Responding to Bad Behaviour at the Christmas Party

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's no secret that both the good and the bad can be on display at the annual work Christmas party. While smiles and good cheer can and should be the main features at an end-of-year bash, some unfortunate behaviour can also arise. 

Alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour are just some of the less savoury possibilities. But despite the instinct to punish personnel who wander astray, it is vital that employers respond to Christmas misbehaviour in a manner which is both reasonable and proportionate.

Alcohol abuse/intoxication

For many workers and business owners, the idea of a Christmas party with zero alcohol is a rather bleak one. Secret Santa, sausage rolls and a few cool beverages tend to be part of the workplace festive tradition. Yet the results of intoxication at the work Christmas party are the stuff of unfortunate legend. Raised voices, wild dancing, lewd comments, recriminations and unwanted advances are just some of the potential products of the wrong mix of drinks.

Moderation is everything when it comes to the supply of alcohol at the end-of-year event. Plenty of forewarning to staff about rules and refreshments will also help to keep proceedings on an even keel.

sexual harassment

The well-known reduction of inhibitions caused by alcohol consumption can lead to one of the more serious Christmas party side-effects: sexual harassment. The working year is over, the relief is palpable and perhaps a perceived flirtation is taken in an unacceptable direction. Behaviour that would certainly be shunned in the ordinary workplace can seem 'up for grabs' in the glittery glow of the Christmas party lights.

Alcohol can of course be part of the unacceptable sexual harassment situation: yet sometimes just the high spirits of the Christmas party itself can lead to an array of unacceptable approaches and behaviours.

Aggressive behaviour 

As with misconceived flirtation, the office Christmas party can bring out the worst forms of aggressive behaviour. Personal tensions can simmer during the year, with the relief of the office party creating an unleashing of built-up emotion. Add alcohol to the mix, and there is a strong possibility that arguments, fights and even assaults will emerge.

Case study - keeping things proportionate 

The case of Keenan v Leighton Boral NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156 reflects the need to act swiftly in response to Christmas party problems - yet to do so in a fair and measured way.

In this case, the Fair Work Commission was faced with the troubling situation of an employee becoming intoxicated and proceeding to swear, abuse and provide unwanted advances through the night. He was dismissed. However, the worker's excellent work record, combined with the employer's dubious provision of free-flowing alcohol, saw Keenan's dismissal overturned by the FWC.

In particular, it was noted that any disciplinary action needed to be reasonable and proportionate to the condemned behaviour. The limitless alcohol situation certainly did little to assist the employer's case. And while the employee's drunken behaviour was a nightmare of ill-conceived comments, actions and insults, the FWC noted that his long and notable record of service required the employer to be reasonable in response.

It is certainly a cautionary tale to employers supplying alcohol at Christmas parties. If no limits are placed upon the type and volume of alcohol consumed by workers across time, then a large part of the fault in such cases will no doubt be seen to rest with employers.

managing the christmas party risks 

When it comes to organising the annual Christmas party, it pays for employers to plan the event well in advance. All employees should be aware of the order of proceedings, times and expectations at the party. Employers should plan food and alcohol extremely well, working out how the judicious service of alcohol will be managed through the night.

Providing security staff on the night can also be an excellent way to keep emotions and good cheer under some sort of control!

The Keenan case certainly demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action against an employee. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to find in favour of the applicant where the employer failed to apply proportionate disciplinary action. If you would like to ensure your investigation process is considered and enforceable, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as investigation training for your staff. 

When a Pre-Determined View Leads to an Unfair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 31, 2019

Procedural fairness must be top of mind, for all organisations when conducting a workplace investigation. Failing to allow an employee sufficient time to respond to an allegation or taking a pre-determined view of the outcome of an investigation, for example, proceeding with terminating employment, can leave an employer open to an unfair dismissal claim. 

The importance of observing all elements of procedural fairness when conducting a workplace investigation is highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Mark Andrawos v MyBudget Pty Ltd (U2018/2379). 

the facts of the matter 

The applicant, Mr Andrawos, commenced employment at MyBudget in July 2016. He came to his role, ultimately as a personal budget specialist, with a significant financial industry background, and was supported by tertiary qualifications. During his employment, he received numerous compliments, but was also informally and formally counselled for behaviour including "corner cutting", lateness and a failure to follow procedures correctly.

