Common Issues with Workplace Mediations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Occasional conflicts and disputes are a fact of life in all workplaces. One of the best ways to defuse difficult situations, resolve office concerns and keep your staff happy is mediation. But even though this is a potentially very effective device in the employer's toolkit, workplace mediations can go wrong.

Let's take a look at the process of mediation, and some of the issues which might arise. 

What is mediation? 

The mediation process requires all parties involved in a dispute or issue to meet in the presence of a third party (the mediator), to try and come up with mutually acceptable solutions.

The mediator is trained and is required to be neutral. Unlike a judge, they will not make a determination or decision - instead, a mediator will listen to all parties and suggest objective solutions and options. 

what happens during mediation?

During the actual process of mediation, the parties are encouraged to ventilate their respective viewpoints. Each party then has the opportunity to have private discussions with the mediator, after which the mediator will discuss any commonalities and the key differences in each party's attitude, while suggesting potential resolutions.

Outcomes are flexible and are really only limited by the willingness of the involved parties to cooperate. In the employment context, this means that mediations may result in agreement to apologise, or more novel outcomes such as crediting or debiting leave hours, returning property, or providing work references. Mediations are confidential, which also makes them an extremely attractive option. 

key issues with mediation

Mediation can be extremely helpful by providing a positive communication and solution tool in circumstances where there are no easy answers.

However, mediation may not be as successful if one or both of the parties are extremely entrenched in their viewpoint and are unlikely or unwilling to compromise. This is particularly the case because mediation is a voluntary process - so if staff are reluctant to participate, they cannot be forced to engage.

Further, where matters of serious misconduct or illegality are involved, it may be inappropriate to attempt to find novel solutions to workplace issues. In those circumstances, it is generally appropriate to follow the traditional paths of discipline, incentivisation or other resolution methods.

There can also be issues if parties don't comply with any agreed upon outcomes of the mediation process. 

potential for problems after mediation

Any agreement which is reached during the mediation process can be as formal or as informal as the parties and workplace prefer: from a simple verbal agreement all the way through to a Deed of Settlement recording the negotiated terms or contract stipulating future actions.

Should a formal agreement be executed and one of the parties subsequently reneges on the terms of settlement, the aggrieved party can pursue legal action through the court system to force compliance.

If you have an issue in your workplace regarding employee conflict, it may be useful to discuss these issues with an external, experienced workplace investigator or mediator. If you need support in how to conduct an investigation or need to engage a mediator, contact WISE.

Why Employers Can't Afford to Ignore Procedural Fairness

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 01, 2018

It is important for employers to keep procedural fairness top of mind when conducting workplace investigations or taking disciplinary action.

Failing to do so can result in terminations being deemed unfair, as the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Nicholas Jarmain v Linfox Armaguard Pty Ltd [2018] FWC 3255 (14 June 2018) shows. 

background of the case 

Linfox Armaguard dismissed casual employee Nicholas Jarmain in October 2017 for serious misconduct. While the Fair Work Commission found the termination was justified, it determined that Mr Jarmain had been unfairly dismissed due to insufficient procedural fairness.

Mr Jarmain was dismissed after a client complained that he was "overly engaged in interaction and discussion" and generally inappropriate with staff members and customers of the client.

In response to the allegations, Mr Jarmain was asked to undergo an interview with a security officer and a union support person present. Explanations for his behaviour were sought (and his answers recorded) during the interview, and Mr Jarmain was then suspended from duty.

At a meeting three weeks later, Mr Jarmain was given further opportunity to explain the circumstances giving rise to the complaints against him. However, as his preferred union delegate was injured and unable to attend, the employer substituted their own preferred union official for that meeting.

The employer terminated Mr Jarmain's casual employment the next day, citing wilful and deliberate breaches of safety and security procedures. 

Breaches of procedural fairness

In the interest of procedural fairness, Mr Jarmain's employer should have advised him what claims were being investigated before asking him to participate in a recorded interview.

This was considered to be particularly egregious given that the employer is a big company with sufficient access to HR professionals. HR could (and indeed should) have been relied upon to ensure that Mr Jarmain was afforded procedural fairness when facing disciplinary action.

While the employer's reasons for dismissing Mr Jarmain were "sound, defensible and well-founded", especially given the job involves loaded weapons, the Commission concluded that the flaws in procedure, such as failing to provide any formal warnings or reprimands, were significant. 

