When to Suspend an Employee During an Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 20, 2019

One of the most difficult aspects of a workplace investigation is the moment when the investigator or employer realises the immediate suspension of an employee is required. 

We examine the warning signs that a suspension might be necessary, as well as the best way to handle this complex eventuality.

The what and why of suspension

Most investigations will follow a relatively regular pattern. The workplace investigator gathers information, a report is submitted and disciplinary action may or may not be taken by the employer. However, occasionally events can arise, requiring that an employee be suspended immediately before or during the investigation. Two questions arise - when and how should suspensions occur?

Suspension involves a compulsory period of absence from the workplace for the employee in question. Suspension will include full pay and any other entitlements accruing to the employee. This is in contrast to an employee being 'stood down' - where the employer has no further work available and payment is not required.

gauging the necessity of suspension 

So when is it warranted to suspend an employee during the course of a workplace investigation? Of course employers must do their best to prevent a workplace difficultly from snowballing in the first place. Preventative measures and policies will hopefully reduce the likelihood of misconduct occurring. 

Yet at times, a suspension becomes necessary before or during the course of an investigation. The types of serious misconduct that can require suspension include suspected fraud, assault or theft. A suspension will also be necessary if there is a serious possibility that the employee might tamper with evidence, or disrupt the investigative process. 

A 'suspicion' of misconduct cannot be a mere whispered rumour or gut feel. In essence, a prima facie case (a reasonable assumption on available evidence) should exist to demonstrate that the employee in question has in all likelihood engaged in a serious act of misconduct. 

The rules of procedural fairness dictate that the investigation be even-handed and impartial throughout - with no recommendations of any kind being made by an investigator until the compilation and presentation of the investigative report. 

However, sometimes allegations are particularly serious and time is of the essence. A risk assessment is required, as well as communication between the investigator and the employer regarding their immediately concerns.

is a suspension a 'legal and reasonable' direction?

In the case of Avenia v Railway Transport and Health Fund [2017], the Federal Court held that employers can issue 'legal and reasonable directions' to staff, with such directions including suspensions. Dr Avenia was the subject of an investigation into allegations of misconduct and was suspended on full pay, pending the investigation. 

The court found that this action by the employer was legal and reasonable due to the nature of the allegations and did not constitute, as Dr Avenia claimed, a case of unlawful termination.

balancing considerations

Suspension during a workplace investigation can certainly create unique challenges. The suspended party might become quite uncooperative and other staff might make assumptions about this person while providing evidence. A clear description of the suspension process must be provided within the investigative report, and a communication strategy put in place by the employer. 

Procedural fairness is the centrepiece of workplace investigations. However, employee welfare, health and safety are also essential considerations. Thorough documentation should be kept of any suspensions, with workplace investigators taking detailed evidence from the employer and others regarding this complex situation.

If an employee engages in misconduct and the employer suspends them before the disciplinary investigation, a fair procedure must be followed. If you need assistance on how to investigate and/or how to respond to inappropriate workplace behaviour, contact WISE today!

Briginshaw Applied: Weighing Up The Evidence

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

For those involved in workplace investigations, one court case seems to be of central importance - Briginshaw v Briginshaw. Interestingly, this 1938 case is actually about alleged adultery in the context of divorce! So the question immediately arises - why do the concepts in Briginshaw seem to hold sway in the context of workplace investigations? 

In a nutshell, the Briginshaw principle acknowledges that evidentiary requirements in civil cases will necessarily vary, depending upon the gravity of allegations made. Yet it is also important to know the difference between Briginshaw and the actual standard of proof that applies in all civil cases, such as workplace wrongs - namely the balance of probabilities.

is the balance of probabilities the same thing as briginshaw?

To speak of the Briginshaw 'standard' can cause unnecessary confusion. It is the balance of probabilities that is the standard of proof in civil matters, such as workplace disputes. The Briginshaw principle simply helps courts and tribunals to evaluate available evidence when considering this standard - particularly where serious accusations are made.