Mr Andrawos received a total of twelve informal warnings and eventually three written warnings for a variety of misdemeanours, including inappropriate comments made to a female client, resulting in a final written warning being issued. Despite having received the final warning, Mr Andrawos was subsequently involved in two further disciplinary processes. The first regarding his punctuality and the second related to inappropriate conduct with a female colleague.

Mr Andrawos then formed a friendship with a young man, Mr McBryde-Martin, which ultimately led to him providing financial recommendations as to what Mr McBryde-Martin should do with a sizeable inheritance he had received. Eventually, Mr Andrawos suggested that his friend come to MyBudget as a client, on a "friends and family" discount. Mr McBryde-Martin subsequently received financial advice and recommendations.

At one point, Mr Andrawos suggested that Mr McBryde-Martin transfer some $90,000 into a MyBudget account and offered to act as co-signatory. This upset Mr McBryde-Martin's mother (against a background where there was, although ultimately unfounded, some suggestion that Mr Andrawos had been drinking and gambling with Mr McBryde-Martin). His mother complained to MyBudget and Mr Andrawos was immediately escorted from the building and suspended. After some investigation, Mr Andrawos was dismissed from his employment. 

THE need for procedural fairness

The Fair Work Commission considered that Mr Andrawos' suspension and ultimately termination had occurred without sufficient procedural fairness.

Specifically, it was concluded, that he had not been afforded the opportunity to provide the necessary response and context to his employer.

Evidence supporting this conclusion included the fact that Mr Andrawos was initially given less than 24 hours to prepare a response to the allegation letter he had been issued.

Further, despite requesting statements provided by his colleagues, Mr Andrawos was denied access to this information and to the telephone call recordings with Mr McBryde-Martin, and the screenshots of text messages, which were being relied on by MyBudget as evidence in the disciplinary proceedings.

Taking a pre-determined view 

The Fair Work Commission was critical of the fact that there was evidence supporting the finding that a pre-determination had been made by the employer, before the investigative process has occurred. It was particularly noted that the employer appeared to be prepared to only undertake an investigation in form and not in substance - that is, that the employer had already decided to terminate Mr Andrawos. It was also held that Mr Andrawos was also prevented from putting forward his "defence" to his managers at an early stage, which reinforced the conclusion of the existence of a pre-determined outcome.

The evidence put forward to the Fair Work Commission suggested that a key decision-maker at MyBudget, had not been briefed with all relevant information prior to conducting a fact-finding interview, again critical in supporting a conclusion that a pre-determination had already been made. Moreover, no additional enquiries were made after the conclusion of the fact-finding process, most notably that no attempts were made by the employer to speak with Mr McBryde-Martin, regarding the nature of his mother's allegations. 

THE need for separation between investigator and decision-maker

The fact that the investigation was conducted internally at MyBudget by two people who ultimately were also the key decision-makers in the termination process, was criticised by the Fair Work Commission. This perceived conflict of interest tainted the investigation process and the termination decision and was directly related to the conclusion that, while Mr Andrawos' dismissal was neither unreasonable or unjust, it was deemed to be harsh. This highlights the importance of an investigative team, whether internal or external, collecting information and material on an objective basis, before providing it to the ultimate decision-makers for a determination.

This case demonstrates the importance of observing the elements of procedural fairness when investigating workplace matters. A former employee will likely be successful in an unfair dismissal claim, where an employer has entered the investigation process with a pre-determined view of the outcome. To assist your organisation with following a fair and reliable investigation process, WISE offers both training services and external investigation services

Outsourcing or In-House Investigations?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 03, 2019

For many businesses, one of the critical HR questions is whether investigations into alleged employee misconduct or misbehaviour should be outsourced or conducted in-house.

Depending on the nature of the business and the complaint, it may not always be appropriate or cost-effective for investigations to be referred externally.

