Uncovering the Steps of an Effective Investigation Process

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

For many employers, a workplace investigation process can appear quite challenging to navigate. Questions around the actual subject of the investigation, and who is best qualified to carry out this important task, can immediately arise.

The investigation process itself is characterised by a number of important processes that are designed to reduce the risk of negative perceptions and/or potential legal pitfalls at a later date.

We outline proven strategies for understanding and instigating a high-quality investigation process.

By using these, employers have the capability to implement a fair, thorough and professional investigation, from initial complaint management through to the presentation of an accurate and accessible report. 

Following a clear path

When a complaint arises in the workplace, employers might be tempted to launch straight into the fray and 'get to the bottom of things'. Yet such a tactic can be problematic on a number of levels.

First, compliance with existing policies and procedures concerning investigations is crucial, to ensure procedural fairness throughout the process. It can take time to confer with HR, re-read existing internal guides and to make a plan to investigate the complaint in an appropriate manner. 

Each workplace, employee and complaint is unique and employers are reminded to carefully assess their policy compliance obligations before starting down the investigative path.

Secondly, it is vital to ensure that procedural fairness is built into the entire investigative process. The way in which complaints are dealt with must be transparent and fair for all concerned. Results from an investigation process should be reliable. This is derived from robust interview techniques and document searches that are fair and transparent in nature.

A sound investigative process will also ensure the finality of outcomes, leaving no room for doubt. Complainants, witnesses and employers understandably desire a process where finality and clarity are achieved. 

A step-by-step investigative process

Let's take a look at the key steps of an effective investigation. You can find out more about each of these steps in the investigation process in our upcoming series of in-depth articles.

1. Receiving a complaint

It can be confronting for employers when required to deal with workplace complaints. Bullying, harassment, fraud, sexual harassment and child abuse are just some of the serious issues that can arise in workplace contexts. It is crucial that complaints are taken seriously and that actions are carried out in a measured fashion.

Employers should ensure that internal policies and procedures regarding the receipt of complaints are closely followed. The receipt of complaints involving what is known as 'reportable conduct' will additionally activate compulsory reporting regimes. This means that for certain types of alleged misconduct, employers are legally required to report to prescribed external bodies.

2. Establishing terms of reference

At the beginning of the investigative process, the investigator works with the client to define and limit the Terms of Reference (ToR). It is not appropriate to engage in broad-sweeping analyses of all circumstances that might possibly surround the complaint. The investigator and client work with the initial information, to confine the ToR to the essence of the complaint(s) made. An investigation can become too unwieldy if the boundaries of the ToR are vague, hazy or too broad. 

Perhaps most importantly, unclear ToRs can lead to accusations of uncertainty and unfairness for those parties affected. It can make sense to engage an external investigator in those circumstances where complaints, cross allegations and emotions are heightened within an organisation. Often, an objective outside person can provide the clarity needed to get the ToR right.

3. Letters of notification and allegation

Once thorough scoping has taken place, letters of notification need to be made to respondent, complainant and all relevant witnesses. This provides an important opportunity to communicate the nature of the investigation process, as well as the individual's involvement. The letter of notification describes what is being investigated; who the investigator is; the right to request an interview support person; as well as the need for all parties involved in the investigation to maintain confidentiality. 

With a slightly different purpose, the letter of allegations provides a clear description of the complaints that have been made against the respondent. This important piece of correspondence includes the particulars of allegations, any request for supporting documents, pending interview details, the option of having a support person present, as well as the importance of maintaining confidentiality at all times. All correspondence within the investigation should be clear, comprehensive and accessible by the relevant parties.

4. Interviewing techniques

When conducting an interview, the investigator must constantly consider how to maintain transparency and objectivity at all times. Yet, it is also necessary to build a suitable level of rapport with the complainant, the respondent and with witnesses.

One useful tool for running the interview process appropriately is the adoption of an interview framework.

The PEACE model was developed in the United Kingdom to help investigators conduct the fairest and most productive interview possible. With a useful acronym, the PEACE model helps the interviewer to step consistently through the process.

PLANNING: Examine what planning and preparation needs to occur before an interview.

ENGAGE: Choose methods that assist in building rapport with the respondent, complainant or witness.

ACCOUNT: Gather interviewee accounts in a logical and effective structure. Seek clarification where needed.

