When a Pre-Determined View Leads to an Unfair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 31, 2019

Procedural fairness must be top of mind, for all organisations when conducting a workplace investigation. Failing to allow an employee sufficient time to respond to an allegation or taking a pre-determined view of the outcome of an investigation, for example, proceeding with terminating employment, can leave an employer open to an unfair dismissal claim. 

The importance of observing all elements of procedural fairness when conducting a workplace investigation is highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Mark Andrawos v MyBudget Pty Ltd (U2018/2379). 

the facts of the matter 

The applicant, Mr Andrawos, commenced employment at MyBudget in July 2016. He came to his role, ultimately as a personal budget specialist, with a significant financial industry background, and was supported by tertiary qualifications. During his employment, he received numerous compliments, but was also informally and formally counselled for behaviour including "corner cutting", lateness and a failure to follow procedures correctly.

Mr Andrawos received a total of twelve informal warnings and eventually three written warnings for a variety of misdemeanours, including inappropriate comments made to a female client, resulting in a final written warning being issued. Despite having received the final warning, Mr Andrawos was subsequently involved in two further disciplinary processes. The first regarding his punctuality and the second related to inappropriate conduct with a female colleague.

Mr Andrawos then formed a friendship with a young man, Mr McBryde-Martin, which ultimately led to him providing financial recommendations as to what Mr McBryde-Martin should do with a sizeable inheritance he had received. Eventually, Mr Andrawos suggested that his friend come to MyBudget as a client, on a "friends and family" discount. Mr McBryde-Martin subsequently received financial advice and recommendations.

At one point, Mr Andrawos suggested that Mr McBryde-Martin transfer some $90,000 into a MyBudget account and offered to act as co-signatory. This upset Mr McBryde-Martin's mother (against a background where there was, although ultimately unfounded, some suggestion that Mr Andrawos had been drinking and gambling with Mr McBryde-Martin). His mother complained to MyBudget and Mr Andrawos was immediately escorted from the building and suspended. After some investigation, Mr Andrawos was dismissed from his employment. 

THE need for procedural fairness

The Fair Work Commission considered that Mr Andrawos' suspension and ultimately termination had occurred without sufficient procedural fairness.

Specifically, it was concluded, that he had not been afforded the opportunity to provide the necessary response and context to his employer.

Evidence supporting this conclusion included the fact that Mr Andrawos was initially given less than 24 hours to prepare a response to the allegation letter he had been issued.

Further, despite requesting statements provided by his colleagues, Mr Andrawos was denied access to this information and to the telephone call recordings with Mr McBryde-Martin, and the screenshots of text messages, which were being relied on by MyBudget as evidence in the disciplinary proceedings.

Taking a pre-determined view 

The Fair Work Commission was critical of the fact that there was evidence supporting the finding that a pre-determination had been made by the employer, before the investigative process has occurred. It was particularly noted that the employer appeared to be prepared to only undertake an investigation in form and not in substance - that is, that the employer had already decided to terminate Mr Andrawos. It was also held that Mr Andrawos was also prevented from putting forward his "defence" to his managers at an early stage, which reinforced the conclusion of the existence of a pre-determined outcome.

The evidence put forward to the Fair Work Commission suggested that a key decision-maker at MyBudget, had not been briefed with all relevant information prior to conducting a fact-finding interview, again critical in supporting a conclusion that a pre-determination had already been made. Moreover, no additional enquiries were made after the conclusion of the fact-finding process, most notably that no attempts were made by the employer to speak with Mr McBryde-Martin, regarding the nature of his mother's allegations. 

THE need for separation between investigator and decision-maker

The fact that the investigation was conducted internally at MyBudget by two people who ultimately were also the key decision-makers in the termination process, was criticised by the Fair Work Commission. This perceived conflict of interest tainted the investigation process and the termination decision and was directly related to the conclusion that, while Mr Andrawos' dismissal was neither unreasonable or unjust, it was deemed to be harsh. This highlights the importance of an investigative team, whether internal or external, collecting information and material on an objective basis, before providing it to the ultimate decision-makers for a determination.