However, in other circumstances, particularly when the allegations involve potential criminal conduct or there is an actual or perceived conflict, outsourcing may be the best option.

We examine the different circumstances in which investigations might best be outsourced or kept in-house.

outsourcing vs internal 

The key benefit of conducting workplace investigations internally is the ability to potentially deal with a matter swiftly and cost-effectively. The obvious reason here is that staff tasked with conducting an internal investigation, already have an understanding of the internal processes and procedures of the business. Although time away from normal duties is likely to be required, there is no additional cost associated with tasking existing staff to conduct an internal investigation.

On the other hand, depending on the nature of the allegation, existing staff may be lacking in capacity or capability to properly conduct the investigation. This is particularly likely to be the case if the allegations relate to potential criminal conduct which requires police involvement.

In addition, if the allegations are sensitive or have been made against a staff member who would ordinarily be involved in conducting the investigation, it may not be appropriate for the investigation to occur internally.

Whether the investigation is outsourced or conducted internally, it is essential that there are clear delineations as to who will be conducting the investigation. Further, the ultimate investigator must be provided with the applicable investigation policy and procedures which must be followed.

risks of handling an investigation in-house

As noted, there are numerous potential risks of handling an investigation in-house. Chief amongst these is the fact that the internal staff may lack the necessary skills or training to adequately understand the complex nature of the investigation. This could have significant ramifications if there are demonstrable gaps in the process, as this may ultimately invalidate the findings and any final decision which is made.

Having staff without the requisite experience or skills, conducting an investigation may also mean a failure to comply with legal obligations. In the event that the investigatory process results in termination of employment, litigation or other legal action, any failure to duly comply with all the legal and regulatory requirements, may potentially result in an adverse decision for the company.

The possible apprehension of bias in an internal investigation is significant, particularly if the employees who are conducting the investigation have a close personal or professional relationship with the complainant, the respondent or any of the witnesses. In a small company, or in a situation where a member in a senior leadership position has allegations levelled against them, this potential apprehension of bias is even greater.

This could also result in complaints of pre-determined outcomes, where staff involved in the process may argue that the investigation was not conducted in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Any relationship (whether positive or negative) between the investigatory staff and the parties involved in the investigation is likely to come under significant scrutiny. This may open up the investigatory team to suggestions that the investigation was not conducted impartially or fairly.

Factors for considering whether to outsource 

Impartiality and transparency in the investigative process are always crucial considerations. In situations where there are especially sensitive allegations or the staff involved are likely to resort to post-investigatory litigation, any potential concerns regarding failures in process or impartiality can be addressed by outsourcing the entire investigation.

Similarly, if time is of the essence (particularly when staff have been temporarily stood down and it is important that the investigation process is concluded in an expeditious fashion) outsourcing the investigation may be the preferable outcome. 

This is because external investigators are able to devote themselves completely to the investigation process, while existing employees will most likely need to continue on with their day-to-day work.

the benefits of outsourcing

Although there is a cost associated with the outsourcing of an investigation, there are added benefits. Investigators with specialist expertise are able to deal with complex matters, and are best placed to provide reports which are more likely to be relied upon by the Fair Work Commission.

The majority of contemporary workplace investigations come with their own set of challenges and complexities. If you do not have the time or resources to conduct an investigation or you require an experienced investigator, WISE offers both supported and full service investigations to best assist.  

Police Involvement in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On occasion, police will become involved and/or need to be involved in the allegations from a workplace matter. In this situation, it's important for employers to know what their obligations are, and to be aware of some of the challenges that can arise. 

So, let's take a look at when police are or may need to be called in and what should happen once they are. 

WHAT matters require the police? 

Generally speaking, any allegation of a serious or potentially criminal nature necessitates the involvement of police. This includes allegations of physical assault, sexual assault, stalking, child abuse, significant fraud or theft. 

In the event that a complaint could have criminal implications, it is always a good idea to get the police involved as soon as possible. This helps ensure that any police investigation is not hampered by destroyed evidence, ongoing delays or similar interference. 

the employer's obligations

If police have become involved in a workplace matter, the police investigation takes precedence over the internal one. 

