How Fact-Finding and Disciplinary Investigations Differ

Vince Scopelliti - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

When dealing with allegations of staff misconduct, employers must be able to clearly delineate between fact-finding and disciplinary investigations. 

This includes communicating the difference to staff involved in the process.

fact-finding vs formal investigation

A 'fact-finding' process is often a necessary preliminary step in determining whether a disciplinary investigation is warranted. Following an incident or complaint, a third-party must interview involved parties to obtain objective information and determine whether the event merits a more detailed investigation.

Alternatively, the results may be sufficient to establish that there was no misconduct, or that the results of any further investigation are unlikely to provide any clear determination. Fact-finding may initially be a fairly informal process, although it should still be clearly documented.

It is extremely important that staff are made aware that a fact-finding process is simply that - not accusatory but only to gather information. This should be clearly spelled out in the organisation's policies and procedures, which staff participating in the process should be pointed towards.

By contrast, once an investigation has commenced, the process becomes much more detailed and formal. This includes the preparation of specific witness statements, collection of detailed information and supporting evidence, and the preparation of a report. That report will be relied upon by management and other decision-makers in determining the consequences following an investigation.

Disciplinary investigations are formal processes that involve specific allegations being put to employees. They are surrounded by confidentiality obligations, and are intended to determine whether an incident was a breach of policy which warrants disciplinary action, and not whether an incident actually occurred.

It is important to bear in mind that the point of a disciplinary investigation is to protect the rights of an individual subject to potential disciplinary proceedings.

communicating the process to the employees involved

Parties engaged in a fact-finding process should be advised clearly why they are involved.

Although it is an informal process, staff should be told that they are being interviewed to outline and assess matters of concern before management can determine a course of further action.

The purpose of the meeting should also be clearly outlined, as well as its status as part of a preliminary assessment or a potential precursor to a formal investigation. However, although the general nature of the query needs to be raised, there is no need for specific information to be divulged.

Before potential respondents are interviewed during the fact-finding process, management should give serious consideration to whether it is essential to do so. If it really is required, the potential respondent must be told that the next steps could involve moving to a formal investigative process and potentially the issue of misconduct allegations which will require a formal response.

what happens when the line becomes blurred

At any point when fact-finding starts getting too close to asking specific questions related to the subject nature of any potential complaint, it is straying towards an informal disciplinary investigation.

This is rife with potential implications for the business, particularly if formal disciplinary processes are commenced as a result. The rights of the accused employee are at risk, and any conduct endorsed by the business could result in unfair dismissal or similar actions by the employee. At this stage, it is recommended that a business involve the services of a formal, external investigator to finalise the process.

If you want to protect your business, draw a real distinction between fact-finding and disciplinary investigations. This can be achieved by using an external provider for all disciplinary proceedings. WISE Workplace offers independent, unbiased and expert third-party investigation services to support you every step of the way - from unpacking the facts of a workplace problem to analysing all sources of evidence raised in relation to misconduct. 

Sacked on Leave: Procedural Fairness and Unfair Dismissal

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The rules around when staff can be terminated while they are on leave can be a source of consternation for management and human resources professionals. 

The consequences of getting it wrong are demonstrated in the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Tuan Nguyen v Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies Pty Ltd [2020] FWC 79 (30 January 2020). 

In this case, the employer was ordered to pay compensation to an employee deemed to have been unfairly terminated. 

The Facts of the matter

Mr Nguyen was a business manager for Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies who was dismissed from his employment following allegations of fraud and dishonesty associated with the supply of products to a customer. 

Following his termination, he lodged an application for unfair dismissal, arguing that the seriousness of the allegations levelled against him were not supported by the available evidence. 

Although the Commission found that there was legitimate cause for concern about Mr Nguyen’s reckless conduct, and he had been validly terminated, it was ultimately held that due process had not been followed in effecting the termination. 

This was because Mr Nguyen was found not to have been given prior warning or a “genuine opportunity” to deal with the serious substance of the allegations, particularly given as Mr Nguyen was on extended sick leave at the time of the termination. 

