Ruling on Anonymous Social Posts a Warning for Employees

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In the highly-anticipated decision of Comcare v Banerji, the High Court has found it is not unconstitutional for the federal government to restrict the rights of public servants to express their political views in a public forum. 

So what does this decision mean for employees, freedom of political communication and the right to free speech? 

The facts of the matter

The respondent in Comcare v Banerji [2019] HCA 23, Ms Michaela Banerji, was employed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship until September 2013. At this time, her employment was terminated for having breached the Australian Public Service's social media policy and code of conduct. 

Specifically, it was claimed that Ms Banerji had 'tweeted' several thousand posts under an anonymous handle. Those posts commented explicitly on the federal government; Australian immigration policy; ministers; opposition spokespeople and her specific department. 

Following her dismissal, Ms Banerji pursued a number of legal proceedings, claiming that her termination had breached her implied right to freedom of political communication. 

Ms Banerji was successful in her argument before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which held that the anonymity of her Twitter account meant that she could not be identified as a public servant and the policy of her employer had been applied too strictly. 

However, this decision of the AAT was ultimately overturned on appeal to the High Court.

the findings of the high court

In determining in favour of Ms Banerji's employer, the High Court explicitly found that, although the Australian Constitution provides a freedom of political communication, this 'is not a personal right of free speech'.

It was further concluded that, anonymous or not, the tweets threatened the 'integrity and reputation' of the Australian Public Service. Moreover, it was of relevance that Ms Banerji was a public servant, which would become topical if her anonymity was ever threatened.  

the wider implications of the case

As stated in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's decision, placing such significant restrictions on - anonymous - public servants could be considered akin to dealing with 'thoughtcrime'. This means that society is imposing rules and punishments on people who have 'done nothing' other than have differing opinions. 

Ultimately, the decision means that employees, whether in the public or private spheres must carefully consider expressing opinions, be they political or otherwise, which differ from those of their employer. It is clearly unwise to post controversial personal opinions under a readily identifiable name, which could in turn identify and embarrass a worker's employer and lead to a conclusion that the opinions have caused damage to an employer's reputation for example. However, of some concern is the decision of the High Court in applying the Australian Public Service's standard and code of conduct requirements to anonymous tweets. 

This decision is particularly topical given the controversy over the recent legal proceedings involving Rugby Australia and Israel Folau, a devout Christian, 'cut and pasted' text on social media about homosexuality and hell. Given Folau's high profile as a rugby player, his employer Rugby Australia, terminated his employment. Folau is pursuing legal proceedings, arguing that his religious freedom has been interfered with as a result of his termination. 

Although the nature of the defence differs from that put forward by Ms Banerji, the ultimate concept is the same: private individuals are putting forward commentary on personal beliefs and opinions, but on a public forum, and are being penalised by losing their employment as a result. Rugby Australia maintains that Folau's breaches of conduct occurred repeatedly, and that he had been warned on several prior occasions about posting such commentary on social media. 

While it is not yet known what the outcome will be for Folau, it is clear that these cases have wide-ranging implications for organisations and employees. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations and the surrounding complexities of contemporary legal issues. If your organisation holds concerns regarding inappropriate social media use, WISE can conduct investigations and analysis of electronic evidence to establish defensible findings.

Making Findings in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 07, 2019

When a workplace investigation is coming to an end, one task can seem deceptively simple - making findings. 

It might seem that because all the information is now available, the investigator can surely just state 'the obvious' in their report. Yet as with most tasks in the investigative process, quality outcomes require much greater consideration of relevant material. Before findings can be made, a thorough analysis of the evidence needs to occur. Findings will need to link clearly with this analysis - and all evidence must be considered.

Issues around organisational policies, plus the correct weight to be given to particular pieces of evidence, are further pieces in the puzzle of investigative findings that need to be addressed.  

analysing the evidence 

Workplace investigators are required to carefully and objectively analyse all available evidence. This includes the evidence that both supports and rebuts a likely finding. For example, if three workers said that it happened but one states that they are not sure, all four pieces of evidence must be analysed and discussed with equal consideration.