This case demonstrates the importance of observing the elements of procedural fairness when investigating workplace matters. A former employee will likely be successful in an unfair dismissal claim, where an employer has entered the investigation process with a pre-determined view of the outcome. To assist your organisation with following a fair and reliable investigation process, WISE offers both training services and external investigation services

The Implication of Delays in Workplace Investigations

Eden Elliott - Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Conducting proper workplace investigations is a crucial component of effective business management. A failure to undertake an appropriate and timely investigation, can have significant consequences for the parties involved in the complaint, and potentially the legal outcomes for the business. An important aspect of any investigation is ensuring it occurs in a timely manner.


WHAT CAUSES DELAYS IN WORKPLACE INVESTIGATIONS? 

There are a number of factors which might affect the speed and timeliness of an investigation, including:

  • Lack of availability of witnesses. In circumstances where a witness is on leave or is absent from the workplace as a result of the alleged conduct, it can be difficult to interview them immediately. This may particularly be the case if the alleged incident occurred at a Christmas party, and those involved are off work for a number of weeks. 
  • Insufficient time and resources to devote to the investigation. There can be challenges in apportioning sufficient resources or dedicating enough time to swiftly deal with an investigation. This will be of particular concern when the process may have to be undertaken alongside the investigating staff member’s usual workload. This can particularly be the case in smaller businesses, or those organisations without a dedicated human resources department. 
  • Complexities of an investigation. In circumstances where an investigation is particularly complex or sensitive, there may not be anyone who is adequately qualified to undertake the investigation internally. A failure to swiftly appoint suitable external investigators in these circumstances, may result in undue delays in the investigative process. 
  • Size and scope of the investigation. If there are allegations of illegal or criminal conduct and the police need to be called in, there may simply be too much involved in the process for internal parties to conduct an investigation in a timely fashion. Additionally some investigations may have to be deferred until for example the police have determined if they are undertaking an investigation and if any criminal charges will be forthcoming.

DANGERS AND RISKS OF INVESTIGATION DELAYS 

Although it is highly unlikely that any investigator would intentionally delay the investigative process, all of these factors could well result in unintentional delays. These delays may not even be apparent during the early stages of the investigative process. However, the Fair Work Commission and other legal bodies have frequently criticised employers for taking too long to deal with investigations, which can ultimately be seen as a failure to afford due process; procedural fairness and natural justice. In practical terms, for example, if the investigation has been relied upon to support a disciplinary decision, such as a dismissal, it could potentially result in the disciplinary action being overturned and the employee being reinstated. This is particularly the case because a tribunal is unlikely to consider a dismissal to be an appropriate remedy, when the business was clearly comfortable enough with the affected staff member’s ongoing employment to delay finalising the investigation. A finding of wrongful dismissal by the Fair Work Commission can result in the organisation being required to pay compensation to the employee wrongfully dismissed. Another danger of delay is a reduction in the quality of evidence. Documentary or electronic evidence may be tampered with if it is not seized swiftly, or may be inadvertently deleted, destroyed or archived as part of normal business operations. Similarly, witness memories will weaken over time and details will become hazy and there can be cross contamination of evidence if witnesses have the opportunity to discuss their account of incidents over time. In situations where there are substantial delays, staff who would have been crucial to the investigation may have left their employment and be difficult or impossible to track down. One additional risk of delaying the investigative process, particularly in “serious” situations where summary dismissal or potentially police intervention might be warranted, is creating a perception in the workplace that the alleged conduct is not being taken seriously. As noted, when disciplinary action is ultimately undertaken it may be perceived as too little, too late. Alternatively, after delay has occurred the disciplinary action implemented may be deemed disproportionate given the initial investigative response.

APPOINTING EXTERNAL INVESTIGATORS 

Many of these risks can be avoided by the appointment of external investigators whose brief is to deal solely with the investigation. This means that they will be a dedicated full-time resources for the business, leaving incumbent staff to carry on with the usual requirements of their role. Further, external investigators can bring specialist expertise to the investigation process, which could ultimately play a key role in defending against any unfair dismissal claims and providing proper finality to disciplinary action.