Accordingly, the dismissal was found to have been harsh, unreasonable and unfair, with the Commission ordering compensation in the sum of $10,000. 

key lessons employers can learn

Employers should take note of a few key principles which underpinned the decision in Nguyen, namely:

  • The Commission expects employers to provide a “fair go all round”. In practice, this means that decisions in relation to employment status cannot be made arbitrarily. Instead, they must take into account a balanced, practical and common sense method to ensure that both the employer and the employee are treated fairly. Notably, this includes an opportunity to respond to allegations made against the employee by the business.
  • Procedural fairness is king. Although it is certainly understandable that employers wish to exit staff who are underperforming or otherwise breaching workplace practices or even the law as expeditiously as possible, there is no excuse to “rush” the process, at the cost of following due process. This means providing employees with clearly articulated warnings, notice of the reasons for dismissal, ensuring a legitimate and practical opportunity has been given for them to respond, and permitting the employee to have a support person of their choosing attend any interviews. 
  • In addition, objectivity is crucial. When making decisions as to ongoing employment, it is essential that the results of any investigation can stand up to objective standards of evidence, and will not be undermined by allegations of subjectivity or bias. 
  • Take your time. Unless there are urgent reasons to immediately terminate employees (such as serious criminal activity), there is no benefit in terminating too quickly. This is especially the case when employees are on sick leave, as in most cases the Commission will determine that due process has not been followed in dealing with those staff. 
  • Engage in performance management early. Although there may be a concern that a documented performance management process will further alienate an unhappy or recalcitrant employee, engaging in this process at appropriate times and in a correct fashion will bolster any ultimate termination, should this become necessary. It also affords the employer a reasonable management defence when challenged. 
In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will prioritise “a fair go all round” and not hesitate to find in favour of an applicant (notwithstanding that they may have engaged in legitimate misconduct) if procedural fairness is not followed. To ensure procedural fairness when dealing with misconduct, contact WISE for resources, expert advice and independent, unbiased investigation services.


How to Navigate Counter Allegations in Investigations

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Friday, February 14, 2020

It is not unusual when investigating allegations such as sexual harassment, bullying or theft for the person accused of the misconduct to make a counter allegation.

This in turn can generate further counter allegations, making it difficult for investigators to keep track of a growing litany of wrongdoings!

Steering through the sea of counter allegations means handling each complaint separately, being mindful of procedural fairness and adhering to the civil standard of proof. 

Divide ALLEGATIONS into separate incidents

It is important not to conflate cause and effect when it comes to counter allegations. If the allegation is that person A slapped person B, who, according to A, retaliated by stealing A’s smartphone, these two allegations must be investigated separately.

It may be that that person B had nothing to do with the smartphone’s disappearance, or the slap never happened. 

By looking at them as two unrelated incidents, investigators will not ‘miss’ important evidence, such as A accidentally leaving their phone in a meeting room.

keep procedural fairness top of mind 

The smartphone theft/disappearance may only come up when B is being investigated for the alleged slap. The alleged wrongdoer makes the counter claim in an interview that was up to that point unknown.

In effect, this means there are two allegations under investigation. Depending on the circumstances, this new information may require the interview to be suspended while further inquiries are made by the investigator. 

While it may be tempting to view the counter allegation as 'tit for tat' failing to investigate this new complaint could be viewed by a court or tribunal as a denial of procedural fairness by the employer.

Many unfair dismissal claims are successful because the employer in question failed to afford procedural fairness to the alleged wrongdoer.

The civil standard of proof

While investigating allegations and counter allegations, compartmentalising each alleged incident, its timings and events ensures impartiality and clarity.

This means taking care with unwitnessed and testimonial evidence (hearsay). Vivid descriptions of events may sometimes be compelling yet have no bearing on actual events. Finding an impartial witness to an event can short-circuit this problem, but it can be difficult. Just because person C saw B running from the bathroom crying does not mean the cause was a slap from A. 

Investigators should apply the civil standard of proof when assessing evidence. This means that for an allegation to be substantiated, the evidence must establish that it is more probable than not that the incident occurred.

The strength of evidence necessary to establish an allegation on the balance of probabilities may vary according to the: 

  • Relevance of the evidence to the allegations. 
  • Seriousness of the allegations.
  • Inherent probability of an event occurring.
  • Gravity of the consequences flowing from a finding.
  • The likelihood that the required standard of proof will be obtained.

Employers and management must at all times remain unbiased. Just because a counter allegation is made during an investigation does not mean it lacks substance. It may be that the counter allegation carries more weight and is of a more serious nature than the initial claim.

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, as well as formal qualifications such as Certificate IV and Diploma in Government Investigations.