The Commission determined that Mr Jarmain had not been given sufficient notification of the circumstances surrounding the complaints against him, or indeed the events giving rise to the complaints - and that he had effectively been ambushed, without sufficient information to defend himself against the claims. 

This meant that both Mr Jarmain's interview and ultimate dismissal were contrary to the requirements of procedural fairness.

Additional failures included the employer selecting the support person assisting Mr Jarmain in the second interview (as opposed to permitting the employee to pick his support person). By making such a decision it was akin to removing Mr Jarmain's right to have a support person present at all.

Further, the employer should not have suspended Mr Jarmain without pay.

the final decision

Ultimately, given the nature of the industry in which Mr Jarmain was employed, Commissioner Cambridge declined to order reinstatement of the employment but ordered compensation payments to the tune of $8,592.

This case demonstrates that having a valid reason to dismiss is only one factor that is considered in unfair dismissal claims. The Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as training.  

Guarding the Vulnerable: Reporting Obligations in Focus

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 25, 2018

With the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Australian organisations are now on notice in relation to their ongoing child protection reporting obligations.

Mandatory reporting of particular conduct or convictions is a strong means of ensuring that those who care for the most vulnerable in our community, do not slip through the regulatory net.

We examine the nature and extent of these obligations, as an ongoing reminder of the importance of safeguarding children and other vulnerable individuals within organisational contexts.

Different states, different rules 

One of the difficulties that has hampered a national response to child abuse and neglect is that due to Australia being a federation of States, there can be slight differences in the reporting requirements between State jurisdictions. This leads to the possibility of uneven treatment between organisations that are mandated to report alleged child abuse.

As a result, employers should be vigilant in adhering to the reporting obligations applicable to all organisational operations, both between and across State lines. Effectively identifying and reporting the types of behaviour that require mandatory notification is an ongoing challenge across Australia - but certainly a battle that is worth continuing, considering what is at stake.

This article focuses on reporting obligations in NSW. 

Reportable conduct

Under s 25A of the NSW Ombudsman Act 1974, the nature of reportable conduct is clearly set out. Alleged conduct by an employee or prescribed volunteer that involves child sexual assault or misconduct, child abuse and/or neglect must be reported to the Ombudsman as soon as practicable by all agencies covered by the Act.

An employer's knowledge of an employee's prior conviction for reportable conduct must also be brought to the notice of the Ombudsman. Less well-known conduct such as grooming and crossing boundaries by an assailant are also covered, and employers should take care to understand the breadth of the behaviours in question.

Mandatory reporting

Under the legislation, it is mandatory for employers within three organisational types to report any alleged notifiable conduct.

These organisations are defined in the Act as designated government agencies, all other public authorities, and designated non-government agencies (such as schools, childcare centres, out-of-school-hours services and agencies providing substitute residential care).

The latter group provides examples only, and employers should examine closely whether their organisation is, in all likelihood, an entity that falls under this third grouping. Businesses or agencies who are uncertain about their reporting obligations should seek immediate professional advice regarding their status under the Act.

when do obligations arise

It is not necessary for employers to have firm evidence about notifiable conduct prior to contacting the Ombudsman. Any allegation of reportable conduct should be notified as soon as the information comes to hand. Waiting until a clearer picture or more facts can be established before reporting is not advised. There is much more risk in 'waiting it out' than there is in making a premature notification: the safety and wellbeing of children must of course be placed front-and-centre in all deliberations by employers.

Who to report to?

The Ombudsman provides information and reporting advice for NSW employers in relation to mandatory notification of alleged child abuse. If any doubt remains at all in specific circumstances, it is essential that employers seek advice on the extent and nature of their obligations. For those employees who are not at the higher rungs of an organisation, it can certainly be difficult to ascertain who to tell if child abuse or neglect is suspected. Depending upon the circumstances, involvement of Police or the Office of the Children's Guardian might be necessary alongside those mechanisms mandated by the Ombudsman.

internal processes

It is not always the case that business owners or senior management will be aware of child-related reportable conduct that requires immediate notification. For this reason, it is essential that appropriate procedures are put in place to ensure that all employees are aware of mandatory reporting obligations.

Training on the practical requirements for reporting an employee or volunteer should be regularly provided and updated. Child safety is necessarily an organisation-wide issue and time can be essential if an individual finds themselves in a situation where abuse is suspected.