An employer’s delay in investigating workplace misconduct can have significant negative implications, including penalties for the employer as a result of the delay. Engaging external investigators have help relieve strained internal resources and better place employers to discharge their obligations in an appropriate and timely manner. WISE provides independent and expert external investigation services to best manage workplace complaints.

How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Unfortunately, dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue for many employers. Sexual harassment can take many forms, and cases are rarely "open and shut".

Once allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made, they must be appropriately investigated and dealt with. However, prevention is always better than cure.

Let's take a look at employer obligations, the scale of the problem and how employers can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

obligation to provide a safe workplace 

Employers are required by law to provide a safe workplace for all employees. This is enshrined in the workplace health and safety legislation throughout Australia (for example, s19 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW)).

Legislation requires employers to provide for physical safety, for example, by preventing unsafe worksite practices which could cause injuries to employees. It also extends to ensuring that employees are protected against physical and psychological harm caused by sexual harassment or assault, and mental harm (such as could be caused by bullying or harassment).

The facts - workplace sexual harassment

A 2018 sexual harassment study conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that one in three Australian workers claim to have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years. This figure has increased from one in five workers in 2012, and one in ten in 2003. Of course, this may be due to employees becoming more aware of what sexual harassment is and what their rights are in relation to reporting or taking steps to report and prevent it. However, it is still a worrying statistic.

Interestingly, although sexual harassment affects both genders (with 26% of men and 39% of women interviewed reporting experiences of sexual harassment), those most likely to be harassed in the workplace are aged between 18 and 29. Moreover, despite the fairly equal gender split in victimology, the overwhelming majority (80%) of harassers are men.

Tips for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace 

There are a number of strategies that can help employers nip sexual harassment in the bud. These include:

  • Management support. It is essential that all levels of management, but particularly the highest levels of the executive team, embrace an anti-harassment culture. This is particularly important when one considers that, at least anecdotally, there may be a perception that sexual victimisation is a top-down phenomenon. It is important for management to demonstrate that no type of sexual harassment will be tolerated in the workplace. Similarly, the executives of any workplace must demonstrate that they will deal swiftly and appropriately with those who have been found to have engaged in sexual harassment. Ultimately, it is essential that the entire business receives the message that sexual victimisation will not be tolerated on any level. This also means that appropriate conduct by managers should always be encouraged.
  • Creation of a sexual harassment policy. A clear, detailed and easily accessible sexual harassment policy should be created, setting out exactly what the company's position on such harassment is. This should include the specific behaviours that will constitute sexual harassment and will not be tolerated. It must also be widely circulated amongst staff, ideally with a sign-off required confirming that staff have read and understood the policy.
  • Provision of training. Again, this should be rolled out company-wide, and conducted on a regular basis. It is important that there is general awareness, not only of what is defined to be sexual harassment, but an understanding of what rights and remedies are available to those who feel that they have been a victim of this type of harassment.
  • Encouraging a positive workplace environment. By implementing the above steps, a positive environment will be fostered, which will also encourage staff at all levels to be proactive about preventing sexual harassment or calling it out when it occurs.

the need for employer action

In addition to the general requirement to provide safe working conditions for staff, there are other positive obligations on employers in relation to sexual harassment.

For example, in Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC) imposes a positive duty on employers to prevent any sort of sexual harassment from occurring.

Similarly, employers Australia-wide may be deemed to be vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees, if it can be demonstrated that they did not take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment (per the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth)).

In order to protect the business, it is crucial that immediate and appropriate action by way of response to a sexual harassment notification occurs. Training managers and staff about sexual harassment and the company's stance on it is vital.

Sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a great concern for both employees and employers. Taking active steps and educating staff is crucial in reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Accordingly, WISE Workplace offers employers training programs to address and investigate workplace sexual harassment, as well as independent investigation services to review such behaviours. 


Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Employers understand that it is their responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Yet unlike physical health safety concerns and hazards such as lifting, tripping, sun exposure and dust reduction, many employers find themselves uncertain about how to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

The first and most powerful antidote to this uncertainty is becoming informed. For business owners and managers, this includes stepping up and finding answers about common mental health challenges, causes and implications in the workplace.

Let's take a look at some of these factors, and how employers can support their workers' mental wellbeing.

COMMON TYPES OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES 

Thankfully, many mental health disorders have become better understood and less stigmatised. While not perfect, attitudes towards mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression have changed and are better understood now, than even a decade ago.

However, even though there is understanding that 1 in every 4 Australians will experience some form of mental health issue during their lives, the cliches about non-physical illnesses still abound. This can include the idea that all depressed people are sad, or that anxious people just need to learn to calm down. Another painfully familiar idea is that people with a mental illness are inherently unstable.

For less-understood conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, ADD and PTSD, the accommodation of these and the provision of necessary reasonable adjustments where required in the workplace and beyond, remains incredibly low. Between 6-8% of all adult mental illnesses will be one of these mentioned, so there is every chance that a person in your workplace is currently living with such a challenge on a daily basis.

One common misconception is that people with such mental health conditions are somehow defective - and can't or won't work. Yet the reality is that many high functioning people being treated for mood disorders and other chronic mental health conditions are living and working effectively around Australia at this moment.

Step out against stigma

Sadly, Australians who are working despite carrying a mental health issue often feel that they need to work faster/harder/longer/more to prove their worth - and keep their 'problem' quiet. Women, migrants and those with disabilities can certainly understand this kind of historical over-compensation in the workplace. So, when events arise that could exacerbate the situation, employers might only find out once the worst of the damage has already been done. It is vital therefore to build preventative mechanisms, systems and practises for reducing the kinds of workplace behaviours that can both create and exacerbate mental health issues. 

the key contributors to mental health issues 

The key contributors to workplace mental issues include bullying and harassment, excessive workload, repetitive work routines, and stress. The painful and devastating effects of bullying and harassment are difficult for any worker to face. For employees burdened with a mental health challenge, the impacts can be debilitating.

As mentioned, mental illness can often be carried silently in the workplace, largely due to stigma. If a workload becomes excessive, an employee might not speak up for fear of reprisal. Employers need to put in place systems to monitor these burdens. Repetitive, mundane work can also lead to health and safety issues for workers. One problem that was identified in the Industrial Revolution is that humans need variety! And stress is another 'top 5' cause or primary exacerbator of mental health problems in the workplace: uncertainty, discord and constant change can all build up and cause health concerns.  

adverse outcomes for the workplace

Absenteeism is an unfortunate but not surprising outcome when people are not supported in the workplace. For those with an existing mental health issue, workplace stressors such as bullying and harassment can cause  an exacerbation of the illness. At times like these, attendance can be extremely difficult, if not impossible for an unwell worker to maintain. In a similar way, when mental health issues are not supported in the workplace, reduced productivity is the inevitable consequence. To produce the goods and services at a high and continuous level, workers need to feel well and to feel supported, safe and valued. 

employer obligations to health and safety 

It can be somewhat more familiar for employers to think about workplace health and safety only in terms of physical wellbeing. This narrow notion is not correct and a safe workplace also requires understanding and protection of all workers and particularly those with mental health needs. This necessitates taking the time to understand particular mental health conditions more thoroughly, and to take steps towards ensuring a safer and healthier workplace.

Providing safety to employees from direct and indirect mental harm in the workplace involves much more than merely paying lip service to the notion of promoting good mental health and the occasional 'Are you okay'? query. When an employee develops or divulges a mental health issue, the first step is to provide and encourage open communication. Employers can show their interest in learning more about the condition and what might be done to assist the employee at a practical level.

They should make any and all reasonable adjustments required, to support the employee which may include offering or organising flexible working arrangements, if this is something that might assist the worker in question. Anti-bullying policies should be regularly reviewed and strengthened to ensure that the chances of a workplace mental injury occurring are reduced.