It is certainly unacceptable to simply discard a piece of evidence because it does not fit with the majority. As well as not being transparent, experienced investigators know that a small piece of contrary evidence might actually support a bigger finding at another point of the process. 

The analysis of all evidence will also incorporate the consideration of the weight to be attributed to each piece of evidence. This requires an investigator to consider for example the probative weight and value attributed to direct evidence in comparison to hearsay evidence. 

Findings need to be clear and defensible; links from evidence, to analysis, to findings and back again must be logical and well-explained. Essentially, the investigator is asking whether or not the evidence supports, on the balance of probabilities, the findings that are eventually made.  

following the organisation's policies  

As part of making accurate and defensible findings, investigators need to consider and understand the organisation's policies. Logically, in order to make a finding whether or not inappropriate behaviour has occurred, the first step will be an examination of the policy documents. 

Has the conduct in question as alleged breached a policy - and were the policies and procedures clearly understood by all concerned? General state and commonwealth laws will of course also play a part in findings, and in combination with organisational policies, will assist the investigator to mark the perimeters of acceptable behaviour.

weighing the evidence

Making findings can sometimes feel like the completion of a rather large jigsaw puzzle. Evidence is examined and analysed, with pieces being compared to one another for similarities and differences. Investigators need to consider the relevance of each piece of evidence to the allegations and overall investigation, giving more or less weight to some pieces of evidence over others for any number of reasons. 

Sometimes more weight will be given to a piece of evidence because it is for example, clearer, more compelling or better corroborated than other evidence.

remember briginshaw 

The care with which evidence is examined and weighed can have significant consequences for any potential future proceedings.

For serious allegations, employers will need to be able to rely on high-quality evidence from the initial investigation, in order to meet the evidentiary threshold. The standard of proof in all civil matters is 'the balance of probabilities', requiring that parties meet this standard via the evidence that can be marshalled in their favour. 

In matters where serious allegations have been made, the courts - beginning with Briginshaw v Briginshaw - have indicated that the standard of proof itself remains the same in all cases, but in serious matters where the finding is likely to produce grave consequences, the evidence should be of a particularly high probative value in order to meet the mark.

High-quality OUTCOMES

It is important for employers and their investigators to ensure that findings of workplace investigations can withstand the highest level of scrutiny and appeal. Given the complexities surrounding current workplace investigations, a high level of skill is required to ensure report findings are both sound and defensible. To ensure that you are assessing evidence effectively, WISE provides training in conducting workplace investigations

Writing an Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

To say that a workplace investigation report is an important document is certainly something of an understatement. Following the investigation, the report will be relied upon for all manner of significant organisational decisions, tasks and action. 

As a result, it is essential that workplace investigators create a professional, transparent and unbiased document.

ONE REPORT, MANY PURPOSES

When the investigation is complete and the report is handed to the employer, this document will provide a focal point for immediate action.

Employers will rely upon the report for appropriate disciplinary action, and as a means of establishing compliance where required. The investigation report will often form the basis of policy changes and will need to be clear and persuasive in this regard. 

Perhaps most importantly, the report will underpin the defence of any future claims. How the investigation has been carried out and the weight to be given to findings will be on display now and into the future. 

A sound methodology 

It is insufficient to simply cobble together some aspects of the investigation and present a pleasant-looking report. The report should be transparent; provide a clear step-by-step explanation of the investigation; state the allegations; make reference to the information and documents obtained and considered and the process of analysing and weighting the evidence - among many other elements. 

Readers will be looking to see how the interview process was carried out, if parties were treated with equal respect, plus whether findings were made with objectivity and on the evidence available.

The report should clearly reflect the author's thinking regarding whether allegations are substantiated, unsubstantiated or if a lack of evidence exists. 

