Performance Management vs Bullying: Where's the Line?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Employers often face a quandary in dealing with underperformers, and whether to place them onto a performance management program. 

It's essential that any such move can always be considered to be 'reasonable management action' in response to inappropriate behaviours or inadequate or unsatisfactory performance, and not simply a way of bullying an employee. 

Let's take a look at the difference between performance management and bullying, and how employers can make sure they are not crossing the line.  

what is performance management?

At some point, every employer will need to manage an underperforming staff member. In practice, this means taking steps to deal with poor conduct, including:

  • Non-compliance with policies/procedures and other workplace requirements
  • Inappropriate, disruptive or generally bad behaviour
  • Unsatisfactory performance of work tasks

The necessary steps may range from informal performance management, where the inappropriate or unsatisfactory behaviour is brought to the staff member's attention, through to a more formal process such as the implementation of a performance improvement plan.

is it reasonable management action or is it bullying?

Employers are not prohibited from dealing with staff that they consider are underperforming. However, care needs to be taken to avoid bullying a staff member, within the meaning of s789FD (1) of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

That legislation defines bullying as a situation where 'an individual... or group of individuals... repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker, or a group of workers of which the worker is a member, and... that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety'.

The same legislation explicitly excludes 'reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner' from the bullying definition.

But what is reasonable management action? Although not an exhaustive list, the following situations constitute appropriate management action within the meaning of the legislation:

  • Scheduling regular meetings to discuss ongoing performance issues
  • Disciplinary an employee for identified misconduct
  • Undertaking an investigation into a complaint
  • Modifying a worker's duties as required by operational reasons or the employee's health.

When making an objective assessment of the reasonableness of the management action, it is important to consider what caused the action, what circumstances were  in train while the action was taken, and what occurred as a result. 

It is also important to note that there is no 'retrospective gold standard'. Just because an employer may, in hindsight, have been able to improve on the way they undertook the action, does not necessarily mean that it was not appropriate reasonable action at the time. 

Moreover, although the staff member's perception of a negative management action is likely to tend towards it being unreasonable, the standard is objectiveness and this is not determined by one or a group of employees' views.

lesson from real-world cases

Unsurprisingly, the question of what constitutes reasonable management action is one which is frequently litigated in court. 

In the decision of Commonwealth Bank of Australia v Reeve [2012] FCAFC 21, it was determined that a manager's day-to-day instructions were not enough to constitute 'management action'.

In National Australia Bank Limited v KRDV [2012] FCA 543, the court considered that although the employee was spoken to about her performance in both a formal Action Operation Management meeting and in a 'casual chat', the two meetings were not sufficiently clear as performance-related discussions to constitute reasonable management action.

how to ensure compliance with reasonable management action

Practical tips for compliance include: 

  • Ensuring that formal and documented performance management processes occur at all relevant times, and avoiding informal or impromptu 'chats' on performance
  • Reviewing policies and procedures regularly, in relation to bullying and also appropriate disciplinary action
  • Advising managers to always provide clear and direct instructions, which cannot be seen as ambiguous
  • Documenting and providing formal written warnings when inappropriate behaviour is called out, to demonstrate that management involvement has been required. 

Performance management is part of maintaining a successful business. However, if you receive complaints regarding your performance management approach, and want to ensure that you are complying with best practice and acting in a fair and reasonable manner, contact WISE for assistance and advice today.

What Should You Include in a Whistleblower Policy?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Whistleblower protections have been top of mind for many Australian organisations recently, following a number of changes to the law. 

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistle-Blower Protections) Bill 2017 is due to come into effect from July 2019.

This will result in significant changes to the way whistleblowers are to be treated under a raft of existing legislation, including the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), the Banking Act 1959 (Cth) and the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (Cth).

One of the key changes is the need for organisations to have policies in place around whistleblower procedures and protections. 