WISE provides Investigating Abuse in Care training which is specifically developed for organisations dealing with vulnerable clients. This is designed to meet the needs of investigators of child abuse in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse. Alternatively, we are highly experienced at investigating reportable conduct matters, through our investigation services.


Can You Deny Access to Workplace Investigation Documents?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Parties involved in a workplace investigation will often wish to gain access to documents that form part of the process. A difficult question for investigators is when - or if - it will be appropriate to release particular information. The reason for the request and the nature of the information will be key considerations, plus the investigator must find the best way to ensure that the access process is fair and transparent. As a recent case involving Australia Post reminds us, investigators need to carefully consider any decision to deny access to workplace investigation documents.

When to disclose information 

During the course of a workplace investigation it is entirely appropriate to keep parties informed of progress. In many cases, it will be quite simple to provide general information that keeps parties up-to-date, yet preserves any necessary privacy boundaries. One regular complaint from those under investigation is that they were 'kept in the dark' at every turn of the process. However, overt secrecy is often not necessary; disclosing information about delays, the nature of inquiries and the broad substance of allegations for example will generally not be problematic.

Another situation where information will need to be provided is when the investigator is required to do so by law. This could include as a response to a subpoena, summons or other court / police request, and should be responded to promptly.

Why should information be disclosed?

In many ways, it is simply professional best-practice to keep stakeholders informed of the progress of an investigation.

One specific advantage in providing regular updates and briefings is the effective management of expectations. Investigations can leave people feeling anxious, and the process can become impeded if individuals are forced to continually complain about non-disclosure. By regularly providing information about the scope, goals and process of the investigation, the 'temperature' in the workplace can be kept under control.

Providing information is also necessary to ensure transparency and accountability. The investigative process should, as far as possible, be able to withstand outside scrutiny both during and following completion. If it is later revealed that one party received greater assistance or exposure to materials than another, the chances of utilising the investigation outcomes will be greatly reduced.

A case in point

In the case of 'LC' and Australia Post (Freedom of information) [2017] AICmr 31, an employee made an FOI request for information relating to a workplace investigation.

Australia Post declined the request on the basis that the material was exempt according to the 'personal private information' exemption under s47F of the FOI Act. However, the commission found that the exemption does not apply to information that is likely to have a 'substantial adverse effect' on a person subject to investigation.

Investigators must ensure that the process remains transparent, and that any and all decisions to prevent disclosure are carefully considered in accordance with the legislation.

ensuring procedural fairness

One common mistake made by new workplace investigators is to see procedural fairness as a lightweight idea without much application in the real world. We know from experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Those under investigation deserve to know the nature of allegations made, to be given the opportunity to be properly heard, to have a support person if needed, to be questioned by an unbiased individual, and of course to have all relevant evidence considered in the decision. Disclosing information in an appropriate way, and at the right time, can certainly assist the overall fairness of the process - and prevent problems in the future.

When not to disclose

Although transparency and fairness are important elements of the workplace investigation, there are times where information should certainly not be disclosed. The right to privacy might require the investigator to protect information such as addresses, sensitive personal material or intellectual property matters as examples.

Further, it might be necessary to redact documents in order to protect anonymity or to withhold certain aspects of an allegation. However, overall investigators must ensure that a party is not substantially disadvantaged by the non-disclosure - a fine balancing act indeed.

The Australia Post case confirms our own experience in conducting fair workplace investigations. We certainly know that each situation will depend upon the particular facts when it comes to disclosing information to the parties involved.

If you need assistance on whether or not to disclose information during an investigation process, WISE provides supported investigation services and are here to help.


Fighting Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 11, 2018


At any given time, there are multiple generations operating in the workforce: new starters, more established professionals and those heading towards retirement.

While this can create a diverse positive workplace, where a range of different experiences, attitudes and learnings can be shared, it also creates a possible environment for age discrimination.

Age discrimination can occur at all stages of employment, including recruitment, the general office experience, in workplace terms and conditions and at dismissal.

What is age discRimination? 

It is against the law to discriminate against anybody in the workplace because of their actual or assumed age.