CLOSURE: Complete the interview politely and professionally.

EVALUATE: Review the contents of your transcript and take any necessary next steps.

Active listening is also a useful tool for interviewers conducting a workplace investigation. This involves giving close and undivided attention to the interviewee, plus being able to paraphrase accurately what has been said. Wherever possible 'open' questions should be asked - those that allow the person to respond in a narrative manner, based upon their recollections. Examples include 'How would you describe the work relationship between Fred and Frank?'.

5. Report writing

One of the most important aspects of a workplace investigation is the final written report. It is relied upon for ensuring compliance with recommendations, detailing any disciplinary actions and can form a defence against future claims. In accordance with Briginshaw, findings made with objectivity and upon the evidence available, are more likely to meet the evidentiary threshold in serious matters. Investigators should clearly determine if allegations are substantiated, unsubstantiated or if evidence is lacking. Being concise, following a logical sequence and ensuring that 'findings follow the evidence' are all important ways of creating a professional, sound final report.

6. Making findings

One of the last and most crucial tasks for the investigator is making findings. It can seem deceptively simple. This evidence was produced; this is the logical finding. Yet there is more to the equation than this.

It is important to present evidence contrary to your findings and to explain why this was less compelling than the preferred evidence. A clear and objective explanation is needed and can certainly be difficult to word at times. Findings should tie back to the analysis and should define which allegations have or have not been substantiated.

An indication of the weighting applied will be necessary, as will the relevance of the evidence in the context of the particular allegations. It should also be clear in the document that reasoning has taken place in the context of the organisation's policies - including whether or not one or more has been breached.

7. The role of the Fair Work Commission

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) provides an opportunity for workers and employers to take their grievances beyond the level of the workplace. The FWC considers an array of work-related issues every day, delivering determinations on matters such as bullying, employment award issues and unfair dismissal claims. Unlike courts, tribunal-type bodies such as the FWC are built to deliver fair, fast and accessible justice.

Yet it is important to remember that all matters will be dealt with in a robust and objective manner according to law. In keeping with the rule of evidence, the FWC will examine final workplace reports closely to determine if sound analysis and findings have been made; for this reason, a defensible final report is essential.

Obtaining professional guidance 

Getting the process of an investigation right from start to finish is critical for the effective and lasting resolution of workplace grievances.

With over 25 years' experience in investigating and managing misconduct, WISE has put together a toolkit with 20 high quality templates and an investigation guide for even the most inexperienced manager to follow.

Social Media Misconduct: The Need for a Fair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An ever-increasing key dilemma for employers in the modern age is how to deal with the misconduct by staff through their use of social media platforms. 

The list of potentially offending conduct is lengthy. For example, staff might call in sick but then post details of their activities on social media. Employees could post inappropriate, defamatory or confidential information on their accounts. One high-profile example is the sacking of a PayPal executive in 2014 who publicly ranted about his co-workers on Twitter, or more recently the well publicised matter regarding Israel Folau and his instagram post. 

Given such a potential minefield, we look at what employers should do to ensure a fair investigation relating to allegations of social media misconduct.

procedural fairness key in australian case

The matter of Singh V Aerocare Flight Support Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 6186 highlights the importance of ensuring that an investigation is thorough and involves appropriate levels of procedural fairness. This requirement applies in social media misconduct, as in all other cases.

Mr Singh was dismissed from his role as a baggage handler in October 2015. Although the reasons for his dismissal were not made immediately clear to him, after proceedings had been issued in the Fair Work Commission, the employer alleged that Mr Singh had breached its social media policy by publicly supporting ISIS and known associates. 

It was also claimed that he had made radicalised comments against the Australian Government. Of particular relevance and concern was Mr Singh's status as an airline employee. 

Before he was terminated, Mr Singh was advised that there had been complaints involving his social media posts and that there would be an investigation. However, Commissioner Hunt found no evidence that Mr Singh was told he could bring a support person to the investigation meetings. Further, although the termination related to a number of posts on social media, Commissioner Hunt accepted that not all posts were shown to Mr Singh for his response. 

Factors in the decision

Relevant factors taken into account by the Commission in determining whether conduct occurring away from the workplace can invoke disciplinary action, include conduct that is: 

  • Likely to cause serious damage to the employer/employee relationship; or
  • Damaging to the employer's interests; or
  • Incompatible with the employee's duty as an employee. 