So what are some of the key changes to the law, and what should your whistleblower policy include? 

the key changes to the law

A number of changes will take effect under the new legislation, including: 

  • The expansion of the definition of 'whistleblowers' to include relatives, dependants, their spouses, former employees and former associates.
  • Excluding personal work-related grievances from conduct that is otherwise deemed to be reportable.
  • Enhancing protections for whistleblowers. This includes increased anonymity, more significant penalties for revealing identities of whistleblowers and facilitating the ability for whistleblowers to seek compensation or redress in situations where they have been victimised. 
  • Limiting the persons in a business who are entitled to receive disclosures, but permitting externalisation of whistleblowing to the media and/or parliamentarians in circumstances where the disclosure may be a matter of public interest or emergency. 
  • Requiring public and large proprietary companies (defined as companies with consolidated revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees) to have a detailed and compliant whistleblower policy in place. 

defining conduct to be reported

The intention of the legislation is to protect people who: 

  • Report misconduct or 'an improper state of affairs or circumstances' in situations where the whistleblower has reasonable grounds to suspect that the misconduct has occurred. This is generally expected to cover 'unethical' conduct. 
  • Believe an offence has been committed under legislation whose supervision comes under the purview of the watchdogs APRA or ASIC.
  • Report behaviours which 'represent a danger to the public or financial system' or otherwise relate to a civil or criminal offence which could result in imprisonment for a period of at least one year. 

explaining the process

In the event that a staff member wishes to make a disclosure, it is essential that it is only made to the appropriate category of person. Internally, this includes officers of the company, a person authorised by the company to receive 'protected disclosures' (such as an HR representative) or a senior manager of the whistleblower, who is an employee of the company. Companies can facilitate disclosure by implementing a mechanism for staff members to report online or over the phone. 

External disclosures can be made to ASIC/APRA, auditors or actuaries reviewing the company, lawyers or journalists or parliamentarians where public interest would be met by making the disclosure.

Whistleblowers are entitled to retain anonymity. However, the information does not need to remain confidential, as long as it can be demonstrated that:

  • The information requires investigation.
  • Reasonable steps have been taken to maintain the anonymity of the whistleblower in conducting such an investigation. 

protections for whistleblowers

The new legislation sets out a number of strengthened protections for whistleblowers.

  • Immunity against civil, criminal, administrative or disciplinary action.
  • An inability to enforce contractual remedies against a party making the disclosure.
  • An inability to admit information provided by a whistleblower into evidence in proceedings against them (unless those proceedings are pursued because of the falsity of the information). 
  • Protection against victimising conduct (such as dismissal, demotion, discrimination or similar).
  • Increased anonymity protection through strict liability criminal offences for revealing identities of whistleblowers
  • Significant monetary penalties applicable to person(s) who reveal the identities. 

What to include in a whistleblower policy?

Organisations who are required to have a whistleblower policy must ensure that it covers off key points, including: 

  • What protections the employee can expect to receive.
  • Details on how those protections will work in practice.
  • Specific information on how a disclosure can be made.
  • Details on how disclosures will be investigated.
  • How the policy will be transparently implemented. 

The policy should be communicated to all staff, from the CEO down. It should be made available where all staff members can easily access it, for example posted on an intranet. 

It is clear that the content and nature of a whistleblower policy are key to appropriately implementing the legislation. To assist our clients in understanding the looming changes and preparing, we have published a white paper, which is available on our website for free download.

We also provide our industry-leading Grapevine Confidential Whistleblower Hotline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Grapevine provides employees with the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to trusted and experienced operators.

How to Deal with an Uncooperative Respondent

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 29, 2019

When conducting investigations in the workplace, senior staff and human resource managers often have to deal with uncooperative respondents. 

Understandably, this can significantly hamper the progress of the investigation. 

WHat is an uncooperative respondent

There are many ways in which the smooth running of an investigation can be negatively affected by an uncooperative respondent. This can arise when: 

  • A respondent refuses to answer questions put to them, meaning that the investigator cannot create a coherent picture of the events or the respondent's perspective.
  • A respondent is no longer employed by the company. This may make it challenging  to even get in touch with the respondent, let alone encourage them to participate in an investigative process.
  • The respondent is out of the workplace on a form of leave (sick leave, stress leave, workers' compensation) that would in some circumstances mean that they are either not medically capable of, or not medically cleared for participation in the investigation process.
  • A respondent intentionally holds up the investigative process. For example, by frequent and consistent rescheduling of meetings, failing to attend work on days when interview sessions have been set up, or otherwise failing to engage in necessary parts of the process. 

what if there is an impact on others involved in the investigation?

It is particularly frustrating to have to deal with a recalcitrant or difficult respondent when other parties to the investigation are adversely affected as a consequence. 

For example, some respondents may seek to intimidate other witnesses with a view to discourage them from participating in the investigative process. 

When dealing with this type of situation, investigators should encourage witnesses to participate in the process by confirming that their involvement remains confidential, and by redacting sensitive information such as names or identifying details when providing documents to the respondent. 