There are two main categories of age discrimination:

  • Direct age discrimination. This applies if somebody facing a disadvantage or an advantage in the workplace exclusively because of their age. For example, if an older person is overlooked for promotion because it is assumed that they are not as comfortable with technology as a younger person, this would be direct age discrimination.
  • Indirect age discrimination. This is more difficult to identify and generally applies in circumstances where there is an ostensibly fair policy in place for all staff, which nonetheless is likely to affect staff of different ages in different ways. An example could be an employee being selected for redundancy simply because they are thought to be closer to retirement age and less likely to be affected by the redundancy.

Not Just a problem for older workerS

Although many people assume that only older workers are discriminated against, workers of all ages can become victims of age discrimination.

Examples include:

  • Young workers may be discriminated against due to:
      • Their relative inexperience in a role.
      • A perceived belief that they take their job less seriously, which may lead to them being overlooked for promotion.
      • A failure to receive increases in remuneration because co-workers who are older and have families are considered to be in greater "need" of increased pay.
  • Middle aged workers may experience discrimination arising from:
      • A perception that they lack the seniority and experience of older workers but don't have the "fresh ideas" of young staff.
      • Company events being held at times when staff with young families may struggle to attend.
  • Older workers may experience age discrimination due to:
      • A perception that they do not understand or cannot keep up with new technologies.
      • Their ideas being dismissed as being "outdated" or "old fashioned".

Legislation governing age discrimination

The applicable Australian legislation is the Age Discrimination Act 2004, which ensures discrimination is against the law, including in employment, accommodation, service provision or education.

However, it is important to remember that in certain circumstances it is lawful and may even be appropriate to treat people of different ages differently. These include:

  • When required to do so by state or Commonwealth law (for example, superannuation funds not being permitted to release money until members have reached a certain age).
  • Complying with certain health and employment programs.
  • Paying staff in accordance with youth agreements and awards.

Similarly, if somebody's age prevents them from performing the inherent requirements of the job they have applied for, it is not discrimination to refuse that employment. For example, if somebody under the age of 18 applies for a job in a bar then it is obviously not discrimination to refuse them employment.

What to do if you're experiencing age discrimination

As an employee, if you feel that you are experiencing age discrimination, you can either elect to take up any complaint internally (through the organisation's usual complaints procedures) or by making a written complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Once received, the complaint can be investigated, and attempts made to resolve it via conciliation.

Alternatively, a final option could be to pursue a complaint through the Federal Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court.

What can workplaces do to help prevent age discrimination

Having strong policies in place to ensure that all staff are treated equally regardless of their age is one of the key factors in preventing age discrimination.

Providing equal access to training opportunities for all employees and offering flexibility around hours regardless of life stage can also help fight discrimination.

If you need help with age discrimination workplace policies and procedures, or if you have a question about age discrimination that you'd like to discuss, contact WISE today for support and guidance.

Counter Allegations - Who Did What When?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Experienced workplace investigators are well aware that when two or more people are in dispute, there will inevitably be differing perspectives on what 'the truth' might look like. Contentious workplace issues can often play out in a 'he said, she said' fashion, with one allegation being closely followed up by a second person's counter-allegation. Such complications should be dealt with in a fair, considered and methodical way.

Separate allegations made by opposing parties will ideally be dealt with in discrete stages by workplace investigators, with each being handled in accordance with its individual merits. And as evidence comes to light regarding one or more of the competing allegations, investigators should aim to assess and weigh each piece of information with utmost care and objectivity.

When two tribes go to war 

When a counter-allegation is initially made, it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding this development. It does not necessarily mean that the first complainant was misrepresenting events or indeed that the second complainant is somehow defensive, guilty or panicky. It is possible that both the original and the counter complaints are valid.

Let's take an example: perhaps she took his stapler and he wiped her hard-drive. Two complete denials on the same issue can require the workplace investigator to look more closely at the milieu of the counter-allegations. For instance, if two workers in a scuffle both identically calm that "I did nothing - she pushed me", an astute investigator will know that a pointed and methodical approach to the counter-allegations is certainly called for.

In each of these scenarios, both allegations should be investigated and dealt with separately. It can be tempting to create one big file entitled 'Stapler/hard-drive fiasco' or 'Smith and Jones stoush'. Yet clear delineations between people, events and timing will ensure that impartiality and clarity are maintained for the duration of the investigation and that the validity of each complaint is tested.

Seen and unseen allegationS

Very occasionally a workplace investigation involving counter-allegations will be easily settled. For example, the employee might not have been at work on the day that she allegedly stole the stapler - a simple mistake, evidenced by the work roster and now the complaint file can (on that issue at least) be finalised.