Before the Commission, Mr Singh's evidence was to the effect that he was against ISIS and radical Islam, and that his comments had been sarcastic. 

the outcome of the case

It was concluded that the employer had not spent sufficient time investigating whether or not Mr Singh was in fact opposed to ISIS. Commissioner Hunt accepted, that if there had been sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Mr Singh had a radicalised perspective on Islam, there would have been too great a risk for an employee with these views to continue working at the airport. 

However, it was determined that in the circumstances the employer should have gone to greater effort to investigate Mr Singh's Facebook newsfeed. If that had occurred, it was considered that it would have been clear that Mr Singh's claimed sarcasm was the true motivation behind his postings. 

Accordingly, the Commission determined that, if a proper investigation had taken place, it would have been apparent that Mr Singh was not radicalised. Therefore, Mr Singh's dismissal was deemed harsh, unjust and unreasonable. 

Instead of terminating his employment, it was considered that an appropriate disciplinary action commensurate with the misconduct would have been reiterating the social media policy of the employer and insisting that Mr Singh refrain from posting incendiary material.

need help in ensuring a fair investigation? 

This case demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where it is determined that the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair and enforceable, WISE Workplace provides investigation services, as well as 'conducting workplace investigations' training. 

Performance Management vs Bullying: Where's the Line?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Employers often face a quandary in dealing with underperformers, and whether to place them onto a performance management program. 

It's essential that any such move can always be considered to be 'reasonable management action' in response to inappropriate behaviours or inadequate or unsatisfactory performance, and not simply a way of bullying an employee. 

Let's take a look at the difference between performance management and bullying, and how employers can make sure they are not crossing the line.  

what is performance management?

At some point, every employer will need to manage an underperforming staff member. In practice, this means taking steps to deal with poor conduct, including:

  • Non-compliance with policies/procedures and other workplace requirements
  • Inappropriate, disruptive or generally bad behaviour
  • Unsatisfactory performance of work tasks

The necessary steps may range from informal performance management, where the inappropriate or unsatisfactory behaviour is brought to the staff member's attention, through to a more formal process such as the implementation of a performance improvement plan.

is it reasonable management action or is it bullying?

Employers are not prohibited from dealing with staff that they consider are underperforming. However, care needs to be taken to avoid bullying a staff member, within the meaning of s789FD (1) of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

That legislation defines bullying as a situation where 'an individual... or group of individuals... repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker, or a group of workers of which the worker is a member, and... that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety'.

The same legislation explicitly excludes 'reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner' from the bullying definition.

But what is reasonable management action? Although not an exhaustive list, the following situations constitute appropriate management action within the meaning of the legislation:

  • Scheduling regular meetings to discuss ongoing performance issues
  • Disciplinary an employee for identified misconduct
  • Undertaking an investigation into a complaint
  • Modifying a worker's duties as required by operational reasons or the employee's health.

When making an objective assessment of the reasonableness of the management action, it is important to consider what caused the action, what circumstances were  in train while the action was taken, and what occurred as a result. 

It is also important to note that there is no 'retrospective gold standard'. Just because an employer may, in hindsight, have been able to improve on the way they undertook the action, does not necessarily mean that it was not appropriate reasonable action at the time. 

Moreover, although the staff member's perception of a negative management action is likely to tend towards it being unreasonable, the standard is objectiveness and this is not determined by one or a group of employees' views.

lesson from real-world cases

Unsurprisingly, the question of what constitutes reasonable management action is one which is frequently litigated in court. 

In the decision of Commonwealth Bank of Australia v Reeve [2012] FCAFC 21, it was determined that a manager's day-to-day instructions were not enough to constitute 'management action'.

In National Australia Bank Limited v KRDV [2012] FCA 543, the court considered that although the employee was spoken to about her performance in both a formal Action Operation Management meeting and in a 'casual chat', the two meetings were not sufficiently clear as performance-related discussions to constitute reasonable management action.

how to ensure compliance with reasonable management action

Practical tips for compliance include: 

  • Ensuring that formal and documented performance management processes occur at all relevant times, and avoiding informal or impromptu 'chats' on performance
  • Reviewing policies and procedures regularly, in relation to bullying and also appropriate disciplinary action
  • Advising managers to always provide clear and direct instructions, which cannot be seen as ambiguous
  • Documenting and providing formal written warnings when inappropriate behaviour is called out, to demonstrate that management involvement has been required. 

