Legal Professional Privilege and Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When a workplace investigation is required, there may occasionally be good reason to seek legal professional privilege regarding the findings. This is particularly the case in matters that may require criminal investigation, such as fraud, theft or sexual harassment. 

So, is it sufficient to engage a law firm when undertaking workplace investigation if you wish to attract legal professional privilege? We take a look at the what privilege means, and its role in investigations.

what exactly is legal professional privilege? 

The concept of legal professional privilege means that communications between an employer and their engaged lawyers are confidential and need not be disclosed, for example to another party or in a court, if the communications have been created for the 'dominant' purpose of providing legal advice or in anticipation of legal proceedings.  

What is the significance of legal professional privilege? 

In many circumstances, an employer's inner workings and thought processes may be something that is best kept private. Ultimately, the key purpose of legal professional privilege is to permit employers and other parties, such as external investigations, to freely discuss information with their solicitors in order to obtain legal advice, without being concerned that the material will form evidence in legal proceedings. 

Employers may wish to maintain privilege and keep parts of certain documents confidential if, for example, there are issues with disclosing identities of complainants or witnesses, or permitting potentially inflammatory or commercially sensitive information being disseminated through the workplace and beyond. 

how can workplace investigations attract legal professional privilege? 

If an organisation wishes to obtain privilege over communications, it is not sufficient simply to engage a law firm to undertake or oversee the workplace investigation. The law firm's engagement must be able to be demonstrated as being for the dominant purpose of preparing for imminent legal proceedings, or providing advice in relation to those proceedings.

This was demonstrated in the decision of Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006, in which Commissioner Wilson determined that the engagement of law firm Minter Ellison to conduct an investigation, under the auspices of providing legal advice, was really an investigation into workplace conduct within the employer council's policies and procedures. Accordingly, it was determined that legal professional privilege did not exist in those circumstances.      

loss of privilege

Legal professional privilege can be easily lost or waived. This can occur if a party explicitly states that they waive privilege, or if they provide a document to another party which would ordinarily attract privilege. It is important to note that it is generally irrelevant if the information was intentionally or accidentally provided - once that has occurred, it is hard to argue that the privilege should be maintained. Further, if a party attempts to rely on the contents of a document, it is rare that privilege will be successfully kept over the document. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services Ltd [2014] FCCA 1517, in which the employer attempted to rely on the contents of an investigation report but did not wish to disclose it. It was held that relying on a document without providing access to Mr Bartolo was unfair, and the document had to be produced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced across all steps of the investigation process, including legal professional privilege implications. If you are seeking a robust, defendable investigation, contact us today!      

The Legality of Recording Conversations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How many times have you wished you had a record of a conversation? Perhaps you would have liked evidence of what was said, or you would have appreciated being able to play a conversation back for training purposes. 

Whatever the reason, we examine the legality of recording conversations in Australia. 

when can you record a conversation?

The legality of recording a conversation in Australia depends entirely on the jurisdiction. Each state and territory has separate legislation which sets out the law on surveillance and listening devices. 

Residents of Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory may be concerned to learn that there is no legislation prohibiting the recording of a private conversation (as long as the person recording is involved in that conversation). By contrast, recording conversations without permission of all parties is prohibited in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. 

Regardless of the jurisdiction, there is a prohibition on persons who are not party to a conversation, secretly recording or using a device to listen in on a conversation (with the exception of law enforcement). The obvious example here would be listening or recording devices being covertly installed in hotel rooms. 

what about recordings in the workplace? 

Conversations in the workplace come under the same legislation, which means whether or not it is legal to make a recording depends on jurisdiction. Covert recordings are against the law in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. But employers in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory are permitted to record termination conversations, for example, without advising the employee that they are doing so. This recording can then be used to demonstrate that the employee was afforded due process prior to their termination. 

It is also legal for an employee in these states to record a conversation they are having with a colleague. However, it is important to note that, even though the recording of such a conversation may not necessarily be a criminal act, it is certainly frowned upon in the workplace. 

This was highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Tawanda Gadzikwa v Australian Government Department of Human Services [2018] FWC 4878

In that decision, Mr Gadzikwa took a period of unpaid sick leave arising from a mental health condition. After a certain time, that leave was deemed to be unauthorised, and he was ultimately dismissed for non-performance of duties. 