Think of the types of grave allegations or proposed actions that can occur in civil contexts: child sexual abuse, the need to deprive a mental health patient of their liberty, being labelled as a bully or harasser in the workplace, and so on. 

In such serious matters, it is clear that available evidence must be strong, cogent and objective. Thus while the standard of proof always remains the same, the Briginshaw principle requires serious allegations to be backed by particularly compelling evidence.

serious allegations - establishing the facts 

In Natalie Bain v CPB Contractors Pty Ltd [2018] FWC 6273 (9 October 2018) the plaintiff's colleague Mr Skinner accused Ms Bain of trying to hit him while she was driving a heavy truck at full speed. The Commission expressed concern at the very grave nature of these accusations, and the severe consequences for Ms Bain should such facts be established. 

In assessing the evidence both from Mr Skinner and two witnesses, Senior Deputy President Hamberger described Mr Skinner's evidence as 'inherently implausible', noting that he also had 'reason to seriously doubt the veracity of the evidence' put forward by two alleged witnesses.

SDP Hamberger provides an excellent nutshell summary of Briginshaw: 'Consistent with the principle in Briginshaw, therefore, one would need very good evidence before accepting that such an allegation is true on the balance of probabilities.' 

When we consider the task of a workplace investigator, the principle in Briginshaw - as we have seen played out in the Bain matter - requires investigators to ensure that all evidence is elicited in a manner that is mindful of fairness and veracity. Bain reminds us that poorly presented allegations and unreliable witnesses will hamper any attempt to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that an event actually occurred. Investigators need to bear in mind that the quality of evidence obtained can seriously affect success in later proceedings.

an unfortunate reaction

In Shakespeare v Director General, a NSW teacher alleged as part of her grievance that colleagues had deliberately or recklessly exposed her to items - oranges and mandarins - which caused a severe allergic reaction. The implication was that fellow teachers had deliberately or recklessly placed Ms Shakespeare in medical peril - something that the worker strongly believed to be true. 

However, the NSW ADT stated that even though a party might believe passionately that they have been seriously wronged, this is not sufficient in itself to meet the necessary standard: 'we see no reason to doubt the sincerity or the strength of [the teacher's] belief that she was the victim of deliberate conduct. But this belief on her part, standing alone, does not constitute probative evidence on the question.' 

Making defensible findings 

This is a good reminder of the need for workplace investigators to elicit cogent, comprehensive and objective evidence from a number of sources when making findings. In the face of serious allegations, numerous sources of data and testimony should be gathered prior to findings being made. 

Distinguishing Briginshaw from the standard of proof might seem like splitting hairs, yet a solid understanding of Briginshaw in action will assist investigators to gather and analyse evidence fairly and correctly. 

If you are unsure of how to use Briginshaw when making findings for investigations, WISE provides independent, supported investigation services. Contact us today!

Why Counter Allegations Must Be Investigated

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

In the usual course of workplace investigations, it is often one person's word against another's. This is particularly the case when a serious allegation such as sexual misconduct has been made, and there are unlikely to be any witnesses to the event. 

When a serious allegation has been made, often the 'accused' then makes their own claims against the accuser, resulting in cross and counter-allegations.

the difficulty this causes for investigators

Occasionally, counter allegations are made immediately after the investigation is made known to the respondent, and this can make it more difficult for even the most experienced investigator to determine the true course of events leading up to that point. Counter-allegations also sometimes surface once an investigation is already in progress, making it harder for investigators to discern whether they are legitimate or simply made with the objective of revenge. 

The most important thing is that each allegation should be investigated independently. 

the danger of not investigating counter complaints 

A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission demonstrates the importance of ensuring that all allegations are thoroughly and independently investigated, regardless of the circumstances in which they are made. 

In the decision of Watts v Ramsay Health Care it was determined that an employer's failure to investigate complaints of bullying was in itself a form of bullying. 

