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!      

When to Use an External Investigator

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Using in-house resources to sort out organisational problems certainly makes a lot of sense. HR departments tend to be well equipped to receive and manage internal complaints, facilitating solutions as they go. 

But while sourcing external assistance can seem unnecessary, there are certain serious workplace situations where calling in specialist investigative expertise will be the preferable solution.  

Internal or external: making the decision

When an event in the workplace requires investigation, questions arise that require timely answers. One of these will be - who should carry out the investigative process? Less impactful events such as personal differences, disputes or general rumours might naturally fall to an internal workplace investigator. After all, they will have inside knowledge of the culture and dynamics that possibly led to these ripples and allegations. 

Yet when alleged events are more serious in nature and/or the scope of the problem is potentially vast, engaging the expertise of a specialist external workplace investigator can not only relieve the internal workload. It can also mean the difference between smooth resolution of a workplace situation - or the unfortunate escalation of a matter into the costly adversarial realm. The more serious the allegation, the more important it can be to secure professional advice.    

workplace investigations - pitfalls to avoid

Whether internal or external, workplace investigators work hard to carry out investigations fairly and efficiently. In a well-run investigation, all involved will be treated in a professional and objective manner, with no overt bias towards one party or another. 

Yet unfortunately perceived bias can be just as damaging to the final collated report. One pitfall with using an internal investigator is that a perception might arise that one party was favoured over another, due to position, workplace friendship, or longevity within the organisation - just as examples. 

Similarly, if an internal workplace investigation is rushed or not provided with sufficient resources, outcomes can be similarly tarnished. It can be tempting to keep things in-house in order to save money. Yet in the long run, the overall quality of the investigative report can be tarnished, leading to the high likelihood of expensive actions by the aggrieved party.  

the expert investigator 

A further consideration when deciding whether to engage an internal or external investigator is the level of expertise. Invariably, internal investigators have other tasks and roles that take up their time in organisations. 

This is not the case for external workplace investigators. As trained professionals they have the in-depth specialist experience and up-to-date knowledge that is necessary for a fair and impartial investigation. For example, maintaining confidentiality within and across the workplace is a challenging task. An external investigator has the ability to coordinate the process in such a way as to preserve the integrity and confidentiality of all discussions.

The investigator's capability is particularly important when it comes to both the finality and reliability of the investigative report. Should an appeal of the decision eventuate, commissions, tribunals and courts will expect to see a level of thoroughness and objective detail that demonstrates adherence to the principles of procedural fairness throughout. 

In the 2017 matter of Anthony King v The Trustee for Bartlett Family Trust T/A Concept Wire Industries [2017], the Fair Work Commission certainly made it clear that imperfect investigations will be viewed dimly, stating: 'some investigation reports seen by the Commission in this jurisdiction fail to get to the heart of such a situation and rarely undertake a true balancing of the evidence seen by them'. 

Support and expertise

Yet it need not be a black-and-white choice between an internal or external workplace investigator. It is possible to access a supported investigation service. In this framework, the organisation gains assistance from an expert regarding the more complex aspects of the process, while carrying out other tasks internally. 

WISE Workplace is able to offer both full and supported investigation services. If you are concerned about making an error or a lack of knowledge in conducting your own investigation, or would like to train your staff in conducting workplace investigations, contact WISE today.