Managing Misconduct over the Holidays

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The festive season is fraught with concern for employers. With many staff on leave and those who remain letting their proverbial hair down (often with a beverage or three!) the holiday period can be a minefield.

We take a look at when employees are still considered to be "at work", define misconduct and provide some tips for dealing with poor behaviour in the workplace over the holidays. 

When are employees still 'at work'?

A workplace is where people perform their jobs, undertaking their contracted hours of work. However, a work function held outside the office and outside regular business hours, is considered to be an extension of the workplace.

A general rule of thumb is, that if an event is organised and paid for by an employer, it's officially sanctioned. Liability therefore remains with the employer for any misconduct that occurs. This is likely to be the case, regardless of how many pre-event warnings have been issued to staff, and how many times staff have been reminded of the applicable policies and codes of conduct.

It is also important to keep in mind that employers may bear third party liability, to family members who attend a staff Christmas party, functions held in public venues (where people other than staff could get injured) and in circumstances where a worker causes injury to another person, when leaving an event in a state of intoxication.

defining misconduct in the workplace

Misconduct over the holiday period generally refers to inappropriate behaviour such as discrimination, workplace harassment and bullying, or sexual harassment. This type of behaviour is often associated with the Christmas party, where people have consumed alcohol and have lowered inhibitions.

It is important for employers to remember that the definition of sexual harassment, for example, includes but is not limited to, conduct of a sexual nature which is offensive, humiliating or embarrassing to the person complaining of the behaviour. Crucially, it is irrelevant if the behaviour was intended to offend - it is the opinion of the "victim" and not the "perpetrator" which is relevant.

Other types of misconduct include staff pulling "sickies" due to hangovers, or poor behaviour such as sharing inappropriate stories or having general disagreements between co-workers boil over.  

why is there a prevalence of misconduct over the holidays?

As noted, there is often an increased incidence of misconduct in circumstances where staff are consuming (potentially excessive) amounts of alcohol and otherwise lowering inhibitions.

There is also a general misapprehension amongst employees to the effect that a Christmas party is not considered to be related to employment - which is not the case.

This is part of the reason why employers should also give serious consideration as to whether they wish to gift alcohol, either to their staff or to clients or business associates. While alcohol is a convenient and often appreciated gift, it can create an impression that an employer is not concerned about responsible service of alcohol.

mitigating the risk of misconduct

There are numerous ways that employers can mitigate the risk of misconduct during the holidays. 

Before a function, employers should take steps to remind staff (generally via an email) that it is to be treated as a workplace event, and therefore the usual policies and procedures remain in place. It is also timely to recirculate documents such as code of conduct, sexual harassment or bullying policies and procedures.

During the work function, employers should consider ensuring that at least one (if not more) senior personnel are in a position to remind staff who have over-consumed alcohol, that they should stop drinking and/or perhaps even leave the event.

Similarly, companies should ensure that there are sufficient taxi vouchers or other safe methods of transport home, for all employees who want them. This ensures that the business cannot be responsible for any employees who injure themselves and/or others on the way from the party.

If allegations of misconduct do arise from a Christmas function, employers must ensure that due process and fair procedures are implemented. This includes taking into account the fact that staff may be on leave or have applied to be on leave.

Although the investigative process should not be unnecessarily drawn out, staff who have pre-booked leave, should not be prejudiced by the fact that they are unavailable at that time of year. They should have the same opportunity to prepare a response to allegations as at any other time of year.

Managing staff and keeping in touch with staff over a quieter holiday period can be a challenge. If you need assistance reviewing and managing staff behaviour in your workplace, WISE Workplace provides expert external investigation services to meet your needs. 

Managing Risks in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

managing risks in workplace investigations?

By its very nature, a workplace investigation involves sensitive and contentious information.

When a workplace investigation is required, whether this is outsourced to an external investigator or conducted in-house, it is necessary to be aware of the risks which could eventuate.

What are the key risks?

These include: 

  • Potential Breaches of confidentiality

Each party involved has the right to confidentiality. A breach of confidentiality occurs when other people/ parties are made aware of the investigation, which could cause "injury" to the complainant or the accused. Types of injury include reprisal, injury to reputation, defamation, ostracising the employee, physical altercations, or the exacerbation of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of consequences that could arise if confidentiality is breached.

  • Failing to take "timely and determinative" action

In a situation where disciplinary action such as dismissal is ultimately required, delaying action could potentially prejudice the company's position in any subsequent legal proceedings. This is because a tribunal is likely to find that, if the behaviour was sufficiently serious to warrant dismissal, it would/should have been dealt with as soon as possible. Further, if matters remain open and are not dealt with in an appropriate timeframe, there are greater chances of the issue causing conflict, uncertainly and humiliation within the workplace.

  • Risk of litigation
In matters where the actions and integrity of individuals are likely to be called into question, the risk of litigation is always significant. It is crucial that steps be taken at all times to minimise this risk, or position the company in such a way that it has a defence towards any litigation. 