During the course of the hearings, Mr Gadzikwa (who worked in Victoria) admitted that he had developed a practice of secretly recording conversations with his colleagues. While it is relevant that this practice did not form part of the employer's motivation in terminating Mr Gadzikwa's employment, the employer did submit that this was an inappropriate practice, regardless of Mr Gadzikwa's contention that he recorded conversations 'to protect himself'. 

Deputy President Colman criticised Mr Gadzikwa for his actions in doing so, noting that secret recordings are 'unfair to those who are being secretly recorded'. Ultimately, in the absence of any decent justification for recording the conversations, Deputy President Colman determined that Mr Gadzikwa's actions in doing so effectively diluted points in his favour which would have suggested that he had been inappropriately terminated.

covert recordings inadvisable at work

The warning contained in this decision is clear: everybody in the workplace, whether employer or employee, should be aware that even if it is not illegal to secretly record colleagues, bosses, or staff members, it is considered inappropriate, and may have negative ramifications in any dismissal or similar proceedings. If an individual has formed the view that a recording of a conversation is appropriate and necessary, the other participants should be advised in advance that the conversation is to be recorded, so that any objections can be voiced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct and the surrounding legal issues. If you are looking for assistance to help navigate the challenging and complex issues of workplace misconduct, contact WISE today.

Learning HR Lessons from Real World Cases

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 30, 2019

In recent years, there have been a number of cases heard in the Fair Work Commission and the courts which have resulted in important practical outcomes and learnings for employers, particularly in the area of workplace bullying. 

Let's take a look at some of these seminal cases.

volunteers can pursue bullying claims

The decision in Ryan v Returned & Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) [2018] FWC 761 demonstrates that volunteers who are unpaid are entitled to pursue claims of bullying in the workplace. 

In this case, there was some dispute as to whether RSL Queensland, for which Mr Ryan volunteered, was a 'person conducting a business or undertaking' and a 'constitutionally covered business', within the meaning set out in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

The commission ultimately determined that Mr Ryan was clearly a 'worker' within the meaning of the WHS Act, and held that the Pension Advocacy and Welfare Services (for which Mr Ryan worked, and which was under the aegis of RSL Queensland), was a constitutionally covered business at all relevant times when Mr Ryan was performing volunteer work. On this basis, it was found that Mr Ryan had sufficient standing to pursue a bullying complaint against RSL Queensland.

employer's failure to consider mental health

In Wearne v State of Victoria [2017] VSC 25, the Supreme Court of Victoria determined that an employer could be in breach of its duty to prevent injury to employees in circumstances where an employee complained of bullying and the employer failed to act on the complaints. 

Of particular significance for the court was the fact that the employee had advised her employer some years before she ceased work that she was suffering from occupational stress, was 'anxious about any ongoing contact' with former colleagues and experienced stress as a result. 

In particular, the court concluded that the worker's employers had 'lost sight of the goal of creating a workplace environment that was safe for the [worker's] mental state and minimised the risk of psychiatric injury'

Recommendation of workplace culture improvement plan

The Fair Work Commission determined in Sheikh v Civil Aviation Safety Authority & Ors [2016] FWC 7039 that while the specific circumstances of the employee's workplace did not support a finding of workplace bullying, there was sufficient evidence to suggest that some sort of remedial or consequential action was required. 

Accordingly, the employer was to design and implement a workplace culture improvement plan, which should focus on interpersonal relationship training, the introduction of a facilitated workshop regarding acceptable norms of behaviour, and the development of an appropriate and agreed work allocation protocol.

age discrimination 

A fairly significant compensatory award of $31,420 was awarded to the complainant in the NSW decision of McEvoy v Acorn Stairlifts Pty Ltd [2017] NSWCATAD 273, following his allegations that his employment had been terminated when he was aged 62, because the worker had 'a bad back, bad hearing and was too old'.   

Although the company denied the worker's allegations, the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) found that the evidence suggested that it was 'more probable than not' that the worker was treated less favourably than he would have been if he had been younger.

reasonable management actions vs workplace bullying

In Ms SB [2014] FWC 2104, the Fair Work Commission considered what factors should be taken into account when determining whether an action was bullying or 'reasonable management behaviour'. 