A strong methodology will ensure the highest quality of evidence obtained - which can be of great significance when serious claims have been made, as explained in the Briginshaw v Briginshaw case. 

the right report format 

There is a tried-and-true approach to setting out a professional workplace investigation report. The first item is the executive summary which - as it sounds - provides a high-level overview of the process and outcomes. The methodology of the investigation is explained, demonstrating an underpinning coherence to the investigation process. Importantly, the civil standard of proof - 'on the balance of probabilities' - is defined and explained to ensure there is an understanding across a broad audience. The allegations, particulars and evidence are then set out in a professional and objective manner. 

A most challenging aspect of the report is describing and explaining the findings made. In essence, the investigator is explaining why one person's version of events or piece of evidence is to be preferred over another. Again, this must be done thoroughly and with transparency. 

The investigator then sets out any other issues that have arisen through the investigation, such as other issues identified in the workplace, the illness of a hoped-for witness or difficulties accessing documents, just as examples. Finally, the report sets out the final findings and where requested or appropriate makes recommendations in a clear and unbiased manner.

top tips for report writing 

When approaching the task of writing a report, a useful phrase is 'know your audience'. In most cases it will be the employer who has sole access to the investigation report. Yet the reality remains that a court could examine the report document at any future stage. 

In any event, aim to be short and concise at all times with clear and unbiased descriptions. Sometimes the investigation report will need to reflect the technical realities of the workplace, which might include convoluted descriptions or layered processes. 

In these circumstances it can be a good idea to create a glossary of terms or a similar explanatory system that allows for inclusion of and explanation of complex information, while not interrupting the flow of the document. Keep to a logical sequence. Having done the good work of a high-quality investigation, it can be all undermined if the employer is left with a report that is confusing or unhelpful. 

In writing up findings, it is essential that investigators 'follow the evidence'. For example, if evidence A plus evidence B led you to finding W then clearly state this. You cannot simply 'find W' without explaining your reasoning.

The task of pulling together all relevant material into a cohesive report at the conclusion of an investigation can be a challenging prospect. Utilising an external investigator can ensure a report is written in an unbiased, objective and timely manner. To appoint an expert to your organisation's investigation, contact WISE.

Interview Techniques for Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 24, 2019

In any workplace investigation, there will be multiple competing factors for an investigator to consider. One core issue is developing the appropriate interview strategy.

Investigative interviewing requires careful consideration of the purpose of the investigation, and exactly who will be interviewed. There is also the question of tone - ensuring that the interview remains cordial and does not begin to resemble an interrogation. 

At WISE Workplace, we have a wealth of experience in investigative interviewing, including the best practice interview techniques to bring to the task.  

the purpose of the investigative interview

The purpose of the investigative interview is to glean relevant information about a workplace allegation in a manner that is professional and fair. 

In devising a good investigation strategy, the interviewer will carefully select who is to be interviewed during the process. 

People with first-hand knowledge are the key - not those who simply heard a rumour or were told something second-hand. Such statements constitute hearsay, and can reduce the weight of the evidence and the overall value of the investigation if relied upon. It is important for the investigator to identify and interview those people who were directly involved, or who witnessed a situation first-hand. 

Ideally there will be enough witnesses available to corroborate evidence. If facts such as the identity of an alleged bully can be verified between witnesses, or certain actions can be adequately cross-checked, the resulting findings and report are likely to be sound. 

Having a support person available for witnesses is always recommended. Being interviewed for a workplace investigation can be stressful for any of the parties. The presence of a trusted support person can help to calm the witness.

interviewing or interrogating? 

It is vital to create the right environment for the interview. At a fundamental level, the interviewer should avoid any method of questioning that could be seen as interrogating rather than interviewing.

Keep the tone conversational and allow enough time to develop rapport across the interview. Inviting questions around how the interview will work, plus describing procedural aspects like recording and note-taking can assist in reducing anxiety. 

State the obvious. For example: "This is a difficult situation involving certain allegations in the workplace, and we appreciate your help here today".

Offer the witness the option to stop and clarify any questions and to take comfort breaks if needed. Firing off questions and requiring immediate answers is no way to develop rapport and will not illicit the best information and or evidence. 