Performance management is part of maintaining a successful business. However, if you receive complaints regarding your performance management approach, and want to ensure that you are complying with best practice and acting in a fair and reasonable manner, contact WISE for assistance and advice today.

What Should You Include in a Whistleblower Policy?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Whistleblower protections have been top of mind for many Australian organisations recently, following a number of changes to the law. 

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistle-Blower Protections) Bill 2017 is due to come into effect from July 2019.

This will result in significant changes to the way whistleblowers are to be treated under a raft of existing legislation, including the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), the Banking Act 1959 (Cth) and the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (Cth).

One of the key changes is the need for organisations to have policies in place around whistleblower procedures and protections. 

So what are some of the key changes to the law, and what should your whistleblower policy include? 

the key changes to the law

A number of changes will take effect under the new legislation, including: 

  • The expansion of the definition of 'whistleblowers' to include relatives, dependants, their spouses, former employees and former associates.
  • Excluding personal work-related grievances from conduct that is otherwise deemed to be reportable.
  • Enhancing protections for whistleblowers. This includes increased anonymity, more significant penalties for revealing identities of whistleblowers and facilitating the ability for whistleblowers to seek compensation or redress in situations where they have been victimised. 
  • Limiting the persons in a business who are entitled to receive disclosures, but permitting externalisation of whistleblowing to the media and/or parliamentarians in circumstances where the disclosure may be a matter of public interest or emergency. 
  • Requiring public and large proprietary companies (defined as companies with consolidated revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees) to have a detailed and compliant whistleblower policy in place. 

defining conduct to be reported

The intention of the legislation is to protect people who: 

  • Report misconduct or 'an improper state of affairs or circumstances' in situations where the whistleblower has reasonable grounds to suspect that the misconduct has occurred. This is generally expected to cover 'unethical' conduct. 
  • Believe an offence has been committed under legislation whose supervision comes under the purview of the watchdogs APRA or ASIC.
  • Report behaviours which 'represent a danger to the public or financial system' or otherwise relate to a civil or criminal offence which could result in imprisonment for a period of at least one year. 

explaining the process

In the event that a staff member wishes to make a disclosure, it is essential that it is only made to the appropriate category of person. Internally, this includes officers of the company, a person authorised by the company to receive 'protected disclosures' (such as an HR representative) or a senior manager of the whistleblower, who is an employee of the company. Companies can facilitate disclosure by implementing a mechanism for staff members to report online or over the phone. 

External disclosures can be made to ASIC/APRA, auditors or actuaries reviewing the company, lawyers or journalists or parliamentarians where public interest would be met by making the disclosure.

Whistleblowers are entitled to retain anonymity. However, the information does not need to remain confidential, as long as it can be demonstrated that:

  • The information requires investigation.
  • Reasonable steps have been taken to maintain the anonymity of the whistleblower in conducting such an investigation. 

protections for whistleblowers

The new legislation sets out a number of strengthened protections for whistleblowers.

  • Immunity against civil, criminal, administrative or disciplinary action.
  • An inability to enforce contractual remedies against a party making the disclosure.
  • An inability to admit information provided by a whistleblower into evidence in proceedings against them (unless those proceedings are pursued because of the falsity of the information). 
  • Protection against victimising conduct (such as dismissal, demotion, discrimination or similar).
  • Increased anonymity protection through strict liability criminal offences for revealing identities of whistleblowers
  • Significant monetary penalties applicable to person(s) who reveal the identities. 

What to include in a whistleblower policy?

Organisations who are required to have a whistleblower policy must ensure that it covers off key points, including: 

  • What protections the employee can expect to receive.
  • Details on how those protections will work in practice.
  • Specific information on how a disclosure can be made.
  • Details on how disclosures will be investigated.
  • How the policy will be transparently implemented. 

The policy should be communicated to all staff, from the CEO down. It should be made available where all staff members can easily access it, for example posted on an intranet. 

It is clear that the content and nature of a whistleblower policy are key to appropriately implementing the legislation. To assist our clients in understanding the looming changes and preparing, we have published a white paper, which is available on our website for free download.

We also provide our industry-leading Grapevine Confidential Whistleblower Hotline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Grapevine provides employees with the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to trusted and experienced operators.