An objective assessment must be made having regard to the circumstances and knowledge of those involved at the time, including what led to the management action, what occurred while it was in progress and what happened subsequently. Having regard to these factors, the Commission determined on this occasion that there was not sufficient evidence to support a finding of workplace bullying. 

It can be difficult for employers to interpret the findings and application of decisions made by the Fair Work Commission and various courts throughout Australia. If you require assistance in conducting workplace investigations, and making sound defensible findings, contact WISE today. 

Putting the 'Reasonable Person' to the Test

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

When determining what led to a certain set of events or making an important decision, it is essential for investigators and decision makers to have regard to an objective standard. 

In trying to get to the bottom of a situation or establishing an appropriate course of action, relying on the 'reasonable person' ensures that a broader perspective is taken. 

We look at exactly what this involves and how it can assist in achieving a fair and balanced outcome.  

What is the reasonable person test?

In Australian law, the reasonable person has been characterised as "the man on the Bondi tram" - an average member of society, who has various generalised attributes including risk aversion, sound judgment and a sense of self-preservation, which prevents them from walking blindly into danger. 

This reasonable person standard can be used to put a situation in context and to ensure that the decision maker does not rely on his own, perhaps limited or skewed, perspective. 

In a workplace investigation, taking the reasonable person test into account will assist an investigator in determining whether a respondent's conduct is reasonable or appropriate in the specific circumstances, and whether the complainant is being reasonable in their response or in feeling affronted or aggrieved.

a practical application of the test

One circumstance in which the reasonable person test was applied was in the Fair Work Commission's judgment in CFMEU v MSS Strategic Medical Pty Ltd; MSS Security Pty Ltd. In that case, the worker objected to the discipline imposed on her in relation to a number of performance issues, including: 

  • Breaching safety procedures by climbing on top of a water tank.
  • Slamming a refrigerator door.
  • Unsafely removing a splinter.
  • Not going home when she was unwell at work.
  • Acting inappropriately during an emergency response debrief.
  • Proving an incorrect response in relation to an eye treatment test.
  • Removing statistical information without authority and lying about it.
  • Being disrespectful to a colleague.  

Applying the reasonable person test, Commissioner Gregory found that the issues complained of were trivial, not worthy of discipline, and most importantly a reasonable person would not have responded with the same level of discipline in the same circumstances.

WHAT can we learn from this?

The reasonable person test has significant utility in the workplace context and it is important to remember that its application differs depending on the circumstances. 

For example, the response of a 'reasonable person' in a Chief Surgeon's position to any given situation is likely to differ substantially to that of an Assistant in Nursing. The question is: What would a reasonable Chief Surgeon in those circumstances have done? 

Similarly, higher standards of reasonable behaviour must necessarily be applied to those in more senior roles or with greater levels of responsibility. 

obtaining assistance with investigations 

When allegations of misconduct arise, the possibilities for distress to workers are extensive. 

If you are conducting an investigation, are unsure of what standard to apply, and are hoping to avoid a costly mistake, contact WISE today. We can conduct a full investigation or alternatively support your organisation in the investigation process.    

Work Christmas Parties: 3 Tips for a Fun Festive Function

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 14, 2018

It's the end of a long year. Employers and staff alike have worked hard and are looking forward to the opportunity to catch up, celebrate, network and relax.

The work Christmas party is often anticipated as an ideal way to farewell the working year, reward staff, and anticipate the year ahead. However, employers must understand that a successful - and incident-free - Christmas party is dependent upon good planning and a sound understanding of the unique risks of work-related events. 

We provide our three best tips for ensuring a fun, safe and low-risk festive event. 

1. uNDERSTAND YOUR UNIQUE OBLIGATIONS 

One unfortunate mistake that we see in December is employers putting on a 'knees up' for staff without fully understanding the obligations involved. Importantly, it is not only parties held in the workplace that require careful consideration of an employer's legal obligations to staff. Festive functions that are off-site, yet employer sanctioned generally attract the full suite of workplace legalities. Required attendance or strong encouragement to attend, combined with free catering and in-built networking opportunities can all indicate that the Christmas party is indeed a work-related event, wherever it might be held.