Adopting a stern or hostile demeanour is unproductive and can also lead to claims of bias. A professional interviewer should never see themselves as a TV detective with a rough attitude and a light shining in the respondent's face! The interview is not seen as a technique used to extract a confession from a witness. Building good rapport is the key to a quality investigative report that stands the test of time.

high-quality interview techniques 

The experienced interviewer understands how to conduct the workplace interview with transparency and objectivity. While the personal information of others needs to be protected, the witness should be informed of all relevant material relevant to the allegations. Even alarming or distasteful allegations should be dealt with professionally and objectively. 

Building rapport with a witness is essential for effective interviewing. Structured processes such as the PEACE model of interviewing can help interviewers to cover all aspects of a professional interview. 

The PEACE model was developed in the United Kingdom to help investigators conduct the fairest and most productive interview possible. The model provides eight steps that should be undertaken which includes:

PLANNING: Examine what planning and preparation need 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.  

Other tools such as active listening and open questions are also excellent ways to gather the best information, without raising problems of biased interviewing - perceived or otherwise. 

Don't rush the witness as they tell their story. Ask open questions, which allow the witness to provide a spontaneous and genuine description of events, rather than being fenced in by closed questioning or unnecessary interruptions.

Mastering the Investigative Interview 

Obtaining first-hand witness evidence by way of interview is essential to uncovering the facts of a matter. However, conducting interviews into serious workplace issues such as bullying and sexual harassment can be a difficult and sometimes a daunting task. 

WISE investigators have mastered key interviewing techniques and have extensive experience in conducting investigative interviews across industries. We have developed a comprehensive guide to steer HR professionals and investigators through the process. Purchase our book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators for the best tips on successful interview techniques.

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. 

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.  

Signed Statements vs Affidavits in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 06, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is important that supporting evidence is collected in order to ensure that any decisions can be backed up, particularly in the event of legal proceedings.

We examine the merits of recording evidence in a signed statement versus an affidavit.

WHAt is a signed statement?  

The nature of a signed statement is fairly self-explanatory: this is a document where somebody records information they wish to present.

Unlike an affidavit, it does not necessarily need to be witnessed. If a witness is required, any adult can sign.

Statements are much less rigid documents than affidavits. As such, there are no requirements around the content or the format and the rules of evidence do not apply.

What is an affidavit?

In contrast, an affidavit is a legally recognised document which is considered to be 'sworn' evidence. If the deponent (the person providing the affidavit) does not wish to swear on a Bible or other religious text, an affidavit can be 'affirmed' in a secular fashion.

The signature on an affidavit must be witnessed, and that witness must be authorised to take affidavits. This is usually a qualified Justice of the Peace, or a solicitor or barrister.

Affidavits should only contain statements of fact rather than opinion, and information which the deponent is able to confirm of their own knowledge. For example, a deponent cannot say "I know that Billy swore at Jessica because Cynthia told me".  

The value of statement evidence vs affidavit evidence

Generally, a court or tribunal will make an order or direction as to whether a written statement is sufficient or affidavit evidence is required.

A written statement is usually enough in less serious circumstances. Written statements provide a helpful guide for a court or tribunal to determine what has occurred. But they are informative rather than being considered reliable evidence. This is because there are effectively no penalties for dishonesty in a written statement. If the statement is signed, however, you can challenge the credibility of the witness who gives evidence inconsistent with the contents of their signed statement. 

In contrast, an affidavit is a written version of verbal evidence. This means that providing false evidence in an affidavit is to all intent and purposes lying under oath, which could result in perjury charges being laid.

Should professional assistance be enlisted?

Writing affidavits can be a complicated process, and there is a risk that a court will refuse to allow some or all of the evidence contained in  an incorrectly drafted one. As noted, the consequences of giving false evidence in an affidavit are potentially very serious, and it is essential that anybody who has been asked to provide affidavit evidence is fully aware of the ramifications.

While there are resources that can help in drafting affidavits, professional assistance may be required, particularly if the investigation could potentially result in litigation or police intervention.