Further, witnesses should be advised that their involvement in the investigative process cannot and will not have any adverse impact on their employment. 

can an investigation occur without the respondent's involvement? 

When faced with a situation where a respondent is failing to cooperate, an investigator can proceed without their involvement in certain circumstances. 

Crucially, it is important that an investigator is able to demonstrate that the investigation proceeded in accordance with all requirements of procedural fairness. 

In particular, this means that there must be a document trail confirming all the efforts that have been made to engage with the recalcitrant respondent. There must also be evidence that attempts have been made to explain to the respondent that their non-involvement may impact but will not stop the investigation process. 

The intention here is to be able to demonstrate to a court, tribunal or other third-party reviewer that the investigator took all reasonable steps to include the respondent and their point of view in the investigation. 

No presumptions or assumptions can be made about the evidence used to determine the substantiation of allegations, if a respondent does not participate in the investigation process. 

how can a respondent be encouraged to participate?

Although some respondents simply will not cooperate, investigators should provide a raft of different options to encourage respondents to meaningfully engage in the process.  

These options include:

  • Encouraging respondents to provide written responses to a series of questions. This is likely to work best for the respondents who are nervous about incriminating themselves during interviews, or otherwise concerned about the investigative process itself. 
  • Reassuring respondents that, despite the allegations facing them, they are entitled to both confidentiality and the assurance of procedural fairness. This may alleviate the concerns of some respondents who feel that they may not be offered a fair right of response. 
  • Reminding a respondent of the entitlement to have a support person present during an interview if required. 
  • Reassuring a respondent that there is an opportunity to provide comment, feedback, additional information and/or evidence on any findings if considered necessary for clarification. 
  • In certain circumstances, it may be best to advise respondents that external investigators have been engaged to facilitate the investigative process. This is likely to be most appropriate in situations where the allegations are particularly serious, or where there is some concern that an internal investigative process may not be completed objectively. For example, if the other parties involved in the investigation are in senior positions or are close to the investigators.  

For more detailed information on conducting interviews, you can purchase a copy of our book, Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators. If you're conducting a workplace investigation and need assistance, contact WISE Workplace today. 

Can Employers Investigate if Complainants Ask Them Not To?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

One of the more difficult aspects of managing an employment relationship is appropriately dealing with complaints, both from the perspective of the complainant and the accused. This is made even more complicated when a reluctant complainant brings something to the attention of Human Resources or management, then does not want it investigated. 

We examine why a complainant might not want to take an issue further, and what an employer's rights and obligations are in these circumstances.

why a complainant might be reluctant

There are many reasons why an employee might be reluctant to have a complaint investigated. These include: 

  • Fear of retribution - This is common in circumstances where the 'accused' holds a position of power over the complainant in the workplace. The complainant might fear reprisals and that their daily work life will become more difficult. This is particularly the case if the complaint relates to physical, sexual or emotional aggression. 
  • Fear that the complainant will not be taken seriously - The complainant might be worried their complaint will be considered 'trivial' or won't be dealt with objectively because of the position of the other party.
  • Time commitments - It is well known that an investigation will require a significant amount of time commitment from all parties. A complainant might not wish to be involved in a lengthy and time-consuming process. 
  • Lack of evidence - Complainants could feel that they are involved in a 'he said, she said' situation. The complainant might be concerned that an investigation will not ultimately support their version of events.    

The best way to address these concerns is for Human Resources or management to make clear to staff that all complaints are taken seriously and are duly investigated. This is regardless of who made the complaint, against whom it is levelled, and how much evidence might be required to fully conduct an investigation.

is a complainant allowed to withdraw a complaint? 

A complainant has the right to withdraw both the complaint and their support of any investigation. This generally spells the end of the investigation, because the person who receives a complaint is bound by confidentiality. This leaves the reluctant complainant as the only source of evidence to support an investigation.  

employer obligations to investigate

But employers are obliged to balance their duties of confidentiality with their obligations under workplace health and safety legislation. This includes eliminating discrimination and ensuring that everybody is able to undertake their jobs without unreasonable impostes. In circumstances of accusations of significant misconduct or even criminal activity, an employer may be justified in or even compelled to pursue an investigation, notwithstanding that a complaint has been withdrawn.