Racial Discrimination at Work

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 05, 2020

We are all familiar with the more obvious signs of workplace discrimination; but with targeted racism and xenophobia spreading faster than the Coronavirus, it is vital to be aware of the more nuanced and subtle acts of discrimination at work. 

Queensland has seen MP Duncan Pegg slam a phoney health department bulletin that warned online communities to avoid areas with high proportions of Chinese residents. In France, East-Asian communities began the now global #imnotavirus campaign, highlighting discriminatory comments from “are you dangerous if you cough?” to “stop eating wild animals then infecting everyone around you.” 

This problem is not new. In Canada in 2003, a similar wave of outbreak-fuelled xenophobia cost Toronto an estimated C$1bn, prompting public health officials to remind Canadians not to let ignorance triumph over respect in their communities.  

This viral endemic has already had a global impact on small businesses, schools and communities around the world, and workplaces are far from immune. Queensland surgeon Dr Rhea Liang said that “misinformation” on the virus has led to racially motivated remarks such as were made to her at work last week. Dr Liang’s patient refused her routine handshake, saying “you might have coronavirus” in front of her colleagues and several medical students. 

Most Australian workers are not at significant risk of infection, and employers and employees alike should be aware of the legal pitfalls they may encounter, and harm they may inflict, in attempts to protect themselves from the virus. In Dr Liang’s case, her colleagues were immediately supportive, but she worries about more vulnerable people exposed to racism that results from the stereotyping. 

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status. This extends to expressions of racial hatred against another person, and discriminating in the provision of services, entertainment and facilities or on less favourable terms and conditions. 

WHAT Does this mean for you?

We are all familiar with the obvious signs of racial or xenophobic discrimination, like slurs, segregation, targeted aggression and spreading racist rumours. Refusing to serve or deterring customers on the basis of their nationality or race, out of fear of Coronavirus is also an obvious and unlawful form of discrimination. However as a modern employer, it’s important to recognise the more subtle and nuanced forms of racism which can go unnoticed, and therefore be more damaging than overt behaviours. 

It is likely that racism at work is vastly underreported. 20% of Australians experience racism every year, but the Australian Human Rights Commission receives just several hundred racial discrimination complaints annually. 
More subtle and dangerous examples of discrimination include:

  • Xenophobic or racist ostracism of, or hostility towards, colleagues or customers in their workplace.
  • Avoiding contact or proximity with, or hostile body language towards people on the basis of their skin colour or nationality 
  • Unintentional or subconscious behaviour 

Subconscious biases and assumptions, even with positive intentions regarding safety or risk to others can all be considered racist behaviour. 

Prevention is always better than cure, and as an employer, workplace culture starts with you. If you are worried about your workplace culture, contact us to organise a Cultural Review. 

SO, how can i prevent racial discrimination from infiltrating my workplace? 

Education: 

Education on racial discrimination at work empowers employee understanding, sensitivity and conversation. Training programs are an important tool for eliminating more subtle discriminatory behaviours, by highlighting the nuanced nature of racial and cultural experience and necessity for sensitivity, and avoiding unintentional or subconscious infliction of harm. This can not only reduce incidences of discrimination but also create a positive culture where employees support each other, demonstrate and monitor their own standards of conduct and can minimise the emotional and psychological impact of external harm to their peers.

Conversation:

Creating space for productive conversations about race and discrimination at work is vital to a positive workplace culture. To encourage employee participation and make the most of these conversations, frame them in a positive and constructive way.

Outline the purpose and goals of the conversations from the outset:

  • Discuss views and experiences relating to racism in a non-judgmental and safe environment 
  • Learn from each other’s experiences and gain understanding that people experience racism in different ways
  • Reflect on intention and how we can unintentionally cause racial harm to our peers or colleagues 
  • Identify opportunities for growth within the organisation and develop systems for positive change 

Be prepared to support employees who may lack understanding of the real prevalence of racism and need for proper attention. People who are not part of a minority group are likely to have less experience of racism, so the nuanced nature of modern discrimination might come as a surprise. Constructive conversations can help these team members challenge their preconceptions, and help them to approach the issues with awareness and understanding. 

For tailored, expert and neutral third-party training programs or conversational facilitators to improve your workplace culture and tackle complex issues such as racial or xenophobic discrimination, contact WISE Workplace today. Working with an experienced facilitator or training provider such as WISE minimises the risk of tricky power imbalances countering your efforts to eliminate racial discrimination at work.