At WISE, our experienced team can assist you in conducting an unbiased and rigorous workplace investigation, including advising on whether witness statements will be sufficient or affidavit evidence will likely be required.

Is Briginshaw Still the Best Way of Solving the Puzzle?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As any HR manager will testify, conducting workplace investigations is one of the most important but vexed aspects of ensuring that an organisation runs smoothly. 

This is particularly the case when the various parties involved in an investigation are putting forward different versions of events - who do you know who to believe? For many years, workplace investigators have employed the Briginshaw test. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1930) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the proposition that if a finding, on the balance of probabilities, is likely to produce grave consequences the evidence should be of high probative value.

But how is this test applied to resolve disputes and make findings in workplace enquiries?

what is it?

The Briginshaw test refers to the civil standard of proof employed in the legal system, specifically in the 1938 divorce case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw. A 'standard of proof' refers to the evidence required by a court or, in the workplace context, an employer or investigator, to make a determination as to the likely truth or otherwise of allegations. 

Although the criminal burden of proof requires evidence to support a finding of 'beyond reasonable doubt', the civil standard only requires an assessment on the balance of probabilities - that is, whether it is more likely than not that one version of events occurred rather than another. 

In Briginshaw, the High Court warned that making a decision on the balance of probabilities does not require a purely mathematical 'weighing up' of the likelihood of one version of events being true over another. Instead, the decision in Briginshaw supports a conclusion that sufficient evidence has been provided if "the affirmative of an allegation is made out to the reasonable satisfaction of the tribunal". In the workplace context, the tribunal determining the matter is the investigator. 

CASE STUDY - SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN CITY HALL

In workplace investigations, individuals are required to respond to allegations, as was the case with the (now former) Lord Mayor of Melbourne. In late 2017, Robert Doyle was accused of having sexually harassed two female councillors by inappropriately touching them. 

In March 2018, an investigation conducted by a Queen's Counsel was finalised, although Mr Doyle had already resigned by this time. Given the seriousness of the allegations and the potential consequences, the investigation relied on the Briginshaw test, and applied a standard whereby the investigator was 'reasonably satisfied' that the specific allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct related to Mr Doyle in his role as Lord Mayor. 

In Mr Doyle's case, the investigators accordingly based their determination on being "satisfied to a level which goes beyond the mere likelihood that something happened" that the allegations could be substantiated. 

The findings included that specific allegations were substantiated. More specifically the investigator made three adverse findings of sexually inappropriate conduct, and a fourth finding that the three matters occurred in the context of the Mayor having consumed substantial amounts of red wine. 

Factors which were taken into account in making this determination, included the likelihood of Mr Doyle having engaged in the behaviour because he had consumed significant amounts of red wine, and his credibility as a witness. The investigation also noted that one of the complainants made contemporaneous complaints and was consistent in her allegations. 

The report stated no findings had been made by a court or tribunal based on the information reported on as part of the investigation, however, if proven the behaviour could constitute sexual harassment within the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and gross misconduct under the Local Government Act 1989.

what can we learn?

One difficulty with applying the Briginshaw test in workplace investigations, is that an investigation does not constitute a judicial process. Accordingly, participants give information on a voluntary basis only. 

This inability to compel testimony or information from witnesses may mean that a determination is made on the balance of probabilities - but without having all information available. Indeed, in the absence of a court or the threat of perjury, there is no real compulsion for accurate information to be given in a workplace investigation. Undue reliance on such information could result in an unjust determination. 

Failure to recognise the difference between a court and the role of an investigator can lead to mistakes, and allegations can be left unsubstantiated in circumstances when they may have occurred. In circumstances where the investigator is inexperienced or does not have access to all required information, it may well result in an inequitable outcome, or a situation where a conclusion is made based on partial information or poor facts. 

When a workplace or employee faces allegations, its important for the investigator to ask the relevant questions, examine documents, and analyse all relevant evidence carefully when making conclusions about what occurred. Making findings using the Briginshaw principle and explaining the reasoning behind the outcomes of the investigation can assist employers in considering what further action needs to be taken in light of the findings. 

