Bringing an Employee Back from Suspension

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 27, 2019

It can seem as though the difficult part of a workplace investigation is dealt with by undergoing the investigative process, and making a decision as to how to deal with the employee. But the aftermath of an investigation, for example bringing an employee back into the workplace fold after a suspension, can be equally difficult. 

We examine what an employer should know, and do, in such a situation.

what is a suspension?  

Employers have the power to suspend staff from their usual workplace duties while an investigation is being conducted into their alleged behaviour or actions. 

Employers need to be certain that they are acting in accordance with the terms of the employee's contract, and any internal policies setting guidelines for performance management via suspension. The same suspension criteria must apply for all staff, and the decision to suspend made only after a thorough risk assessment.

how long can a suspension last?

Workers should only be suspended for as long as is required to undertake the investigation, which should be undertaken as expeditiously as the circumstances allow. 

For this reason, employees may often be suspended with pay, unless the alleged behaviour is sufficiently serious that it would warrant summary dismissal. Even in those cases where an employee is stood down, an employee must be given the opportunity to make submissions as to whether they would be caused undue financial hardship by being suspended without pay. 

Depending on the nature of the alleged conduct, staff may be asked not to contact the suspended employee. This is particularly the case where there have been allegations of violence or threats to harm co-workers. 

how employers can ease the employee's return to work

When a suspension period has ended and an employee has been cleared of wrongdoing or an appropriate penalty has been determined, there are several things both employer and employee can do to ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace. 

From the employer's perspective, in addition to ensuring that there has been clear and documented communication at each step of the process, it is important that the employee feels that they have been genuinely welcomed back to work. This could include arranging a return-to-work meeting on the first day back, or as early as possible, to provide an opportunity to discuss and resolve any concerns. 

At the same time, employers may wish to use the opportunity to obtain more information about the behaviour that led to the initial suspension, for example by conducting workplace culture surveys and participating in regular open dialogue with the returned employee.

In particular, the employee should be offered support on an ongoing basis. This might include a referral to an employee assistance program, the option to participate in a mentoring process with a third party, or other invitations to access support.

the role of the employee

Employees also have a role to play in easing the transition, by: 

  • Having ongoing and clear communication with the employer, both throughout the suspension process and immediately before returning to work. This will assist in clarifying the employer's expectations for the employee. 
  • Avoiding future allegations - the employee should take all steps possible to avoid being alone or in any difficult situation with the person who made the original allegation.
  • Showing remorse where appropriate and complying with restrictions or other terms imposed by the employer (even if the employee doesn't necessarily agree). 

Managing grievances in the workplace can be tricky. If you are unsure of your obligations as an employer, contact WISE Workplace for specialist advice

When to Suspend an Employee During an Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 20, 2019

One of the most difficult aspects of a workplace investigation is the moment when the investigator or employer realises the immediate suspension of an employee is required. 

We examine the warning signs that a suspension might be necessary, as well as the best way to handle this complex eventuality.

The what and why of suspension

Most investigations will follow a relatively regular pattern. The workplace investigator gathers information, a report is submitted and disciplinary action may or may not be taken by the employer. However, occasionally events can arise, requiring that an employee be suspended immediately before or during the investigation. Two questions arise - when and how should suspensions occur?

Suspension involves a compulsory period of absence from the workplace for the employee in question. Suspension will include full pay and any other entitlements accruing to the employee. This is in contrast to an employee being 'stood down' - where the employer has no further work available and payment is not required.

gauging the necessity of suspension 

So when is it warranted to suspend an employee during the course of a workplace investigation? Of course employers must do their best to prevent a workplace difficultly from snowballing in the first place. Preventative measures and policies will hopefully reduce the likelihood of misconduct occurring. 

Yet at times, a suspension becomes necessary before or during the course of an investigation. The types of serious misconduct that can require suspension include suspected fraud, assault or theft. A suspension will also be necessary if there is a serious possibility that the employee might tamper with evidence, or disrupt the investigative process. 