However, while the police investigation does take priority, an employer must still carry out an internal investigation. This is to afford the employee who is the subject of the investigation due process and procedural fairness. 

The internal investigation and a police investigation must both be treated entirely separately, but run in tandem. The internal investigation must be managed without impeding the police investigation. It is essential for the employer to communicate closely with police and provide assistance wherever required.

It is also important for an employer to remember that one of their paramount obligations is to provide a safe working environment for staff. This means that if there have been serious allegations such as physical or sexual abuse, the complainant and respondent must be separated in the workplace. Generally, staff against whom allegations have been made should be suspended on full pay, pending the outcome of the police investigation. 

the challenges involved 

It is likely that the police investigation will require the use of resources that would otherwise be engaged in conducting the internal investigation. For this reason, it can be difficult to actively investigate a workplace matter internally while the police are undertaking their own investigation. 

It can also be difficult for employers to balance the need to assist police with their legal obligations to their employees.

a case in point

This balancing act is demonstrated in the matter of Wong v Taitung Australia Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 7982. In this matter, Mr Wong, an employee who was accused of theft, named several other employees allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise. 

Police suggested that the employer not take disciplinary action in relation to the employees, in order to obtain and preserve the evidence against them. This meant that the employer permitted Mr Wong to continue working with no warnings, despite having sufficient evidence to conduct a summary dismissal.

The police were unable to obtain sufficient evidence to charge him, however he was ultimately terminated. However, the Fair Work Commission found that the summary dismissal of Mr Wong was unjust in the circumstances. 

The added factor of police involvement while undertaking internal workplace investigations presents unique challenges for employers. The balancing of police intervention into serious criminal allegations, with the strict employment principles and procedures, is both challenging and essential to ensure employers' actions are reasonable. WISE provides external investigation services as well as training in conducting investigations necessary to manage the workplace-police dynamic. 

The Role of the Fair Work Commission in Workplace Disputes

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 14, 2019

There is a high likelihood that every employer will have to deal with action - or at least the threat of action - involving the Fair Work Commission (FWC). 

Let's take a look at the role of the FWC, and the importance of a defensible investigation report in the event an employee lodges a claim. 

what is the fwc?

The FWC is Australia's national workplace relations tribunal. It deals with a variety of workplace matters, such as salary disputes, enforcing agreements, reviewing workplace conditions, and making decisions on terminations. 

As part of making such determinations, the FWC has the power to impose an outcome on an employer and/or an employee. For example, if a person is considered to have been unfairly dismissed, the FWC may order that their employment is reinstated, or that compensation is payable. 

However, the FWC is not a court, and as such, its decisions can be overruled by a formal court judgement.  

how is the fwc approached?

Applications to the FWC can be lodged online or by mail. Except in certain circumstances where significant financial hardship can be demonstrated, a filing fee ($73.20 at the time of writing) is payable with the application. 

If a former employee wishes to lodge an application relating to unfair dismissal, it must be received by the FWC within 21 days of the official date of the dismissal. 

What does the fwc consider?

A number of different matters can be dealt with by the FWC. However, up to 40% of all applications heard by the tribunal involve claims for unfair dismissal. Other commonly heard applications include those seeking:

  • "Stop" orders for industrial actions;
  • Approval for enterprise agreements/clarification on the terms of an enterprise agreement;
  • Variations in salary awards;
  • An order to prevent bullying in the workplace;
  • A finding as to whether a disciplinary action is reasonable. 

what is the claims process?

Although the exact process differs slightly depending on the nature of the claim, the FWC may elect to: 

  • Recommend informal dispute resolution;
  • Proceed to a hearing of all interested parties;
  • Require written submissions by way of evidence;
  • Provide directions on dealing with the matter;
  • Make binding decisions. 

It is essential to the FWC process, that all matters are dealt with impartially and as swiftly as reasonably possible. 

the importance of a defensible investigation report

The involvement of the FWC generally means that, at some point, an employer will be required to provide evidence. Often, the best evidence available will be a properly completed investigation report. 