Workplace safety usually brings to mind ideas of trip hazards and work station alignment. However, when it comes to the work Christmas party, some hazards are very particular. An open bar is a definite no-no. While some staff might groan about the lack of generosity, the relationship between alcohol and poor Christmas party behaviour is well-documented. It is no laughing matter for those employers who are faced with issues of alleged harassment, staff abuse and injury to workers in the wake of a Christmas 'cracker'.

2. Prepare, Prepare and prepare!

Clear communication to all staff about the nature of the upcoming Christmas party is essential. Without seeming like a kill-joy, it is important to outline in writing the expected behaviour of staff, venue rules and general housekeeping such as the end time of both the bar tab and the function itself. A good idea is to build a basic run-sheet into the invitation. Indicate a start time, any speeches and awards, food presentation, bar hours and offerings and close of proceedings. Preparing staff mentally beforehand will discourage untoward behaviour. 

The importance of limiting alcohol and providing professional function staff at Christmas parties was made painfully clear in the recent case of Sione Vai v Aldi Stores. An inebriated worker became extremely agitated when refused service of alcohol by a responsible bar worker. 

As part of his inappropriate and drunken behaviour, the employee threw a full glass of beer towards a security officer, which sprayed co-workers before smashing into a lamp. He was later dismissed. In appealing this decision, the worker claimed that he lost his job as a direct result of this employer-sanctioned party. 

However, Commissioner David Gregory considered that the provision of professional security and bar staff - trained in Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) - as well as a limited supply of alcohol all indicated that the employer had acted with care and diligence. The dismissal was upheld. 

3. respond swiftly to christmas party incidents

As seen in the above case study, preparation and quick action at the time of the function is essential. The aftermath of the party is also a crucial time to consider any necessary responses to incidents that come to light, whether by rumour or direct report. Unfortunately, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, alcohol-related injuries and culturally inappropriate behaviour can all rear their ugly heads at the very function that is designed to foster fun, camaraderie, reflection and unity. Employers should swiftly respond to any Christmas party incidents, ensuring that matters are investigated in a fair, professional and transparent manner. 

decking the halls (safely!)

Equipped with a strong understanding of legal obligations, some sound preparation and prompt responses to any incidents, employers can create a Christmas party that is enjoyable, safe and memorable for all the right reasons. 

If you need assistance to prepare for your Christmas party, or dealing with any issues, which arise from the Christmas party, contact WISE for assistance

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!  

Why Employers Can't Afford to Ignore Procedural Fairness

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 01, 2018

It is important for employers to keep procedural fairness top of mind when conducting workplace investigations or taking disciplinary action.

Failing to do so can result in terminations being deemed unfair, as the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Nicholas Jarmain v Linfox Armaguard Pty Ltd [2018] FWC 3255 (14 June 2018) shows. 

background of the case 

Linfox Armaguard dismissed casual employee Nicholas Jarmain in October 2017 for serious misconduct. While the Fair Work Commission found the termination was justified, it determined that Mr Jarmain had been unfairly dismissed due to insufficient procedural fairness.

Mr Jarmain was dismissed after a client complained that he was "overly engaged in interaction and discussion" and generally inappropriate with staff members and customers of the client.

In response to the allegations, Mr Jarmain was asked to undergo an interview with a security officer and a union support person present. Explanations for his behaviour were sought (and his answers recorded) during the interview, and Mr Jarmain was then suspended from duty.

At a meeting three weeks later, Mr Jarmain was given further opportunity to explain the circumstances giving rise to the complaints against him. However, as his preferred union delegate was injured and unable to attend, the employer substituted their own preferred union official for that meeting.

The employer terminated Mr Jarmain's casual employment the next day, citing wilful and deliberate breaches of safety and security procedures. 

Breaches of procedural fairness

In the interest of procedural fairness, Mr Jarmain's employer should have advised him what claims were being investigated before asking him to participate in a recorded interview.

This was considered to be particularly egregious given that the employer is a big company with sufficient access to HR professionals. HR could (and indeed should) have been relied upon to ensure that Mr Jarmain was afforded procedural fairness when facing disciplinary action.