If only things were so simple... In most workplace situations, the investigator will need to step carefully through complex evidence attached to each allegation. Some events might be directly witnessed in a cut and dried way; Brown was in the kitchen with Smith and Jones on 7 December 2017 and can confidently say she saw Smith push Jones, who then walked away. Yet in many cases there are no witnesses to wrongdoing in the workplace and the 'he did/she did' scenario must be dealt with. 

Further clarification in many forms becomes the best way to methodically tease out the knots of knowledge. This might take the form of documentary evidence, circumstantial evidence such as presence at a meeting that day, or a contemporaneous report such as an OH&S report involving counter-complainants. A tidy pattern of good circumstantial evidence can at times provide the clarity needed in the face of vehement counter-allegations. The workplace investigator must carefully assess the quality, reliability and utility of such material, being sure not to make assumptions and/or factual errors along the way.

Hearsay - treading lightly on complex terrain

As with all areas of law and investigations, hearsay evidence can provide helpful insights in situations where nothing more concrete is available. Hearsay is generally words or things observed by an individual who was not directly present when an event occurred. In other words, it is a type of indirect evidence. A simple idea, but surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre successfully during investigations.

Great care is needed in these situations, as hearsay evidence is notorious for causing problems later in post-investigation proceedings. Employees may go home and talk openly to their spouse about distressing events. Or they stomp back to their desks, muttering to a colleague about 'the stapler thief'. Yet the spouse or the colleague cannot tell us much about what actually happened. They are a friendly ear - after the alleged event.

Such indirect evidence can be the least helpful in many cases. However, experienced investigators will know how to gather and utilise such material when more direct evidence is difficult to obtain.

Workplace allegations and motivations

It is not unheard of that rather ulterior motives can exist in a workplace allegation. When stories are not gelling, it is natural for the workplace investigator to think - what am I missing? Why would this person make this up? It is important to consider the possibility that rivalries, emotional issues and/or collusion might unfortunately form part of the mix that has motivated an internal complaint. While it does not pay to assume such a phenomenon, investigators should be aware that such dynamics can and do arise in the workplace.

In workplace investigations, we find that it is never simple. If you have an investigation that has 'blown' out, or you are reviewing cross and counter complaints and could use some professional assistance, then contact WISE today.

Managing Complaints - How To Find The Positive

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When an employee complaint alleging workplace discrimination or harassment is lodged, it is usually seen as a negative moment in the life of the organisation.

However, it is possible for an employer to view this as a positive phenomenon, rather than a sign of complete failure. This is because well-handled complaints can illuminate hidden corporate weaknesses, as well as any lurking issues affecting staff morale or motivation. Such information can become a valuable catalyst for positive change across the broader business - a win-win for internal and external stakeholders alike.

Best-practice in complaints handling is dependent upon a structured complaints process that includes two key ingredients: the quality of investigation process and the structure of the complaints process itself.

1. A thorough high-quality workplace investigation is an essential tool in the management of internal complaints, including allegations of discrimination and harassment.

2. The structural framework of internal complaints policies and procedures will necessarily be clear, accessible and well-publicised. A well-managed complaint can be a good news story not only for the people involved, but for the broader success of the business.

INVESTIGATING DISCRIMINATION AND HARASSMENT 

When an employee complains that they have been the subject of discrimination or harassment, it is highly likely that there will be differing opinions and perspectives as to whether or not this is actually the case.

As a result, best-practice workplace investigation requires fair, open and even-handed treatment of all who are involved in the investigative process. Further, it is important for investigators to move at a reasonable and logical pace, first making preliminary enquiries before deciding on any next steps.

But what does a good investigation mean on the ground? One key concept is procedural fairness. This means that parties involved are equally able to access the process, to be heard in a substantive way and to be given a fair opportunity to understand and respond adequately to any claims made against them. Under procedural fairness parties have the right to an impartial decision-maker and to having a support person present during their interview. Professional investigators must be seen to be unbiased in every phase of the workplace investigation.

Added to this, a high-quality workplace investigation will ensure that all relevant and reliable evidence has been carefully obtained, anaylsed and included appropriately in the final report. There can be no room for short cuts or preferential treatment in workplace investigations.       

Robust complaints policies and procedures

Employers, investigators, complainants and witnesses alike should ideally all have access to a durable set of internal policies and procedures covering common areas of complaint.