For example, if the complainant has raised issues of conduct that may constitute the commissioning of fraud, then the withdrawal of the complaint will not immediately result in the conduct alleged not being able to be independently investigated. There are also other considerations and duties of care that need to be taken into consideration before an informed decision to not undertake or to cease an investigation can be appropriately made. 

The dangers of a rigid policy structure

Although it is essential that all businesses have a complaints and grievances policy, there is some risk in having a procedure that is perceived as being too strict or rigid. If the general consensus amongst the staff is that there are only 'black and white' approaches toward dealing with complaints, this could result in staff being deterred from reporting incidents. This could ultimately result in employers breaching their legislative obligations and duty of care. 

At WISE Workplace, we have expertise in dealing with investigations involving reluctant parties. Talk to our team about full or supported investigation services for your organisation.

Workplace Bullying: Observations from Our Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Like schoolyard bullying, workplace bullying is far from a new phenomenon. When people who may not have much in common outside work are thrust together on a daily basis, there are bound to be disputes, friction and potentially even outright hostility. 

Of course, any serious matters need to be dealt with by conducting a thorough workplace investigation. Recently, our investigators have noticed a number of trends in workplace bullying during the course of their work. 

We are seeing more bullying in the not-for-profit sector, a rise in false or malignant allegations of bullying, and increasing use of workers' compensation claims during the investigation process. 

increase in bullying allegations in the non-profit sector

There have perhaps been less instances of workplace bullying in the non-profit sector than in the more cutthroat 'for profit' world. However, investigators are noticing that these organisations seem to be experiencing an upturn in bullying allegations. 

This might be because many boards have recognised that, despite their non-profit nature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain a viable entity without a certain degree of commercial acumen. This often results in the hiring of personnel from more traditional commercial roles, which in turn flows through to a change of management style and a shake-up of the way things have always been done.

Existing staff may perceive these types of changes as 'bullying'. It is therefore important that any measures taken by the organisation, such as performance management or disciplinary proceedings can be demonstrated to be 'reasonable management action'. 

false allegations of bullying

False complaints of bullying also seem to be on the rise. A classic example here could be a situation where a team member has been advised by their manager that they are being informally performance managed and can shortly expect a formal process to commence. That team member may attempt to avoid the - appropriate - disciplinary action by claiming that they are being bullied by the manager. 

In other cases, the bullied may turn out to be the bully - making allegations as a defence against potential complaints.      

worker's compensation

Another trend observed by WISE investigators involves staff who are being investigated for their conduct claiming workers' compensation, perhaps for stress leave or mental health issues arising from workplace bullying or harassment. 

Although there are certainly instances of legitimate workers' compensation claims in these circumstances, it can also be a way for employees to maintain their income and ensure their continued employment while an investigation takes place. 

This is because, regardless of the outcome of any investigation into the employee's conduct and any determination made as a result, no disciplinary action can be taken until the lengthy workers' compensation process is complete. 

This can be frustrating for employers, who are hamstrung in their ability to follow through on reasonable and necessary management actions as a result of staff who may be attempting to circumvent the system and avoid termination.

WISE has been a national provider of workplace investigation services for over 29 years and has assisted countless organisations through the formal processes. Our highly skilled team has the experience to help organisations navigate the challenging issue of investigating workplace misconduct and internal grievances. We are experienced with dealing with all types of misconduct, including bullying and harassment claims, providing our clients a level of comfort that the process can be relied upon to ensure it is procedurally fair, and false allegations or delay tactics are identified quickly and the matter resolved.             

Sharing Information After a Workplace Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 08, 2019

For employers, the completion of a workplace investigation can feel like the end of a marathon. The relevant issues have been aired and discussed, a report delivered and decisions made. However, it is also important to effectively share relevant information with affected parties and the broader organisation as the investigation process draws to a close. 

It is likely that employees and other stakeholders affected by the workplace investigation will need feedback in order to comfortably move on from this often unsettling time in the workplace. 

Before commencing post-investigation communication, management should consider issues of confidentiality, the rights of all the affected parties and the best ways to share information across the broader organisation.

Providing confidence in the outcome

The period after a workplace investigation can be an excellent opportunity for both staff and management to make changes and move forward confidently from a difficult situation. 

Providing key stakeholders a broad summary of the investigative findings and a plan for improvement often fosters a sense of understanding and closure. For affected parties, a clear and concise summary of individual outcomes and actions will of course be appropriate and necessary. At every level, the goal is to communicate honestly and with a positive eye to the future.

keeping affected parties informed

Management should meet individually with those affected by the findings of the investigation. The process can be uncomfortable for those who are personally involved. There will often be a sense of apprehension, and in some cases, a curiosity about the decision-making process. 