While the employer's reasons for dismissing Mr Jarmain were "sound, defensible and well-founded", especially given the job involves loaded weapons, the Commission concluded that the flaws in procedure, such as failing to provide any formal warnings or reprimands, were significant. 

The Commission determined that Mr Jarmain had not been given sufficient notification of the circumstances surrounding the complaints against him, or indeed the events giving rise to the complaints - and that he had effectively been ambushed, without sufficient information to defend himself against the claims. 

This meant that both Mr Jarmain's interview and ultimate dismissal were contrary to the requirements of procedural fairness.

Additional failures included the employer selecting the support person assisting Mr Jarmain in the second interview (as opposed to permitting the employee to pick his support person). By making such a decision it was akin to removing Mr Jarmain's right to have a support person present at all.

Further, the employer should not have suspended Mr Jarmain without pay.

the final decision

Ultimately, given the nature of the industry in which Mr Jarmain was employed, Commissioner Cambridge declined to order reinstatement of the employment but ordered compensation payments to the tune of $8,592.

This case demonstrates that having a valid reason to dismiss is only one factor that is considered in unfair dismissal claims. The Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as training.  

Managing Relationships in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anyone who has been following the news recently will be aware that scandalous sexual relationships in the workplace have become something of a common theme. 

The stories of Seven West Chief Executive, Tim Worner and his former executive assistant (a relationship which ended in legal action), the forced resignations of senior AFL executives over their relationships with younger staff, and the notorious pregnancy of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's staffer have all been highly publicised. 

The ironic fallout of Mr Joyce's relationship is the so-called "bonk ban", instituted by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That ban is intended to prevent all relationships between ministers and their staff, and presumably avoid another scenario such as Mr Joyce's extra-martial affair. 

But is this something which employers can actually impose? Particularly in circumstances where many romantic relationships are forged in the workplace?

can employer prohibit relationships in the workplace?

Although it is virtually unheard of for blanket bans on all relationships to be imposed in any workplace, it is not uncommon for disclosure policies to be introduced. 

The intention of such policies is to require staff members to disclose sexual relationships which could result in a conflict of interest, for example when the relationship is between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Such a code of conduct is designed to manage situations where the interests of the business may be in direct conflict with the romantic or personal interests of the employees. 

Actual conflicts of interest vs perceived conflict of interest

Arguably any relationship in the workplace - not necessarily even a romantic one - could lead to a conflict, particularly when the relationship falls apart or ends badly. This can result in staff feeling unable to work together or believing that they are being victimised by their former lover or friend. 

However, it is important to understand the difference between an actual conflict, and a perceived conflict. 

The Fair Work Commission's decision of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation [2015] FWC 2087 illustrates the difference. In this case, a Westpac bank manager was dismissed from his role due to his conduct arising out of his relationship with one of the bank's employees. 

According to Westpac, Mr Mihalopoulos was dismissed because he was dishonest about his relationship with the worker, breached an apprehended violence order imposed by the worker (after the relationship ended) and inappropriately discussed details of their relationship with his subordinates. 

During the course of the hearing, Mr Mihalopoulos admitted that he had put forward his lover for promotions while they were in a relationship, despite denying their relationship to superiors. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined that employers were entitled to expect that their workers were honest about the nature of relationships that had formed, so that any conflicts of interest arising from these relationships could be managed. 

Further, Mr Mihalopoulos' ongoing and repeated dishonesty about the circumstances of his relationship meant that the business was not in a position to appropriately manage conflicts and therefore manage its own risk. Accordingly, Mr Mihalopoulos' unfair termination application was ultimately dismissed. 

How can relationships be managed in the workplace?

In order to manage the minefield of personal relationships in the workplace, Human Resources departments should ensure that both conflict of interest and disclosure policies are in place, which employees should sign up to as part of their terms of employment. 

Once a disclosure has been made, the conflict of interest policy should provide steps to be taken to minimise ongoing risks to the business. For example, staff might be reassigned to different supervisors to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action can still be taken. 

It is critical not only that these policies exist but that they are clearly communicated to all staff, and that staff are made aware of the potential consequences of failing to adhere to these policies, including redeployment or dismissal. 