A strong policy document detailing how and to whom to make a complaint should be accessible, user-friendly and up-to-date. The policy should also direct the reader to one or more procedures that need to be followed in the event that an alleged instance of harassment or discrimination has occurred. This is often a time of great stress, and instructions to complainants should be clear and helpful.

Internal policies and procedures that are complicated, badly written or tucked away in a dusty filing cabinet are of little-to-no assistance to the individual seeking to make a complaint.

This is why good investigations and good complaints policies go hand-in-hand: even the best investigator will struggle to keep things fair if complaints policies are convoluted or absent, or if procedures leading up to the investigation are sub-optimal.

Perhaps most importantly, managers and employees should be trained in practically accessing and using these documents, at all stages being assured that complaints are taken seriously and are indeed welcomed by the organisation.

Step by step pathways

A sound complaints process begins with employees first being made aware of a useable and fair pathway for their grievance. A good internal complaints system will work step-by-step through a logical process. This means initially providing clear and succinct information on the nature of common complaints, some definitions where appropriate, the bigger picture of the complaints process and - perhaps most importantly - who to speak with in the first instance about the particular concern.

An internal complaint is a golden opportunity for employers to gain important information about people and workplaces. For this reason, the internal complaints system should be presented in a simple, cordial and helpful format.

Problems arise every day that require the existence of an effective complaints and investigations pathway. Thankfully many complaints can be quickly and easily resolved. However, if you need to undertake investigations or a review of your HR policies, and want to ensure you are conducting it with best practice, our training is developed by investigators for investigators. Contact WISE today to find out more.

How to Deal with Bullying in Hospital Environments

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Hospitals - very few people like them, yet many of us will be a resident at one time or another. Even though hospitals can be sources of great joy, places where babies are born, miracles happen and lives are saved, they also represent sickness, injury, death, and some pretty ordinary food! 

The people who work in them - the doctors, surgeons, nurses, aides, assistants, administrators and catering staff - perform difficult work in an extremely stressful environment. Imagine the potential consequences when the added stressor of workplace bullying is added to the mix.

Factors which facilitate bullying in this environment 

Hospitals and the healthcare sector remain a particularly hierarchical environment - carers need to get sign-off from nurses before passing out certain medications, nurses confirm recommended treatments with doctors, doctors and surgeons rely on their own pecking order. 

This hierarchy, and the importance of culture and following rules, automatically puts certain workers in a subordinate position relative to others.

Lateral violence, verbal, physical and psychological bullying among peers, can also be an issue in the health services. 

Combined with the stress of having to deal with time-critical emergencies, becoming involved in physically and mentally straining situations and dealing with the trauma of patients suffering, hospitals are the perfect breeding ground for hostility, anger and frustration.

Prevalence of bullying

Bullying in the healthcare sector is an under-recognised but pervasive problem. Hospitals often have scant or limited resources and staff are under significant pressure, which may contribute to the prevalence of workplace bullying.

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine surveyed its members in 2017 and found 34% had experienced bullying, 16.1% had experienced harassment and just over six percent had been victims of sexual harassment. A landmark 2015 report commissioned by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons showed that almost half of all surgeons had experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. 

The Victorian Auditor General Office, in its 2016 report to the Victorian Parliament, 'Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector', stated 

"The Health Sector is unable to demonstrate that it has effective controls in place to prevent or reduce inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment. Key controls that would effectively reduce this risk to employee health and safety are either inadequately implemented, missing or poorly coordinated." 

However, by its very nature, bullying in this type of workplace can be particularly difficult to detect and manage. 

Consequences of bullying

The potential consequences of bullying are significant. In addition to litigation arising from the bullying and costs associated with worker's compensation or other payouts, a number of issues can arise. These include:

  • High turnover amongst dissatisfied staff
  • Presenteeism - where staff turn up at work, but are unhappy or stressed and perform inadequately, which is particularly dangerous in a hospital environment. 
  • Increased absenteeism
  • A poorly functioning team environment that can adversely affect staff and patients.      

are there solutions to bullying in high-stress environments?  