  • Risk of further costs

Certainly, in situations where a company tries to save on costs by minimising the expenses of investigations, and subsequently needs to "fix" the investigation by engaging external investigators or solicitors, expenses are likely to increase. In many cases, it is better to incur appropriate fees and expenses at the outset, rather than having to pay reparatory costs.

How can you mitigate these risks?

In order to minimise the risks associated with investigations, it is prudent to follow a consistent process for each and every one. This includes:
  • Having a process map, which identifies what evidence should be obtained and which witnesses should be interviewed. 
  • The collation and review of evidence by the investigator. 
  • Interviews being conducted by an investigator, who also catalogues facts.
  • Analysis of the information acquired, in addition to determining if additional fact-finding will be necessary.
  • A determination, made by the investigator and relevant parties based on a review of the findings. Internal stakeholders will work with the investigator to determine how best to communication the decision to concerned parties. 
  • A resolution, where the investigator will document the steps and actions taken. The investigator will also arrange required follow-ups with involved parties to ensure that effective remediation has occurred as planned. 
In addition, it is essential to ensure the investigative process is comprehensive and compliant with the requirements of procedural fairness, as well as sticking to the principles of confidentiality. 

By following these steps, a company ensures that, even if litigation becomes inevitable, it is "court ready" and has a legally sound investigative process and findings which it can demonstrate to lawyers. 

Additional steps to minimise the risks of an investigation being challenged include:

1. Ensuring that all allegations are particularised before they are provided to a respondent. By doing this, a company ensures that a respondent cannot say that they were ambushed or otherwise unable to prepare a defence. 

2. Providing clear and transparent information about the investigation process, including how and when it will occur. A respondent should never be engaged in informal interviews as a way to test the waters, as this could result in subsequent complications. By the same token, arranging for external investigators from the outset can substantially lessen risks such as allegations of bias against internal investigators. 

3. Ensuring that nothing suggests that a 'predetermined outcome' has been arrived at. This includes removing any wording such as "bullying" from the complaint document. Instead, such matters should be framed, for example, as "allegations of alleged bullying".

4. Effectively balancing the need of timeliness in the investigatory process against ensuring that respondents have sufficient time to respond allegations. 

If you are concerned about the investigation process at your workplace, you can take simple and active steps to address these concerns. WISE Workplace is an expert within the field of workplace investigations and also offers training for your staff. 
 

Rules of Evidence in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Although workplace investigations are not expected to be conducted in the same way as a police investigation, it is essential to keep in mind the principles of evidence which might apply. This is particularly important against a backdrop where many workplace investigations end up in the Fair Work Commission or otherwise in a contentious, litigated setting.

We examine the rules of evidence which should be followed to improve the chances of successfully defending against a claim.    

What are the rules of evidence as a whole? 

The most important rule for workplace investigations is whether the evidence to be presented is relevant to the matters at issue. As the decision of Robinson v Goodman [2013] FAC 893 demonstrates, this is determined by considering whether the evidence is of such relevance as to be "important or of consequence". In other words, it should "affect the probability of the existence, or non-existence, of a fact in issue".

The principle of hearsay evidence is also important to workplace investigations, as is the introduction of tendency evidence. 

Hearsay relates to information obtained via rumour or through a second party. In a courtroom setting, information is deemed to be hearsay in virtually any circumstance where it has not been directly conveyed to the person testifying about it. In the investigatory setting, any hearsay evidence can be damaging to the weight placed on that evidence or testimony as a whole.

Tendency evidence considers whether past behaviour should be used to prove the current matters in question. When determining whether to rely on tendency evidence, it is important to weigh up the potential advantage against the possibility of causing damage to an accused by suggesting that their past behaviour dictates their future behaviour. 

why do the rules of evidence matter 

Any workplace investigation should be conducted having regard to the possibility that the matter could end up in the Fair Work Commission or a court. In the event that this occurs, any investigation which has clearly failed to observe basic rules of evidence may result in an adverse finding against the employer. 

If an investigation relies on evidence that is ultimately inadmissible, then the employer might find itself in a position where it cannot back up its defence in any way which the commission or a court will take into account. 

An additional factor to be taken into account is the Briginshaw principle.  This notes that, depending on the seriousness of any given allegation, the strength of the evidence required to establish proof may change. This means that a tribunal must be satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the information before it and on which it is being asked to decide is based on clear, cogent and strict evidence. 

The requirement for a matter to be determined on the balance of probabilities is reaffirmed in section 140 of the Evidence Act 1995 (Cth).

The importance of following the rules of evidence in workplace investigations cannot be understated.  All investigators should consider these rules when collecting and analysing evidence that arises from a workplace matter.

WISE investigators are experts in the field, and with years of experience in undertaking even the most complex workplace investigations, are able to ensure your investigation is fair and legally sound. If your organisation needs assistance with a workplace investigation, WISE provides full as well as supported investigation services.