Affected parties deserve a chance to have the outcomes and the decision-making process explained on a one-on-one basis. However, it is also important to ensure that only the appropriate amount of information regarding the investigation is shared. 

In particular, confidentiality will be necessary in relation to the statements of witnesses and other affected parties. Sensitive information, claims and descriptions have the potential to cause unnecessary harm and can jeopardise the integrity of the final report. 

A copy of the full report should not be released to those involved with the investigation. This document is accessible only by the employer at this stage. The affected parties to an investigation have a legal entitlement to be informed in writing of the findings, conclusions, recommendations and the basis of those findings. The parties therefore could be provided with a written summary of the full report, including the allegations and findings, at they relate to each individual party. 

A witness is not an affected party and should not be provided with the report or a summary unless they are also an affected party, such as a complainant or respondent. 

Communicating across the organisation

Confidentiality is of course of paramount importance. Neither witnesses nor staff want to be fed vague explanations about the outcomes of the investigations. A workplace investigation will commonly reveal deficiencies in policies and procedures, and/or the state of organisational culture. In clearly explaining the outcomes of the investigation, management can allay fears, dampen any gossip and provide a positive statement about any changes to come following the conclusion of an investigation. 

The investigation might well have been an unsettling time within the organisation. Post-investigation communication can be a valuable means of restoring confidence and providing a clear vision for future activities. For example, policies might need to be updated or individual procedures changed for the better. Positive communication about findings and the actions to be taken will help to restore staff equilibrium.

implementing change post workplace investigation 

It can be a challenge for management to know exactly where to start when explaining and implementing decisions following an investigation. 

At WISE Workplace we have significant experience with workplace investigations and helping to manage the aftermath of these processes. Should you require assistance in conducting workplace investigations and communicating outcomes, contact WISE today.

Substantiating Claims of Reportable Conduct

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 01, 2019

It is one of society's great shames that our most vulnerable individuals are often open to abuse by those entrusted with their care. However, it is somewhat edifying to know that stringent legal and regulatory measures are in place in Australia to ensure that employers and others act quickly when allegations arise of abuse in care. 

In the case of issues involving children, organisations such as the Ombudsman mandate that 'reportable conduct' must be swiftly acted on by employers. In particular, a thorough investigation must be made into the situation to determine whether allegations of abuse in care have been substantiated. 

It is also important to note that organisations involved in regular contact with children are required to have proactive and preventative measures in place. After all, there is no more important issue in society than the protection of vulnerable individuals.

what is reportable conduct

Across Australian states and territories there is general uniformity in the way in which 'reportable conduct' is defined and applied. Section 25A(1) of the Ombudsman Act NSW defines reportable conduct as:

  • Any sexual offence or sexual misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child - including a child pornography offence.
  • Any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child.
  • Any behaviour that causes psychological harm to a child - even if the child consented to the behaviour. 

It is apparent that the legislation targets all manner of abuse, including sexual, physical and psychological. The net is wide and for good reason: any employee or other associate of an organisation who crosses the bounds of propriety and trust with a child should and will be held accountable for their actions. The legislation also covers situations of alleged consent by the child to the behaviour. There can be no doubt that the imbalance of power inherent in these situations is taken into account under the legalisation.

substantiating reportable conduct

While it is essential that inappropriate conduct be reported, facts must first be verified. Upon being notified of allegations related to child abuse, employers must ensure that a professional and objective investigation takes place. If there is insufficient expertise to carry out this serious task, expert advice and investigative services should be sourced externally.

Once the workplace investigation has concluded, the employer will be provided with a report which indicates whether reportable conduct has in fact been established.

Report to which body?

For employers it can be a little confusing to know which conduct to report - as well as who exactly to report issues to. This is in part because Australia has clear distinctions between states, territories and the Commonwealth, and in the field of reportable conduct there are subtle changes to be aware of. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has compiled a Resource Sheet that explains the different reporting requirements across jurisdictions, including the right body to approach in the context of an employer's place of business. 

Discipline and internal procedures 

Once there is a finding that reportable conduct has in fact occurred, attention then turns to the questions of what disciplinary measures might be appropriate in a given context. These will vary in strength and reach. For example, conduct that is substantiated but is of a lower gravity - such as slapping a child's hand for example - might be met with a requirement for training and/or a reprimand by the employer. More serious abuse of a child could lead to the dismissal of the employee and/or criminal charges being founded.

