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The Latest from the Blog

Protecting Against Unwanted Sexual Advances at Work

Harriet Stacey - Monday, August 25, 2014

Protecting Against Unwanted Sexual Advances at Work

The definition of a workplace might seem relatively simple – the office, the work site, the place where you carry out your duties of employment. Yet a recent finding of the Full Federal Court has affirmed one judge’s ruling that the workplace can quite often extend beyond the four walls concept. It follows (as the majority of judges in this case recognised) that unlawful behaviour such as sexual harassment can occur within unconventional ‘workplace’ circumstances and venues.

Can a nearby pub be a ‘workplace’?

The case in question – Vergara v Ewin – involved unwanted sexual advances from a male contractor towards a female supervisor. Some of these occurred in the regular workplace, while other behaviour took place in venues that might ordinarily be considered off-site. One such place was a pub called the Waterside Hotel, in Melbourne’s CBD. The respondent stated that she moved a discussion about the unwanted advances out of the ‘regular’ office to the nearby pub, in order to feel safe with the applicant. She and the applicant had been alone at the office, and she wanted to continue the work-related discussion near other people. This became one of the harassment sites.

A question arose as to whether the Waterside Hotel could realistically be considered a workplace under s28B of the Sexual Discrimination Act, as in force in 2009. Firstly, the parties were found to be ‘workplace participants’ for the purposes of the Act, although the appellant was a contractor.

From there, the full court found that the pub was indeed a workplace in accordance with s28B(7): “A place at which a workplace participant works or otherwise carries out functions in connection with being a workplace participant.”

In continuing to discuss the workplace harassment question, the parties were found to be carrying on the necessary work-related function while at the hotel.

Important lessons to be learned

The decision in this case raises important points for all workplace participants, whether they are employees or contractors. Unfortunately the scourge of sexual harassment continues to exist, and it is important to think through the potential situations that you may find yourself in if you are managing unwanted sexual advances from a colleague. Following a few simple guidelines can help you to protect yourself:

    • Be clear
    • Avoid alcohol
    • Avoid being alone
    • Report your concerns
Be clear

In this case, while the court agreed that the purpose of the meeting in the Waterside Hotel was to discuss the harassment, clearly this wasn’t understood by the applicant. If you choose to address unwanted sexual advances with the person involved, be careful that your actions can’t be taken as a green light. Keep the discussion at the office, keep it professional, and make sure you are within sight of your colleagues during the discussion.

Alcohol and sexual harassment are not a good mix

Work drinks are a common form of team bonding in many work places, but it’s wise to understand the increased risks of alcohol consumption in terms of lowering inhibitions. Thinking of letting your hair down with your workmates once you’ve moved discussions to the local pub? It certainly might pay to think twice about this.

Being alone means being vulnerable

Make sure you don’t find yourself in a situation where you are alone with the person who is making unwanted advances toward you. The presence of another colleague is often enough to deter harassment.

Report the situation

Even if you want to handle the situation yourself initially, it’s important to report your concerns to a third party, and make it known to the person involved that you have done so.

It pays to take heed of the dangers that can present themselves, both in the ordinary office setting and wherever ‘workplace participants’ are carrying out work ‘functions’. .

Education and vigilance

Employers must also continue to be vigilant in maintaining a safe environment for all people under their occupational control. Just confining the focus of anti-harassment measures to the four walls of your office environment might not be sufficient. Considering the growing fluidity of employment, all engagements between participants both on and off-site have the potential to create unfortunate scenarios. .

Education is essential – whether engaging employees, temps or contractors, employers should ensure that a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual harassment and other misconduct is conveyed from day one. Training, regular updates and modelling best practices can all assist in developing workplaces where safety and respect are core objectives. Off or on-site, this case demonstrates the significant problems that arise where unfortunate behaviour occurs between colleagues

How to Plan a Workplace Investigation and Why it’s Important

Harriet Stacey - Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Plan a Workplace Investigation and Why it’s Important

If you are conducting either internal or external workplace investigations, it is crucial that you formulate a unique plan of action for each investigative process. No two workplace issues are the same, and a well-structured investigation plan will ensure that you account for the many variables that can arise. Almost certainly, you will be dealing with complex fact scenarios and high emotions within the workplace. Without a well-planned workplace investigation process, such factors can lead to distractions and pitfalls that have the potential to take the investigation off-track. The key factors to build into your investigation plan include:

    • Maintaining procedural fairness during the workplace investigation
    • Planning how to elicit the best evidence
    • Ensuring full coverage of pertinent issues
A good workplace investigation plan guides the process - yet retains sufficient flexibility to accommodate unforeseen developments.
Maintaining procedural fairness e

Legally, procedural fairness is not as simple as ‘being fair’ in our dealings. The very structure of a procedure such as a workplace investigation must also appear fair to an objective bystander. For example, a well-meaning internal investigator might dissuade a worker from bringing a support person because ‘this is just a friendly chat’ about alleged misconduct. It might well transpire that any evidence gathered in this process is tainted by a lack of procedural fairness. A cogent plan for how and when staff and management will be engaged is crucial. If the size or nature of the organisation is such that such fairness cannot be guaranteed, engagement of an external investigator might well be the prudent option. For external investigators, assessing any potential power dynamics, access issues or managerial support for the investigation can all enable the investigator to create a robust and procedurally fair workplace investigation plan, suitable for individual workplaces.

