalf, will be disregarded. Even if you wanted to arrange a confidential meeting between them and the External Investigator (which the External Investigator might have to refuse as it would breach their contract with LSHTM), the investigator will not be able to include it in the final report, or use the information to build their argument.
At the moment, based on the information available and considering their tendency of the School to want to “control all processes”, it appears that the School is hiring a third party to do work in a way that suits them behind closed doors while talking about “objectivity and transparency” in public.
The denial of the right for anonymity is of most concern. If we could all confront our attackers in the open or have our names known by senior management, without fear of intimidation, retaliation or further abuse, there would be no need for such ‘reporting’ systems in the first place.
After stating all of this, we are not convinced that we would advocate for any external investigation in this way but there are more aspects to be considered (e.g. timeline for reporting, external resources like OIA). We’ll be discussing with you in the coming weeks.
We hope you find this useful. We encourage you to reach out to SLT if you too are worried about this system or would just like the external investigation policies to be clearly described in the School’s official documents.
If you have questions or would like to share more based on your own experience, feel free to email us and rest assured that we will protect your anonymity.
The FAIR Network