How Can HR Support Staff During a Workplace Investigation?

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where a complaint has been made by one staff member against another, and a workplace investigation takes place, all kinds of emotions can be running high. 

People participating in a workplace investigation, whether as complainants, respondents or even witnesses, can suffer symptoms of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as emotional distress. 

Respondents in particular can feel abandoned and cold-shouldered, especially in cases where HR departments decide to take a 'hands-off' approach while the investigation is being conducted. If a respondent is also suspended from work during the process, they may also feel prejudged and already declared guilty. 

In light of this, it's extremely important that employers ensure that investigations are handled fairly and impartially, and that all participants are supported. 

Here's how HR can help support participants throughout a workplace investigation.

THROUGH TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATION

First and foremost, effective communication and transparency are vital from the outset. A failure to communicate can worsen distress and lead to participants thinking the worst. 

Decide on being transparent from the beginning. This involves taking the complaint seriously, listening to all sides, and making sure all participants know how the complaint will be handled. It's also important to check back that they have understood what was said and address any misunderstandings (something that can easily happen when emotions and tensions are high!)   

SETTING OUT THE PROCESS

It's important to get to work quickly, appoint an investigator, and make decisions regarding the scope of the investigation, the timeframe, and actions to be taken after completion. However, do be prepared for the process possibly taking longer than anticipated. 

Once you've decided on the process, make sure to keep everyone informed of how the investigation will be conducted and what they can expect, and aim to keep communication lines open throughout. Also reassure the respondent that they are not in any way being prejudged, even if they have been suspended for a time during the investigation. 

APPOINTING A SUPPORT PERSON

Participants need to know they have someone to go to for emotional support, who can also explain the process and answer any questions they may have. 

One thing to note here is that employees may not necessarily show their emotions at work and this could lead you to think they are fine and don't need assistance, when in fact the opposite is true. 

Appoint a support person whose role it is to regularly check up on the person and provide support without taking sides. 

CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS WITH RESPECT 

Interviews need to be conducted fairly and withe respect and non-partiality. 

It's important to avoid acting like an interrogator; your job is to uncover the facts and truth of the matter and not to extract a 'confession'. This means all participants should be treated with respect and empathy, and given breaks during interviews if required. 

OFFERING POST-INVESTIGATION SUPPORT

An investigation can affect everyone and can reduce morale and trust in a workplace. It may in some cases even lead to employees seeking work elsewhere after feeling demoralised by the whole experience. 

In a case where the respondent has been restored to duty, it may be hard for them to simply go back to 'business as usual'. The same may also apply to complainers, particularly if the investigation did not go the way they wanted. 

Be prepared for it to take some time for trust and morale to be restored, and offer mentoring and support after the process to anyone who needs it. Be proactive in rebuilding trust and positive relationships. 

Lastly, we can provide expert assistance with workplace investigations. Feel free to contact us for more information.  

Handling a Paranoid Response to Workplace Investigations

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In conducting workplace investigations, both the alleged victim and perpetrator and potentially even witnesses may have an intensely personal reaction to the accusations. But what happens if one of the people involved in a workplace investigation has a mental illness or otherwise suffers from poor mental health? 

In this situation, a workplace investigation can be perceived as a direct personal attack - for example, a complainant may feel that the mere fact of an investigation means that they are not taken seriously or believed in their allegations. A respondent to a complaint may feel vilified or victimised by having to respond to the claims at all. In these circumstances, it could be easy for paranoia to creep in during the investigative process. 

So what additional steps should a prudent employer take during the investigative process when dealing with an employee who struggles with their mental health? 

POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF FAILING TO CONSIDER MENTAL HEALTH

The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, released by TNS Australia and Beyond Blue, has found that 45% of all adult Australians will experience a mental health condition at one point in their lives. In addition, untreated mental illness costs Australian Workplaces almost $11 billion annually.  

This financial cost (calculated on the basis of absentee figures, 'presenteeism' where employees are physically present but not performing to their maximum capabilities, and compensation claims) is reason enough to take mental health in the workplace seriously, and to ensure that workplace investigations do not run roughshod over the rights of employees with mental health concerns. 

However, even more concerning is the potential for a poorly handled workplace investigation to exacerbate an employee's mental illness or even to cause a new psychological injury. 

It is crucial for employers to ensure that workplace investigations are conducted sensitively and have regard to any disclosed or hidden mental health issues suffered by employees. This is particularly the case given that it is an employer's legal obligation to ensure that workplaces are free from conduct which could reasonably be foreseen to cause injury, including psychological injury, to employees. A failure to do so can leave the employer exposed to a compensation claim.  

WHAT SHOULD AN EMPLOYER'S RESPONSE BE?

Employers must ensure that investigators don't dismiss signs of paranoia as an employee being 'silly' or simply difficult. 

It's important to recognise that the employee does genuinely feel under threat, without agreeing with them, and to lay out any evidence clearly. 

It can also be helpful to detail how the investigation will proceed to avoid the risk of misunderstandings, for example an employee deciding that more than a week has passed therefore an adverse finding must have been made against them. 

Honesty and fairness are key in any workplace investigation, but it is particularly important to demonstrate both when dealing with an employee who is feeling under attack. It's essential to remain patient, and work on building trust and rapport in interviews.  

Employees should also be able to access a support person of their choice to participate in any interviews or other formal steps of the investigation. 

Being available and following through on any actions that have been decided on, however minor, may also help lower a fearful employee's anxiety. 

If the initial complaint has caused or substantially contributed to an employee's poor mental health, and this has resulted in the employee receiving a medical certificate, an employer should consider not permitting the employee to return to work until the investigation has been resolved. Any decision along those lines should be made strictly in consultation with the employee's medical team and the employee themselves.  