Plan for the best evidence

In workplace investigations, it pays to keep in mind that the best reports and recommendations are built upon sound evidence. The Briginshaw principle reminds us that although there is only one civil standard of proof – the balance of probabilities – the seriousness of the allegations and possible consequences in a particular matter will affect whether available evidence is sufficiently probative to meet that standard. In the heat of the moment in a workplace investigation, it can certainly be difficult to remember your rules of evidence, with a view to possible future actions! Unfortunately with workplace disputes often creating a veritable minefield of evidentiary blunders such as hearsay (‘I heard from Henry that Sheila saw Jane take the printer’), it is best to plan for the location and elicitation of the most probative available evidence in the circumstances. In your investigation plan it helps to go over any written brief or preliminary notes you might have on the physical and social characteristics of the workplace, in order to timetable your evidence-gathering strategy. Are original documents onsite, are private interview rooms available, are any key staff members on leave, do managers encourage support people for interviewees? With a little forward planning, the workplace investigation can extract strong and compelling evidence.

Ensure full coverage of pertinent issues

A workplace investigation should proceed with clear and detailed terms of reference (TOR). The investigator must be clearly informed as to the scope and scale of the investigation, in order to be able to create an investigation plan that most closely meets these parameters. Within that plan, it will be necessary to identify the relevant aspects of employment law or related legislation, in order to gauge the most pressing issues to investigate relevant to the TOR. For example, recent case law regarding exclusionary provisions within anti-discrimination legislation might affect the types of relevant issues to best explore in a given workplace. As well as planning for legal and factual issue coverage, a sound investigation plan will ensure that the workplace investigation does not head off on a tangent. It can take strong professional aptitude to compassionately hear a story, while also limiting interviews to the pertinent issues.

In order to be fair, to collect good evidence, and to cover all of the pertinent issues, a detailed workplace investigation plan is a must-have for all workplace investigators.

How to Handle Workplace Bullying

Harriet Stacey - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to Handle Workplace Bullying

Is bullying a problem in your workplace? According to a regulation impact statement produced by Safe Work Australia, the prevalence of bullying in Australian workplaces is between 3.5 and 21%. The cost of bullying to businesses in terms of lost productivity and absenteeism amounts to millions of dollars every year, and being a victim of bullying can affect the physical and mental health of employees.

If you suspect bullying is a problem in your workplace, it’s important that the problem is addressed, but how do you tackle it without making things worse or aggravating the situation further? Here are a few suggestions to help you handle workplace bullying in your organisation.
Make sure you have all the information

Before you jump in to try to resolve the situation, it’s important to make sure that you have a complete understanding of the issues involved. It’s a good idea to speak to other co-workers who may have witnessed the alleged bullying and find out whether there are any underlying problems which may have contributed to the situation.

If you try to take further measures without having an accurate picture of what is happening, you could end up causing further conflict and making the situation worse. If you have a personal relationship or work closely with either of the parties involved, it may be worth taking a step back and asking HR or even an external investigator to help you.

Before taking further action you will need to evaluate whether the behaviour can be defined as bullying or whether it falls under a different category such as sexual harassment or discrimination. Sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination require a different disciplinary approach to bullying.

Minimise the risk of continued harm

Once you have evaluated the situation, the next step is to take short-term measures to prevent the behaviour continuing. It may take a while to come to a full resolution so in the meantime you may want to consider reassigning tasks, granting leave or taking steps to ensure that the parties involved have minimal or no contact.

Decide whether the matter can be resolved

If the bullying isn’t too serious, it may be possible to resolve the matter internally with a no-blame conciliatory approach or disciplinary measures for the person found to be doing the bullying. In more serious cases, you may need to conduct an in-depth investigation, especially if someone could potentially lose their job over bullying allegations. .

If you decide on a resolution, it’s important to make sure the person being bullied is happy with the outcome. They may wish to deal with the situation themselves first by asking the person doing the bullying to stop, and you can offer them support in this.

As an employer, it’s important that any actions taken are well documented. If your management and employees haven’t undergone specific workplace bullying training it is well worth considering. Anyone who may have to deal with bullying incidents should be aware of the legislation surrounding workplace bullying before they escalate an issue or take action themselves.

Harriet Stacey 28 Jan 2014

Following the recent anti-bullying amendment to the Fair Work Act, WISE CEO Harriet Stacey talks about the importance for employers to be proactive and effective in how they deal with workplace bullying.