It is crucial that employers within child-related areas train their staff on the nature and consequences of reportable conduct, in addition to having robust procedures in place for dealing with such unfortunate situations. Some larger organisations such as the Department of Education will have quite extensive material and processes in this area. Yet for smaller businesses and organisations, it is vital to understand reportable conduct and to educate staff around this pressing issue. There are serious legal consequences for an organisation and its staff concerning the failure to identify and report child reportable conduct. 

WISE provides Investigating Abuse In Care training, which is specifically developed for organisations dealing with vulnerable clients. Alternatively, we are highly experienced at investigating reportable conduct matters, through our investigation services.       

The Privacy Act: Implications for Workplace Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There can be many questions, fears and insecurities that arise in the course of a workplace investigation. Experienced investigators are often asked by witnesses and other staff to divulge what has been said and by whom. This is unsurprising; after all, for one or more people their reputation and/or job could be on the line as a result of accusations made. 

Workplace investigators must take care when dealing with the information gleaned from their enquiries. The Privacy Act 1988 creates a legal structure that controls how personal information can be obtained and used. From initial enquiries through to the final report, workplace investigators must carefully weigh the privacy implications of their work.

privacy and workplace investigations

The Privacy Act 1988 places firm legal boundaries around how businesses and government agencies are to deal with the personal information of individuals, including employees. Most employers will have the capacity under the Act to deal with employee information as they see fit - providing it is for a lawful purpose. 

Workplace investigators are bound by the privacy legislation, just as any person or organisation who deals with private information is. This can lead to considerable challenges within the course of the investigation, such as having private information that might or might not be of interest to another party or witness within the investigation. It is only in very unusual circumstances that such disclosures could be lawfully made. Overall, consent will not have been given for release to another party; consent is crucial in all such situations.

personal information and the final report

The client is of course the employer in workplace investigations, and it is to the employer that briefings and reports must be directed. It is not unusual for investigators to be bombarded by employees with requests for the release of information, statements, witness accounts and the like, that have been elicited during the investigation.

The reason for the requests is certainly understandable - people will be anxious to know what has been said, by whom and how this could potentially affect their employment. Yet legally this is not information that the workplace investigator is at liberty to provide, unless express consent has been given. 

Personal information at the disposal of the workplace investigator must be returned to the employer, generally in the form of the investigator's final report. Complainants, respondents and witnesses are certainly afforded a summary of the report and findings. Yet actual statements and transcripts involving personal information are certainly protected under the Act from most curious stakeholders.   

Privacy and future proceedings

It makes sense to keep a tight hold on information released during the investigation. Considering that investigative reports are often later scrutinised for their evidentiary worth, it is important for workplace investigators to keep in mind the ramifications of privacy principles upon their work. 

For example, statements that are tainted by knowledge of what another witness has said could certainly be inadmissible or weighted lightly in later proceedings. A loose investigative structure can also see one party privy to more information than another, raising inevitable questions of procedural fairness. 

Navigating a workplace investigation is certainly a matter of juggling many moving parts. Keeping a firm reign on the use of personal information during the investigation is one task that must remain at the forefront of all activities and decisions. For assistance on ways to ensure compliance with the Privacy Act 1988 during an investigation, get in touch with WISE.

The Right Mix: Professionalism, Impartiality and Empathy

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is essential that there is consideration given to maintaining an appropriate balance between professionalism, impartiality and empathy. 

By ensuring that this balance is maintained, employers are best able to protect the interests of staff, and safeguard against allegations of inappropriate conduct during the investigatory stage. 

the need for professionalism

It is essential that professionalism carries through in all aspects of a workplace investigation. A failure to conduct the process appropriately could have far-reaching consequences for an employee - resulting in disciplinary action or even dismissal and for the employer in cases where the process, procedures and findings are legally challenged. 

Professionalism requires investigators to:

  • Ensure confidentiality - Keep any information that is disclosed or otherwise discovered during the investigatory process completely confidential. 
  • Communicate clearly - This means ensuring that all involved parties have a clear understanding of the process, the information that is required and anything else that can be expected as part of the investigation. 
  • Act with competence - When undertaking investigations into an employee's conduct, it is crucial that the investigator is thorough and performs all aspects of the role correctly and appropriately. This includes planning the investigation, conducting interviews and analysing the evidence. 

staying impartial in workplace investigations

Investigations must be impartial for the same reason they need to be professional. The investigator must try as much as possible to collect and analyse objective information and make a decision on that basis, not on personal feelings or subjective factors. 