Key strategies to help solve the problem include:

  • A focus on workplace culture, including by conducting regular cultural audits. 
  • Encouraging a 'mentor' or 'buddy' system (in consultation with unions where appropriate), or otherwise provide a supportive environment whereby staff are encouraged to vent or ask for assistance with any matters they are struggling with. 
  • Facilitating easy access for staff to obtain confidential counselling, or advice services. 
  • Fostering an environment where staff feel comfortable raising concerns and complaints with their peers and management.
  • Having clear zero tolerance policies regarding workplace bullying and harassment, which are easily accessible to all staff
  • Ensure that this zero tolerance policy, is demonstrated by senior management, so there is a top down recognition of adherence to the policy from all staff. 
  • Staff need to be regularly reminded of the consequences of any poor behaviour in the workplace and this should be reinforced during staff meetings.  

Bullying or harassment - in any workplace - is simply unacceptable. Many incidents of bullying or harassment may be unreported for fear of reprisals. All staff should be encouraged to report any incident. 

If your organisation needs any assistance in this area please contact WISE to arrange a no-obligation appointment or otherwise contact us to discuss how we may assist you. Our services include investigation, training, provision of a whistleblower facility (which can be tailored to suit your reporting needs), and review of policies

When Workplace Relationships Go Wrong

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Given how much time employees spend at work every week, it is hardly surprising that romantic relationships develop in the workplace. 

But what happens when a romance is inappropriate, or attraction crosses the line into sexual harassment?

inappropriate vs unlawful

While there is nothing illegal about a workplace relationship between two consenting adults, in some circumstances it can be inappropriate, for example a romance between a manager and a subordinate. 

There is also a significant difference between mutual and enacted sexual attraction, and unlawful conduct such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or even abuse or assault. Sexual harassment is unlawful under both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Sexual abuse and/or assault is a criminal offence.

the issues and consequences

Workplace relationships can become problematic, particularly in situations where a relationship involves two employees, one of whom oversees the other's performance, management or appraisal. 

Other co-workers may feel aggrieved by a real or perceived bias involving any decisions made by the more senior worker involved in the relationship. Team morale can suffer if one member is seen to be treated more favourably than the rest when it comes to performance appraisals, the allocation of work and promotional opportunities. 

Partly for this reason, employers may be tempted to dismiss employees who have not disclosed the nature of their romantic relationships. The legality of any such dismissal is questionable - however, previous decisions of the Fair Work Commission have suggested that employees may be dismissed in cases where employees are untruthful when they are challenged about the existence of workplace relationships. 

Employees may also make unwanted advances to other employees, as a result of innocently misinterpreting signs of perceived sexual interest. While there's nothing wrong with a co-worker asking a colleague out on a date or making an advance, there is a problem if the 'advancer' fails to accept and move on from any rebuff. 

The potential for negative fallout when a relationship ends is also a key concern for most employers. This is particularly the case if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other party wants to move on - ongoing attention may tip over into sexual harassment. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is 'any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual'.

From an employer's perspective, if sexual misconduct occurs in the workplace (or at employer-sanctioned events such as Christmas parties or other functions) then the business may well be vicariously liable.

There is certainly potential for litigation or unwanted media attention and brand damage as a consequence of sexual misconduct or an inappropriate relationship.    

what can an employer do to minimise the fallout? 

From a risk mitigation perspective, employers should ensure that they have adequately drafted and communicated workplace policies.

At a minimum, these policies should include: 

  • Clear guidelines on the permissibility of relationships between co-workers and when such relationships should be disclosed; 
  • Procedures for what should happen when such a relationship is disclosed, for example when a change in reporting structure is required;
  • A clause addressing conflict of interest and perceived bias (especially when relationships occur between senior and junior staff);
  • A clause defining sexual misconduct, highlighting the definition of sexual harassment and what kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace. 
  • Workplace policies that promote awareness of all gender related issues, including sexual harassment. 

It is common for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. As an employer, it is important to ensure that these circumstances do not lead to incidents of sexual harassment or perceptions of conflict of interest. 

Employers should ensure that they address all complaints of sexual harassment with care. If you have had complaints regarding sexual harassment, or are concerned about potential bias, WISE provides full and supported investigation services

Issues with Intoxicated or Hungover Staff? What to do

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Most adults like to indulge in the use of alcohol from time to time. Some even like to partake a little more frequently - which is generally not problematic, in the privacy of one's own home and social sphere.

But occasionally problems with alcohol or even drug consumption can creep into the workplace, with staff under the influence while at work or under performing because of the after-effects. 