If you need assistance in managing workplace relationships at your organisation, contact us. Our team can help formulate policies around disclosure and conflict of interest, and can investigate allegations of misconduct. 

A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

the nutS and bolts of it

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

what is the extent of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

the need for an anti-bullying culture

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHen employers are accused of bullying 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

how did the fair work COMMISSION view bullying in 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

Case Study 1: The email is mightier than the sword

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

Case Study 2: Lawful adversaries - bullying in law school

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

Case Study 3: A failure to properly investigate

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

Case Study 4: Getting it both right and wrong

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

Case Study 5: Lessons in discourse

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

The take home message

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.  

Document Examiners: When to Make Use of Them

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Should the outcome of a workplace investigation be taken on review, the integrity of the evidence, amongst other aspects, will come under scrutiny. 

In cases where documentary evidence is relevant, it can be valuable to present expert evidence or obtain an opinion from a document examiner. 

But as a recent NSW case involving document examination demonstrates, it is also essential that the workplace investigation has been conducted and evidence gathered with procedural fairness top of mind. 

What is document examination?  

A document examiner is a qualified professional who conducts forensic investigations of documents. This might include the handwriting, the origin of a document (including whether it is an original, a facsimile or a photocopy), and whether entries on a document have been changed or deleted. 

Although there are many ways in which document examiners can be helpful, they are generally called upon to provide expert evidence in relation to the authenticity and origin of important documents. This can include:

  • Examination of documents to establish whether they are forgeries
  • Comparison of signatures and identifying markers to establish authorship
  • Examination of printing processes (such as determining whether a series of documents originated from one printer or the same type of machine)
  • Reconstructing altered or destroyed documents
  • Determining whether different incidents of graffiti originate from the same writer.  

How is it done and what are its limitations? 

Document examination is considered a forensic science, meaning that it is conducted according to verifiable and objective scientific principles. 

In this regard, a document examiner can be relatively certain when assessing types of ink or paper with a view to determining the origin of a document and whether it is an original or a copied version. This becomes much more difficult in the area of handwriting analysis, which is ultimately an inexact science. Handwriting analysis relies upon the document examiner's individual interpretation of whether two handwriting samples match each other.

USE IN CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS 

Although there is substantial use for document examination in the workplace disputes and civil contexts, the science is also extremely important in criminal proceedings. 

In particular, document examiners might be called upon to determine whether a document is authentic or a forgery, or whether a document has been altered to change its original meaning - for example the alteration of a figure on a cheque, or a fraudulent annexure to a will. 

Case study

Bartlett v Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd [2016] NSWCA 30 demonstrates the importance of document examination as well as its limitations. Prephaps even more importantly, the case demonstrates why it is of paramount importance that any workplace investigation process proceeds in accordance with the principles of natural justice. 

In Bartlett, a former ANZ State Director was awarded an unfair dismissal payout in excess of $100,000. He had been summarily dismissed for alleged serious misconduct, against the background of an allegation that he had altered a confidential, internal email and then forwarded that document to an external party, a journalist. 

The NSW Court of Appeal determined that it was not relevant whether the bank believed that the director had altered and sent on the document, but the essential ingredient in the dismissal was whether the director had in fact committed the misconduct of which he had been accused. 

As the employer, the bank carried the onus of proof to demonstrate that the misconduct had occurred and could be proven, however, the handwritten evidence on which the bank relied to prove the misconduct ultimately did not support any such conclusion. 

Although the bank had utilised the services of a document examiner to assess whether the director's handwriting matched that on the envelope addressed to the journalist, the bank was found to have denied the director natural justice in failing to provide him a copy of the handwriting sample used and therefore effectively denying him the ability to obtain a responding opinion. 

There were also various other factors, including incorrectly comparing cursive and print writing, which caused the court to determine that the handwriting expert's evidence should not be accepted in any event. 

The Bartlett case study confirms how essential procedural fairness is in all internal and external workplace investigations. 

Contact WISE Workplace to undertake investigator skills training, or to arrange to have one of our highly qualified investigators assist you with all aspects of your workplace investigation, including providing advice on whether the services of a document examiner might be helpful.