A 'suspicion' of misconduct cannot be a mere whispered rumour or gut feel. In essence, a prima facie case (a reasonable assumption on available evidence) should exist to demonstrate that the employee in question has in all likelihood engaged in a serious act of misconduct. 

The rules of procedural fairness dictate that the investigation be even-handed and impartial throughout - with no recommendations of any kind being made by an investigator until the compilation and presentation of the investigative report. 

However, sometimes allegations are particularly serious and time is of the essence. A risk assessment is required, as well as communication between the investigator and the employer regarding their immediately concerns.

is a suspension a 'legal and reasonable' direction?

In the case of Avenia v Railway Transport and Health Fund [2017], the Federal Court held that employers can issue 'legal and reasonable directions' to staff, with such directions including suspensions. Dr Avenia was the subject of an investigation into allegations of misconduct and was suspended on full pay, pending the investigation. 

The court found that this action by the employer was legal and reasonable due to the nature of the allegations and did not constitute, as Dr Avenia claimed, a case of unlawful termination.

balancing considerations

Suspension during a workplace investigation can certainly create unique challenges. The suspended party might become quite uncooperative and other staff might make assumptions about this person while providing evidence. A clear description of the suspension process must be provided within the investigative report, and a communication strategy put in place by the employer. 

Procedural fairness is the centrepiece of workplace investigations. However, employee welfare, health and safety are also essential considerations. Thorough documentation should be kept of any suspensions, with workplace investigators taking detailed evidence from the employer and others regarding this complex situation.

If an employee engages in misconduct and the employer suspends them before the disciplinary investigation, a fair procedure must be followed. If you need assistance on how to investigate and/or how to respond to inappropriate workplace behaviour, contact WISE today!

Briginshaw Applied: Weighing Up The Evidence

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

For those involved in workplace investigations, one court case seems to be of central importance - Briginshaw v Briginshaw. Interestingly, this 1938 case is actually about alleged adultery in the context of divorce! So the question immediately arises - why do the concepts in Briginshaw seem to hold sway in the context of workplace investigations? 

In a nutshell, the Briginshaw principle acknowledges that evidentiary requirements in civil cases will necessarily vary, depending upon the gravity of allegations made. Yet it is also important to know the difference between Briginshaw and the actual standard of proof that applies in all civil cases, such as workplace wrongs - namely the balance of probabilities.

is the balance of probabilities the same thing as briginshaw?

To speak of the Briginshaw 'standard' can cause unnecessary confusion. It is the balance of probabilities that is the standard of proof in civil matters, such as workplace disputes. The Briginshaw principle simply helps courts and tribunals to evaluate available evidence when considering this standard - particularly where serious accusations are made.

Think of the types of grave allegations or proposed actions that can occur in civil contexts: child sexual abuse, the need to deprive a mental health patient of their liberty, being labelled as a bully or harasser in the workplace, and so on. 

In such serious matters, it is clear that available evidence must be strong, cogent and objective. Thus while the standard of proof always remains the same, the Briginshaw principle requires serious allegations to be backed by particularly compelling evidence.

serious allegations - establishing the facts 

In Natalie Bain v CPB Contractors Pty Ltd [2018] FWC 6273 (9 October 2018) the plaintiff's colleague Mr Skinner accused Ms Bain of trying to hit him while she was driving a heavy truck at full speed. The Commission expressed concern at the very grave nature of these accusations, and the severe consequences for Ms Bain should such facts be established. 

In assessing the evidence both from Mr Skinner and two witnesses, Senior Deputy President Hamberger described Mr Skinner's evidence as 'inherently implausible', noting that he also had 'reason to seriously doubt the veracity of the evidence' put forward by two alleged witnesses.

SDP Hamberger provides an excellent nutshell summary of Briginshaw: 'Consistent with the principle in Briginshaw, therefore, one would need very good evidence before accepting that such an allegation is true on the balance of probabilities.' 