Employers have an OHS duty of care to all employees so they need to ensure that alcohol in the workplace does not give rise to safety risks. Employees also have a duty of care to themselves. Let's take a look at how employers can manage alcohol and drug-related issues in the workplace.

underlying factors and potential consequences

Alcohol and drug-related problems can occur in any workplace, across different industries. They can arise due to any number of factors, including personal issues experienced by the employee, stress, ongoing addiction, or poor workplace culture, to name a few. 

The potential consequences of alcohol or drug consumption - whether recreational or prescription - include the risk of injuries sustained by other staff and customers, absenteeism, lost production or general lack of competence, and a reliance on rehabilitation or workers compensation. 

The cost of these problems to business varies, however 1 in 10 workers say they have experienced the negative effects of a co-worker's misuse of alcohol.   

identifying alcohol or drug-related risks

One of the best ways to avoid difficulties with drugs and alcohol in the workplace is to identify potential risks and develop workplace policies that address these. 

These are some of the factors to consider when determining the level of risk facing your business:

  • Are your workers engaged in a high-stress environment? 
  • Is the operation of heavy machinery, vehicles or other equipment a requirement of your business?
  • Are there legislative or safety requirements to ensure that anybody operating this equipment is free from the influence of substances? 
  • Do staff potentially have access to illegal or significant amounts of pharmaceutical drugs, whether for their own consumption or for resale?

implementing a workplace drug and alcohol policy

At a minimum, your workplace policies should spell out:

  • Whether your company has a zero-tolerance policy for any types of drug or alcohol consumption;
  • Whether staff are required to declare reliance on specific pharmaceutical medications;
  • If random drug or alcohol testing is undertaken in the workplace; 
  • What expectations are placed on drug and alcohol consumption at work-related functions;
  • What the potential consequences of intoxication in the workplace could be

It is important to note that Section 12 of the Fair Work Act defines "serious misconduct" to include an employee being intoxicated at work. It would therefore be reasonable to dismiss an employee under those circumstances. 

It is also worthwhile ensuring that HR and other executive employees have undergone training in identifying staff who are intoxicated in the workplace or have perhaps formed habits of dependence. 

how to approach a worker who is under the influence 

When staff members suspect that a colleague may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is important to be extremely sensitive in approaching that person. The specific approach will, of necessity, be dictated by various factors, including:

  • The relevant industry;
  • The workplace culture and structure;
  • The employee's role and seniority; 
  • The personal circumstances of the employee;
  • Whether the occurrence is 'once off' of suggests a pattern of behaviour; 
  • The legal environment;
  • The duties and responsibilities of the employee.

An employee is likely to be more responsive if they are approached from the perspective of a safety concern rather than an accusation. This is particularly the case where the behaviour or intoxication may arise from physical injuries, acute distress or prescribed medication which the patient is reacting badly to. 

During the process of drafting a workplace policy relating to drug and alcohol consumption, management should consider appointing and training specific staff members whose role it is to approach employees who are suspected to be under the influence of substances. 

These staff members could include managers, counsellors, health and safety representatives or HR representatives. A chain of command should also be instituted so that staff who have been tasked with making initial contact have somebody else to turn to for assistance if their initial approach fails.

If an employer dismisses an employee for drug/alcohol abuse and ends up with a claim for unfair dismissal, then a good employer defence would include that they had a workplace policy and approach that not only included clear consequences but also emphasised that the employer views abuse as a health issue and therefore seeks to help the employee overcome their abuse (this would be in cases where abuse outside of work is affecting performance as opposed to being intoxicated or high at work). 

This can be done by having an Employee Assistance Program (provided by an external provider); having a mental health and wellbeing policy; and an 'RUOK' approach - whereby managers encourage a culture of everyone looking out for each other and literally asking, are you ok? After all, such welfare approaches are exhausted over a reasonable period of time an employer would be safe to move to disciplinary approaches. 

Employers may also need to assess whether the issue is widespread, ie. a workplace culture of abuse. If this is the case, then there maybe engrained cultural issues that need to be investigated and remedied.   

What can employers do?

Workplaces are encouraged to establish a workplace drug and alcohol policy and procedure that can be followed in the event of a drug or alcohol-related incident in the organisation. 

WISE can assist you in drafting these policies, or assessing your current policy, and training staff. Alternatively, we can provide investigative services for any incidents that have occurred in the workplace.