The existence of a robust investigation report may prevent a claimant from pursuing an application to the FWC in the first place. The FWC is also likely to look favourably on an employer who has engaged an unbiased external investigator to prepare a detailed report. 

Perhaps most crucially, the FWC will make an assessment on whether an employer's findings and actions are defensible. This will include close examination as to whether the employer can be demonstrated to have shown procedural fairness when dealing with an investigation. 

Dealing with matters brought before the FWC can be a stressful time for employers. WISE are proud that none of our decisions have been successfully challenged in the FWC. If you are looking for assistance to navigate the complex issues of workplace investigations, contact us! Alternatively, download our ultimate toolkit, which will give you confidence in making your workplace investigations procedurally fair, cost effective and consistent.

Writing an Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

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

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

ONE REPORT, MANY PURPOSES

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

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

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

A sound methodology 

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

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

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

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

the right report format 

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

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

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

top tips for report writing 

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

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

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

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

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

How to Write Letters of Notification and Allegation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

During the process of conducting workplace investigations, it is generally necessary to prepare letters of notification, and later, letters of allegation. 

We take a look at the difference between the two, and provide some tips on how to prepare these important documents. 

notifying the parties involved

The letter of notification serves as confirmation that an investigation is going to be launched. These formal documents are sent to the respondent, the complainant and any witnesses involved in the investigation. 

It communicates how the process of the investigation will occur, who will be conducting it, as well as detailing the involvement required from the individuals.

For the complainant, this will generally mean the formalisation of their complaint and participation in an interview. A respondent will also need to undergo a formal interview and be advised of their rights, such as having a support person attend. 

A letter of notification should ideally be prepared and sent as soon as an investigation plan has been finalised.

the elements of a letter of notification

When writing a letter of notification, it is important that it contains specific details including:

  • What exactly is being investigated.
  • Who is conducting the investigation. It is important to identify which members of the organisation will be involved.
  • A formal request for interview. 
  • The offer of a support person to all parties who will be interviewed.
  • A reminder for all parties involved to maintain confidentiality around the process, and the potential consequences of a failure to do so. 

Writing letters of allegation

Although similar to a letter of notification, a letter of allegation contains more detailed information. Instead of being addressed to all the parties involved, only the respondent will receive a letter of allegation. 

The letter should clearly set out: 

  • Details and particulars of the allegations. This information should be as specific as possible, to give the respondent a genuine opportunity to respond to the allegations. 
  • A request for supporting documents. The respondent should be advised of the opportunity to provide any information or evidence supporting their position. 
  • A formal request for interview. Although this has already been identified in the letter of notification, the letter of allegation reiterates the requirement for participation in the interview process. The letter should also reiterate the right of the respondent to have a support person involved in the process. 
  • The letter is required to stipulate if there is a finding of misconduct, what disciplinary actions may be considered and imposed. 
  • A further reminder of the need to maintain confidentiality.  

A letter of allegation should be sent after the complainant has been formally interviewed. This means that detailed allegations can be put to the respondent. 

Do's and do not's when preparing letters of allegations

When preparing a letter of allegations, it is important that procedural fairness is maintained. The respondent should have only clear allegations put to them, supported with evidence where available of the conduct or behaviour alleged. 

The letter of allegation should avoid making any conclusions about the investigation. 

Importantly, it should also demonstrate that the investigators and decisions-makers involved are objective. 

Communication with the parties to a workplace investigation is critical in ensuring a fair and considered approach is taken. Failing to comply with the steps of procedural fairness can impact on the soundness of investigation outcomes, findings and recommendations and leave employers open to decisions being overturned. 

WISE Workplace provides training in investigating workplace misconduct. This training is aimed at providing practical skills that enable you to draft procedurally fair and legally compliant letters of notification and allegations.   

Uncovering the Steps of an Effective Investigation Process

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

Following a clear path

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

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

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

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

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

A step-by-step investigative process

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

1. Receiving a complaint

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

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

2. Establishing terms of reference

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

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

3. Letters of notification and allegation

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

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

4. Interviewing techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLOSURE: Complete the interview politely and professionally.