    HOW WE CAN HELP

    Taking these simple steps will help to ensure that your staff do not feel victimised and do not become unduly paranoid or concerned about the investigative process and potential outcomes.  

    At WISE Workplace, we can help you navigate your way through the potential minefield of workplace investigations. We offer full investigation services if you prefer to outsource, and also training to assist you in running your own investigations.

    When the Line Blurs: Restrictive Practices vs Assault

    Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

    It is well-known that certain industries, particularly those involving disability or aged care services, have a higher than average level of client-facing risk. This is in part because consumers of these services generally have higher levels of physical needs, and may also have difficulties expressing themselves clearly or consistently.  

    As a result of these unique care requirements, occasionally situations may arise where restrictive practices are necessary either for the client's own safety or to protect another person. 

    However, employers and care workers must ensure that their actions do not exceed reasonable restrictive practices and slip into behaviours or acts, which could be considered assault.   

    WHAT ARE RESTRICTIVE PRACTICES?

    According to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the definition of 'restrictive practices' are actions which effectively restrict the rights or freedom of movement of a person with a disability.

    This could include physical restraint (such as holding somebody down), mechanical restraint (for example, with the use of a device intendend to restrict, prevent or subdue movement), chemical restraint (using sedative drugs), or social restraint (verbal interactions or threats of sanctions). 

    Restrictive practices are intended to used in situations where a person is demonstrating concerning, or potentially threatening behaviours. In the disability services context, this may involve people with significant intellectual or psychological impairments, but no or limited physical impairments, meaning that threats of violence could be credible and have significant effects.

    Although restrictive practices are currently legal in Australia, according to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) factsheet, they do not currently constitute 'best practice' for disability support.

    KEY CONCERNS WITH RESTRICTIVE PRACTICES

    As with any situation where the personal liberty of people is affected, the use of restrictive practices can blur into the use of inappropriate levels of force and potentially even expose the disability worker to accusations of assault. 

    While the greatest concern with restrictive practices would be the possibility of disabled persons being intentionally abused, it is very easy for the line between restrictive practices to be unintentionally blurred. 

    Although assault is defined slightly differently in each Australian state and territory under criminal law legislation, broadly, the offence involves circumstances where intentional and unwanted physical force or contact is used against another person. It can also include verbal behaviours, which are considered threatening. 

    While the line between the use of restrictive practices and assault may not be immediately clear, conduct is unlikely to be considered to be an assault if it can be demonstrated that the actions taken, even if they involved the use of physical force, were necessary to avoid violence or any risk of harm.

      WHAT IF AN ALLEGATION OF ASSAULT DOES ARISE?

      The provision of disability services is a challenging industry at the best of times. It's important to ensure that your team is using restrictive practices appropriately and in the right circumstances to avoid any allegations of assault. 

      Any employers who are advised of accusations of assault must undertake a full workplace investigation in order to fulfil their dual obligations to their employees and to their clients. 

      At WISE Workplace, we have experience in the disability and aged care sectors, and our team can assist in all aspects of workplace investigations.   

      ACT Launches Reportable Conduct Scheme

      Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 07, 2017

      If there's one thing that's been made clear from the recent Royal Commission, it's that the protection of children and the reporting procedures around child abuse need to be improved. 

      In August 2016, largely in response to the commission, the ACT Government passed legislation designed to cast a 'wider net' when it comes to the scrutiny of child abuse and the protection of children within certain organisations.

      The ACT Reportable Conduct Scheme will take effect from July 1 2017. The scheme is designed to ensure that there are processes in place for allegations of employee abuse of children, and that these allegations are independently reviewed. 

      In essence, it provides a mechanism for employers to report employee misconduct in relation to children, with the ACT Ombudsman acting in the role of independent oversight body.   

      WHICH EMPLOYERS DOES THIS APPLY TO?

      Certain types of employers that work with children will be covered under the scheme, including health service providers, foster care and out-of-home services, residential care providers, schools and educational services. 

      In general, religious organisations (other than schools), instructional services (such as teachers of sports and music), scouts/guides and universities will not be included under the scheme. 

      The term 'employee' in this instance refers not only to workers but also to contractors and volunteers within the relevant organisation, whether or not they work directly with children. This means conduct may be reported even if it is of a personal and non-professional nature.  

      WHAT ABOUT OTHER REPORTING PROCESSES? 

      It's important to be aware that the scheme will not override other reporting obligations - such as that of suspected crime to the police, or mandatory reporting of serious abuse or neglect of children to the Child and Youth Protection Services (CYPS). However, it does cover a wider range of behaviours in relation to children, and also provides a mechanism for employers to report conduct not covered under other mandatory reporting programs. 

      WHAT EMPLOYERS NEED TO DO

      ACT employers covered by the scheme will need to notify the Ombudsman within 30 days of suspected or actual misconduct by an employee in relation to children. These acts of misconduct include neglect, mistreatment, psychological harm, sexual misconduct or inappropriate discipline. 

      Employers will also need to:  

      • Perform investigations into alleged reportable conduct and provide a written report to the Ombudsman. 
      • Report to other bodies as required - including the police, the human rights commission, CYPS and others. 
      • Review and amend their organisational policies and procedures where necessary.
      • Inform and educate employees regarding any new or amended policies and responsibilities. 

      THE OMBUDSMAN'S ROLE

      The scheme is designed to go beyond just reporting misconduct. For instance, the Ombudsman's role in regard to this is also to monitor and analyse trends, share information with other authorities as required, provide guidance to organisations regarding child protection, and monitor the practices of employers in relation to child safety and prevention of abuse.

      WHERE TO FROM HERE?

      WISE Workplace provides independent investigation services for organisations into reportable conduct, and training on how to respond and investigate allegations.