In these circumstances, Ms Watts repeatedly advised her employer that she was feeling harassed and bullied by her peers, including her co-workers making accusations of Ms Watts smoking cigarettes past her allocated break, smelling of alcohol and failing to perform her duties adequately. 

Ms Watts raised those concerns in the context of a formal investigation by her employers into her own conduct. 

However, her employers failed to investigate Ms Watts' counter complaints on the basis that there was insufficient information and evidence to support Ms Watts' allegations, against a background where she did not name the offenders. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined the failure to investigate the bullying investigations was an inappropriate and unreasonable management decision, and a breach of the employer's own discrimination, bullying and harassment policy.

what are the key lessons?

Perhaps the most important aspect of undertaking fair workplace investigations is ensuring that internal policies are followed, in particular focusing on:

  • Determining and implementing the threshold requirement for commencing an investigation, for instance requiring a formal written complaint before management action can be taken;
  • Being flexible in interpreting the information provided and not imposing arbitrary minimum standards, for instance requiring direct evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Taking into account the context surrounding the making of the allegations. 

 Employers and management should also ensure that they do not make early judgments or allow themselves to be biased in the context in which the allegations are made. In the case of Ms Watts, for example, her employers appear to have judged her allegations on the basis that they were made during the course of her own performance management process. 

It can be challenging for investigators when presented with counter-allegations. If you want to ensure that you are undertaking investigations effectively, WISE provides a range of skills-based short courses for investigators, or formal qualifications such as Certificate IV and Diploma in Government Investigations.

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.    

Legal Issues When Conducting Workplace Interviews

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 29, 2018

When a workplace investigation has to be conducted, the most valuable information will generally be obtained through interviewing the staff involved in the incident and any witnesses. This information will play a critical role in determining what has happened or who or what was responsible. 

In order to obtain relevant and reliable information from the parties involved, good communication skills, an eye for detail and the ability to think on your feet is required. However, it is equally important to remember your legal obligations when interviewing staff.

legal issues

In conducting an interview process, key legal issues include:

  • The creation of statements 
    When an interview is conducted, a statement recording the comments made during the interview must be prepared and provided to the interviewee for review and, if the contents of the statement are agreed upon, signature. 
  • Audio recordings
    The laws on the creation of audio recordings differ in each Australian state. Generally speaking, if a person is advised that they are being recorded and they do not explicitly object, it is acceptable to continue with an audio recording. It is best practice to seek their explicit approval once recording has commenced. It is important to bear in mind that a transcript of the recording must be made available to the interviewee upon request. 
  • Support person
    Anybody involved in a workplace investigation, but especially the person against whom allegations have been made, must have the opportunity to have a support person of their choice present during each step of the investigative process, particularly during the interview. Witnesses have to be informed of this right in advance, in order to provide them with the opportunity to find a suitable support person.   

Procedural fairness and privacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of any workplace interview is ensuring that the process is conducted in accordance with the rules of procedural fairness. This includes:

  • The complainant and the respondent have the opportunity to provide their entire version of events and to have a support person present. 
  • The respondent is advised of the particulars of the allegations against them, so that they can respond in detail. 
  • The respondent is advised of their rights in relation to the investigative process.
  • Proceedings are not delayed unnecessarily.
  • The respondent has sufficient time to prepare for the interview process. Best practice is to allow at least 48 hours' notice but preferably more, depending on the complexity of the particulars. 
  • All relevant witnesses are interviewed.
  • Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence is taken into account.
  • All evidence is considered in an unbiased and impartial manner. 
  • No finding of guilt or otherwise is made until after all parties have had the opportunity to participate in the interview process and had the opportunity to respond to the allegations against them. 