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

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

5. Report writing

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

6. Making findings

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

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

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

7. The role of the Fair Work Commission

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

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

Obtaining professional guidance 

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

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

Social Media Misconduct: The Need for a Fair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 19, 2019

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

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

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

procedural fairness key in australian case

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

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

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

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

Factors in the decision

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

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

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

the outcome of the case

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

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

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

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

need help in ensuring a fair investigation? 

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

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

How to Deal with an Uncooperative Respondent

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 29, 2019

When conducting investigations in the workplace, senior staff and human resource managers often have to deal with uncooperative respondents. 

Understandably, this can significantly hamper the progress of the investigation. 

WHat is an uncooperative respondent

There are many ways in which the smooth running of an investigation can be negatively affected by an uncooperative respondent. This can arise when: 

  • A respondent refuses to answer questions put to them, meaning that the investigator cannot create a coherent picture of the events or the respondent's perspective.
  • A respondent is no longer employed by the company. This may make it challenging  to even get in touch with the respondent, let alone encourage them to participate in an investigative process.
  • The respondent is out of the workplace on a form of leave (sick leave, stress leave, workers' compensation) that would in some circumstances mean that they are either not medically capable of, or not medically cleared for participation in the investigation process.
  • A respondent intentionally holds up the investigative process. For example, by frequent and consistent rescheduling of meetings, failing to attend work on days when interview sessions have been set up, or otherwise failing to engage in necessary parts of the process. 

what if there is an impact on others involved in the investigation?

It is particularly frustrating to have to deal with a recalcitrant or difficult respondent when other parties to the investigation are adversely affected as a consequence. 

For example, some respondents may seek to intimidate other witnesses with a view to discourage them from participating in the investigative process. 

When dealing with this type of situation, investigators should encourage witnesses to participate in the process by confirming that their involvement remains confidential, and by redacting sensitive information such as names or identifying details when providing documents to the respondent. 

Further, witnesses should be advised that their involvement in the investigative process cannot and will not have any adverse impact on their employment. 

can an investigation occur without the respondent's involvement? 

When faced with a situation where a respondent is failing to cooperate, an investigator can proceed without their involvement in certain circumstances. 

Crucially, it is important that an investigator is able to demonstrate that the investigation proceeded in accordance with all requirements of procedural fairness. 

In particular, this means that there must be a document trail confirming all the efforts that have been made to engage with the recalcitrant respondent. There must also be evidence that attempts have been made to explain to the respondent that their non-involvement may impact but will not stop the investigation process. 

The intention here is to be able to demonstrate to a court, tribunal or other third-party reviewer that the investigator took all reasonable steps to include the respondent and their point of view in the investigation. 

No presumptions or assumptions can be made about the evidence used to determine the substantiation of allegations, if a respondent does not participate in the investigation process. 

how can a respondent be encouraged to participate?

Although some respondents simply will not cooperate, investigators should provide a raft of different options to encourage respondents to meaningfully engage in the process.  

These options include:

  • Encouraging respondents to provide written responses to a series of questions. This is likely to work best for the respondents who are nervous about incriminating themselves during interviews, or otherwise concerned about the investigative process itself. 
  • Reassuring respondents that, despite the allegations facing them, they are entitled to both confidentiality and the assurance of procedural fairness. This may alleviate the concerns of some respondents who feel that they may not be offered a fair right of response. 
  • Reminding a respondent of the entitlement to have a support person present during an interview if required. 
  • Reassuring a respondent that there is an opportunity to provide comment, feedback, additional information and/or evidence on any findings if considered necessary for clarification. 
  • In certain circumstances, it may be best to advise respondents that external investigators have been engaged to facilitate the investigative process. This is likely to be most appropriate in situations where the allegations are particularly serious, or where there is some concern that an internal investigative process may not be completed objectively. For example, if the other parties involved in the investigation are in senior positions or are close to the investigators.  

For more detailed information on conducting interviews, you can purchase a copy of our book, Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators. If you're conducting a workplace investigation and need assistance, contact WISE Workplace today.