It is important for employers and investigators to ensure that findings of workplace investigations will withstand the highest level of scrutiny. A higher level of skill will be required from an investigator when circumstantial or uncorroborated evidence is being considered. 

If you require assistance analysing evidence, or conducting an investigation, contact WISE today!  

How to Write a Robust Workplace Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 05, 2018

At the conclusion of a workplace investigation, the investigator has the challenging task of pulling together all relevant material into a cohesive report. The style of report that is chosen will be firmly linked to the purpose of the investigation, keeping in mind the requirements of the readers and users of the document. 

Investigators need to consider closely the manner in which findings are made and how best to share findings with key parties in a clear and appropriate manner. The outcome of a workplace investigation and report might well be that mediation and/or other processes are indicated as next steps. The tasks of drafting, writing and communicating a workplace investigation report are all crucial parts of the process.

whAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE REPORT?

Any investigation report must provide a clear and unbiased summary of the process and outcomes of an investigation. This is a document that leaves nothing to guesswork when it comes to describing the background, methodology, parties involved, timeline of events, policies and findings that have arisen across the entire timespan of the investigative process. 

It can be tempting for an organisation to decide during an investigation not to obtain a report, and to keep any outcomes 'informal'. However, if there are adverse outcomes for one or more parties, a transparent report will be the best way to prevent any future claims of unfair process. 

the style of report

No two investigation reports will have exactly the same style, the author, allegations, organisation type and specific circumstances all lend a unique nature to a report. Yet some common themes can be found in all high-quality investigations. 

Firstly, the report should be written in professional plain English. A variety of readers should be able to interpret the report - without recourse to a thesaurus! In-house descriptors and acronyms can be used, but these must first be defined or form part of a comprehensive glossary. Clear contents and a logical progression from index and executive summary through to scope, methodology, evidence, discussion, findings and recommendations will also assist any audience to understand the document. 

making findings

All findings made in an investigation report must be supported by the facts. If the facts are established, the investigator needs to determine what policy and/or law have been breached by the conduct. Once these elements are established, they must be communicated effectively and clearly in the written report. 

As with the report's overall style, findings should be logical. The report cannot simply list evidence then move to findings. Careful and reasoned explanation is needed of both the process of analysis and the deliberations undertaken by the investigator. 

This includes explaining what and why certain weighting was given to particular parts of the evidence, or why an interviewee might have been persuasive or unpersuasive on a particular point. Making clear findings is often harder than it might at first appear. Similarly, clearly reflecting the author's final thoughts in a clear and concise manner, making the report user friendly for all readers, is a challenging yet essential part of making defensible findings. 

Informing Parties

One issue to consider closely is how the outcomes of the investigation, contained in the report, will be communicated to the participants. Given that witnesses have provided evidence in confidence, their privacy needs to be protected. 

Other questions which need to be considered when sharing the outcome of an investigation with parties include:

  • Could safety be in issue by the release of particular data?
  • Is the presence of a support person necessary?
  • Should the report be presented to all parties together at a meeting? 

While a report must be clear and comprehensive in all of the matters that formed part of the process, consideration should be given to the use, delivery and description of information provided during the workplace investigation. 

Moving on from a workplace investigation

A common recommendation is for parties involved in a workplace investigation to participate in mediation in relation to one or more issues. This is often the case where emotions have stalled effective interactions at work, or where a 'he said - she said' situation makes it impossible to make a clear finding on issues of fact.

It is important to establish if all issues warrant mediation, or if only a few can realistically be dealt with in this way. Who should conduct the mediation is an interesting topic in itself - and one for future discussion. Effective mediation can create resolution of the issues and, ideally, improve workplace relationships. Yet if such discussions fall through, it is important that the report itself will withstand any future scrutiny or review.

If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, contact WISE now or enrol in our popular and effective 'Conducting Workplace Investigations' training course.