All parties involved in the investigation are entitled to privacy. Witnesses who have disclosed information in confidence, may be intimidated by the fear of victimisation or backlash. This means that information divulged during the interview process is to be kept strictly confidential, unless it is absolutely necessary for the resolution of the dispute that it be shared beyond the immediate investigative team.

tips for successfully conducting an interview

In addition to taking the above steps, inexperienced interviewers may wish to consider obtaining specific legal advice, depending on the situation and the allegations which have been made. 

The interview process should always be undertaken from the perspective that only information which is collected fairly and decisions which are made in an unbiased manner will support disciplinary or administrative action against any employee. 

If you dismiss an employee or take disciplinary action against them without affording procedural fairness and establishing the relevant facts, it is possible that Fair Work Australia or other relevant tribunals may find the action was harsh, unjust or unreasonable in the circumstances. 

An investigation may be costly and time consuming, however the consequences of not conducting one may be even greater. If you need assistance in conducting investigations and undertaking investigative interviewing, contact WISE Workplace today, or purchase our 'Investigative Interviewing Book'.   

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. 

Inside the Fair Work Commission: How it Operates

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Most employers and employees are likely have at least some contact with the Fair Work Commission (FWC) during their working lives. 

This might be as simple as obtaining information about award conditions and employee rights, or as contentious as appearing before the FWC in a workplace dispute or unfair dismissal matter.

So how does the Fair Work Commission work?

The basics of the fwc

The FWC is the national workplace relations tribunal. Created by the Federal Government, it is an independent body that oversees a range of employment-related matters.

Its members are independent office holders who are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Federal Government. Members work in a panel system, which aims to ensure that matters are heard by members with specific expertise in the relevant area. 

The FWC is not to be confused with the Fair Work Ombudsman, whose role it is to enforce compliance with the Fair Work Act and associated legislation, as well as provide advice to employers and employees on industrial relations matters. Unlike the FWC, the Ombudsman cannot conduct investigations or hearings.

what matters does the fwc deal with?

The FWC has the right to make decisions on a wide range of employment issues, including:

  • Determining minimum wage and working conditions
  • Hearing disputes in relation to unfair dismissals or other disciplinary actions
  • Making decisions in relation to appropriate industrial action
  • Conducting and facilitating alternative resolution methods in relation to general workplace disputes and workplace protections  

When making decisions, the FWC is required to take into account factors such as:

  • The principles of equity and good conscience
  • An assessment of the merits of the case before it
  • Avoiding any type of discrimination in the workplace, whether that be sexual, religious, disability or age based, to name a few

how to get a matter heard before the fwc

In order for a matter to be heard by the FWC, an appropriate form needs to be submitted in accordance with the applicable Fair Work Commission Rules.

In certain circumstances, such as when conducting reviews into awards or wage reviews, the FWC is empowered to launch its own action. 

fairness a key focus of hearings

The FWC is obliged by legislation to facilitate reasonably swift actions, and operate informally - without resorting to complicated legal concepts which could make it difficult for the ordinary worker to participate in proceedings. 

One of the central tenets of the FWC requires that hearings be conducted impartially and fairly. During hearings, the members are required to determine the facts and make decisions based on the information put before them. Ultimately, the main purpose of a hearing is to facilitate dispute resolution between the parties. 

Can the FWC dismiss an application? 

An application may be dismissed outright by the FWC in circumstances where it is:

  • Frivolous or vexatious
  • Contrary to the applicable legislation
  • Doomed to fail
  • Clear that one of the parties has unreasonably failed to attend hearings or comply with orders or directions of the FWC. 

What the FWC can't do

Despite being a quasi-legal body, the FWC is not entitled to provide legal advice, or assistance.

It is also not permitted to act in a partisan fashion by representing any particular political party. It must focus on impartial and objective decision making.

Do you need assistance in dealing with the FWC?

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct across government, education, not-for-profit and private sectors. 

We are proud that none of our decisions have been challenged by the FWC. If you are looking for assistance to navigate the challenging issues of workplace misconduct, we provide investigation services and training - Contact WISE today.  

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.