In order to avoid perceptions of bias, all efforts should be made to ensure that there is no real or perceived conflict of interest between the person conducting the investigation and other people involved in the investigation, such as the complainant or the accused.

Staff who are known in the workplace to be particularly good friends (or particularly adversarial) with each other should not be involved in the same investigation other than as a witness. This may also extend to staff investigating their own direct reports. 

If your business is too small or otherwise structured in a way which makes it complicated for investigations to occur with impartiality, engaging a professional workplace investigator can help ensure an independent and unbiased process.

the value of empathy

Apart from just generally being the right thing to do, there is some real value in being empathetic with staff during the investigation process. 

Showing empathy in the workplace investigation context is likely to result in greater cooperation from witnesses and greater accuracy in statements. For example, most employees do not want to get one of their co-workers into trouble. By empathising with those staff and noting that they do not want anybody to get fired or have adverse consequences as a result of the interview, investigators can build up a greater rapport. 

It can also reassure those involved that investigators understand what they are going through, and that they will be supported through the process. An employee who has to make a complaint against somebody at work, or an employee having to deal with the consequences of a complaint and the potential disciplinary repercussions can suffer significant stress and trauma. This can have far-reaching consequences in the workplace.    

maintaining the balancing act

The three pillars of professionalism, impartiality and empathy are key to conducting a successful workplace investigation, but these can often be difficult to achieve in the average office. For this reason, you may wish to rely on external investigators to ensure that all key elements of a proper workplace investigation are fulfilled. If your organisation needs assistance with investigations, WISE offers both full and supported investigation services, or training for your staff.

Legal Professional Privilege and Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When a workplace investigation is required, there may occasionally be good reason to seek legal professional privilege regarding the findings. This is particularly the case in matters that may require criminal investigation, such as fraud, theft or sexual harassment. 

So, is it sufficient to engage a law firm when undertaking workplace investigation if you wish to attract legal professional privilege? We take a look at the what privilege means, and its role in investigations.

what exactly is legal professional privilege? 

The concept of legal professional privilege means that communications between an employer and their engaged lawyers are confidential and need not be disclosed, for example to another party or in a court, if the communications have been created for the 'dominant' purpose of providing legal advice or in anticipation of legal proceedings.  

What is the significance of legal professional privilege? 

In many circumstances, an employer's inner workings and thought processes may be something that is best kept private. Ultimately, the key purpose of legal professional privilege is to permit employers and other parties, such as external investigations, to freely discuss information with their solicitors in order to obtain legal advice, without being concerned that the material will form evidence in legal proceedings. 

Employers may wish to maintain privilege and keep parts of certain documents confidential if, for example, there are issues with disclosing identities of complainants or witnesses, or permitting potentially inflammatory or commercially sensitive information being disseminated through the workplace and beyond. 

how can workplace investigations attract legal professional privilege? 

If an organisation wishes to obtain privilege over communications, it is not sufficient simply to engage a law firm to undertake or oversee the workplace investigation. The law firm's engagement must be able to be demonstrated as being for the dominant purpose of preparing for imminent legal proceedings, or providing advice in relation to those proceedings.

This was demonstrated in the decision of Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006, in which Commissioner Wilson determined that the engagement of law firm Minter Ellison to conduct an investigation, under the auspices of providing legal advice, was really an investigation into workplace conduct within the employer council's policies and procedures. Accordingly, it was determined that legal professional privilege did not exist in those circumstances.      

loss of privilege

Legal professional privilege can be easily lost or waived. This can occur if a party explicitly states that they waive privilege, or if they provide a document to another party which would ordinarily attract privilege. It is important to note that it is generally irrelevant if the information was intentionally or accidentally provided - once that has occurred, it is hard to argue that the privilege should be maintained. Further, if a party attempts to rely on the contents of a document, it is rare that privilege will be successfully kept over the document. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services Ltd [2014] FCCA 1517, in which the employer attempted to rely on the contents of an investigation report but did not wish to disclose it. It was held that relying on a document without providing access to Mr Bartolo was unfair, and the document had to be produced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced across all steps of the investigation process, including legal professional privilege implications. If you are seeking a robust, defendable investigation, contact us today!