An audit to identify a comprehensive suite of risk strategies and processes should be undertaken, to ensure that the workplace is the safest and healthiest that it can be - from any standpoint.

stepping up to a well workplace 

It makes sense for employers to make a commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of staff. As well as producing excellent improvements in absenteeism, reduction in staff turnover, productivity and injury rates, it's also simply the right thing to do. If you'd like more information and education on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace


Outsourcing or In-House Investigations?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 03, 2019

For many businesses, one of the critical HR questions is whether investigations into alleged employee misconduct or misbehaviour should be outsourced or conducted in-house.

Depending on the nature of the business and the complaint, it may not always be appropriate or cost-effective for investigations to be referred externally.

However, in other circumstances, particularly when the allegations involve potential criminal conduct or there is an actual or perceived conflict, outsourcing may be the best option.

We examine the different circumstances in which investigations might best be outsourced or kept in-house.

outsourcing vs internal 

The key benefit of conducting workplace investigations internally is the ability to potentially deal with a matter swiftly and cost-effectively. The obvious reason here is that staff tasked with conducting an internal investigation, already have an understanding of the internal processes and procedures of the business. Although time away from normal duties is likely to be required, there is no additional cost associated with tasking existing staff to conduct an internal investigation.

On the other hand, depending on the nature of the allegation, existing staff may be lacking in capacity or capability to properly conduct the investigation. This is particularly likely to be the case if the allegations relate to potential criminal conduct which requires police involvement.

In addition, if the allegations are sensitive or have been made against a staff member who would ordinarily be involved in conducting the investigation, it may not be appropriate for the investigation to occur internally.

Whether the investigation is outsourced or conducted internally, it is essential that there are clear delineations as to who will be conducting the investigation. Further, the ultimate investigator must be provided with the applicable investigation policy and procedures which must be followed.

risks of handling an investigation in-house

As noted, there are numerous potential risks of handling an investigation in-house. Chief amongst these is the fact that the internal staff may lack the necessary skills or training to adequately understand the complex nature of the investigation. This could have significant ramifications if there are demonstrable gaps in the process, as this may ultimately invalidate the findings and any final decision which is made.

Having staff without the requisite experience or skills, conducting an investigation may also mean a failure to comply with legal obligations. In the event that the investigatory process results in termination of employment, litigation or other legal action, any failure to duly comply with all the legal and regulatory requirements, may potentially result in an adverse decision for the company.

The possible apprehension of bias in an internal investigation is significant, particularly if the employees who are conducting the investigation have a close personal or professional relationship with the complainant, the respondent or any of the witnesses. In a small company, or in a situation where a member in a senior leadership position has allegations levelled against them, this potential apprehension of bias is even greater.

This could also result in complaints of pre-determined outcomes, where staff involved in the process may argue that the investigation was not conducted in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Any relationship (whether positive or negative) between the investigatory staff and the parties involved in the investigation is likely to come under significant scrutiny. This may open up the investigatory team to suggestions that the investigation was not conducted impartially or fairly.

Factors for considering whether to outsource 

Impartiality and transparency in the investigative process are always crucial considerations. In situations where there are especially sensitive allegations or the staff involved are likely to resort to post-investigatory litigation, any potential concerns regarding failures in process or impartiality can be addressed by outsourcing the entire investigation.

Similarly, if time is of the essence (particularly when staff have been temporarily stood down and it is important that the investigation process is concluded in an expeditious fashion) outsourcing the investigation may be the preferable outcome. 

This is because external investigators are able to devote themselves completely to the investigation process, while existing employees will most likely need to continue on with their day-to-day work.

the benefits of outsourcing

Although there is a cost associated with the outsourcing of an investigation, there are added benefits. Investigators with specialist expertise are able to deal with complex matters, and are best placed to provide reports which are more likely to be relied upon by the Fair Work Commission.

The majority of contemporary workplace investigations come with their own set of challenges and complexities. If you do not have the time or resources to conduct an investigation or you require an experienced investigator, WISE offers both supported and full service investigations to best assist.