When we consider the task of a workplace investigator, the principle in Briginshaw - as we have seen played out in the Bain matter - requires investigators to ensure that all evidence is elicited in a manner that is mindful of fairness and veracity. Bain reminds us that poorly presented allegations and unreliable witnesses will hamper any attempt to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that an event actually occurred. Investigators need to bear in mind that the quality of evidence obtained can seriously affect success in later proceedings.

an unfortunate reaction

In Shakespeare v Director General, a NSW teacher alleged as part of her grievance that colleagues had deliberately or recklessly exposed her to items - oranges and mandarins - which caused a severe allergic reaction. The implication was that fellow teachers had deliberately or recklessly placed Ms Shakespeare in medical peril - something that the worker strongly believed to be true. 

However, the NSW ADT stated that even though a party might believe passionately that they have been seriously wronged, this is not sufficient in itself to meet the necessary standard: 'we see no reason to doubt the sincerity or the strength of [the teacher's] belief that she was the victim of deliberate conduct. But this belief on her part, standing alone, does not constitute probative evidence on the question.' 

Making defensible findings 

This is a good reminder of the need for workplace investigators to elicit cogent, comprehensive and objective evidence from a number of sources when making findings. In the face of serious allegations, numerous sources of data and testimony should be gathered prior to findings being made. 

Distinguishing Briginshaw from the standard of proof might seem like splitting hairs, yet a solid understanding of Briginshaw in action will assist investigators to gather and analyse evidence fairly and correctly. 

If you are unsure of how to use Briginshaw when making findings for investigations, WISE provides independent, supported investigation services. Contact us today!

Why Counter Allegations Must Be Investigated

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

In the usual course of workplace investigations, it is often one person's word against another's. This is particularly the case when a serious allegation such as sexual misconduct has been made, and there are unlikely to be any witnesses to the event. 

When a serious allegation has been made, often the 'accused' then makes their own claims against the accuser, resulting in cross and counter-allegations.

the difficulty this causes for investigators

Occasionally, counter allegations are made immediately after the investigation is made known to the respondent, and this can make it more difficult for even the most experienced investigator to determine the true course of events leading up to that point. Counter-allegations also sometimes surface once an investigation is already in progress, making it harder for investigators to discern whether they are legitimate or simply made with the objective of revenge. 

The most important thing is that each allegation should be investigated independently. 

the danger of not investigating counter complaints 

A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission demonstrates the importance of ensuring that all allegations are thoroughly and independently investigated, regardless of the circumstances in which they are made. 

In the decision of Watts v Ramsay Health Care it was determined that an employer's failure to investigate complaints of bullying was in itself a form of bullying. 

In these circumstances, Ms Watts repeatedly advised her employer that she was feeling harassed and bullied by her peers, including her co-workers making accusations of Ms Watts smoking cigarettes past her allocated break, smelling of alcohol and failing to perform her duties adequately. 

Ms Watts raised those concerns in the context of a formal investigation by her employers into her own conduct. 

However, her employers failed to investigate Ms Watts' counter complaints on the basis that there was insufficient information and evidence to support Ms Watts' allegations, against a background where she did not name the offenders. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined the failure to investigate the bullying investigations was an inappropriate and unreasonable management decision, and a breach of the employer's own discrimination, bullying and harassment policy.

what are the key lessons?

Perhaps the most important aspect of undertaking fair workplace investigations is ensuring that internal policies are followed, in particular focusing on:

  • Determining and implementing the threshold requirement for commencing an investigation, for instance requiring a formal written complaint before management action can be taken;
  • Being flexible in interpreting the information provided and not imposing arbitrary minimum standards, for instance requiring direct evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Taking into account the context surrounding the making of the allegations. 

 Employers and management should also ensure that they do not make early judgments or allow themselves to be biased in the context in which the allegations are made. In the case of Ms Watts, for example, her employers appear to have judged her allegations on the basis that they were made during the course of her own performance management process. 

It can be challenging for investigators when presented with counter-allegations. If you want to ensure that you are undertaking investigations effectively, WISE provides a range of skills-based short courses for investigators, or formal qualifications such as Certificate IV and Diploma in Government Investigations.