Substantive, Not Superficial: A Call to Improved Procedural Fairness

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The FWC recently found SA CARE’s dismissal of a casual disability care worker to be unfair and ordered compensation.

The employee in question was warned off tube-feeding clients due to her lack of certification. In response, she advised that she had been signed off on two appropriate training courses, had experience providing gastronomic care at another facility and had been approved by Disability SA. She believed she had been approved to provide that care.

Two days later, the employee was called without warning into a disciplinary meeting with HR where her lack of certification and other qualifications were discussed again.

The HR officer stepped out of the disciplinary meeting for five minutes.

On return, the officer handed the employee a summary dismissal letter which recorded that the employee had received an opportunity to respond to a serious misconduct allegation. the letter terminated her employment with immediate effect.

FWC’s Deputy President Anderson stated the “shocked” care worker was then “escorted off the premises in the knowledge and view of clients and staff, causing them further distress.”

FWC Findings

Ordinarily, an employee performing a medical procedure on a client, knowing they lacked the required certification would justify summary dismissal. Anderson acknowledges the care worker’s assumptions can be reasonably criticised, but also found that the “unique circumstances of this matter” with factors that significantly “mitigate the seriousness of the conduct.”

Anderson found the lack of notice and the timing of only 48 hours between the instruction and the disciplinary procedure to be harsh and unfair. The process also had only superficial procedural fairness, since the employee’s ability to respond was limited and she was not fully warned of the risks to her employment or afforded the right to support during the process.  Anderson also found that the urgent treatment of the matter was unnecessary. 

Anderson awarded the care worker four weeks compensation minus 25% for misconduct with SA CARE paying over $5830.74 in compensation. If you would like to read more about this case, please see: Chioma Okoye v SACARE Supported Acomodation and Care Services T/A SACARE [2020] FWC 704 (12 February 2020).

what can we learn from this case? 

Matters involving dismissal must be handled with utmost sensitivity, caution and procedural fairness even in matters of perceived urgency. There is often grey area in matters of misconduct that may seem black and white. To ensure you are best informed and equipped to handle these challenging circumstances, WISE offer expert third party HR services including training, investigations and reviews.

Managing Risks in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

managing risks in workplace investigations?

By its very nature, a workplace investigation involves sensitive and contentious information.

When a workplace investigation is required, whether this is outsourced to an external investigator or conducted in-house, it is necessary to be aware of the risks which could eventuate.

What are the key risks?

These include: 

  • Potential Breaches of confidentiality

Each party involved has the right to confidentiality. A breach of confidentiality occurs when other people/ parties are made aware of the investigation, which could cause "injury" to the complainant or the accused. Types of injury include reprisal, injury to reputation, defamation, ostracising the employee, physical altercations, or the exacerbation of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of consequences that could arise if confidentiality is breached.

  • Failing to take "timely and determinative" action

In a situation where disciplinary action such as dismissal is ultimately required, delaying action could potentially prejudice the company's position in any subsequent legal proceedings. This is because a tribunal is likely to find that, if the behaviour was sufficiently serious to warrant dismissal, it would/should have been dealt with as soon as possible. Further, if matters remain open and are not dealt with in an appropriate timeframe, there are greater chances of the issue causing conflict, uncertainly and humiliation within the workplace.

  • Risk of litigation
In matters where the actions and integrity of individuals are likely to be called into question, the risk of litigation is always significant. It is crucial that steps be taken at all times to minimise this risk, or position the company in such a way that it has a defence towards any litigation. 

  • Risk of further costs

Certainly, in situations where a company tries to save on costs by minimising the expenses of investigations, and subsequently needs to "fix" the investigation by engaging external investigators or solicitors, expenses are likely to increase. In many cases, it is better to incur appropriate fees and expenses at the outset, rather than having to pay reparatory costs.

How can you mitigate these risks?

In order to minimise the risks associated with investigations, it is prudent to follow a consistent process for each and every one. This includes:
  • Having a process map, which identifies what evidence should be obtained and which witnesses should be interviewed. 
  • The collation and review of evidence by the investigator. 
  • Interviews being conducted by an investigator, who also catalogues facts.
  • Analysis of the information acquired, in addition to determining if additional fact-finding will be necessary.
  • A determination, made by the investigator and relevant parties based on a review of the findings. Internal stakeholders will work with the investigator to determine how best to communication the decision to concerned parties. 
  • A resolution, where the investigator will document the steps and actions taken. The investigator will also arrange required follow-ups with involved parties to ensure that effective remediation has occurred as planned. 
In addition, it is essential to ensure the investigative process is comprehensive and compliant with the requirements of procedural fairness, as well as sticking to the principles of confidentiality. 

By following these steps, a company ensures that, even if litigation becomes inevitable, it is "court ready" and has a legally sound investigative process and findings which it can demonstrate to lawyers. 

Additional steps to minimise the risks of an investigation being challenged include:

1. Ensuring that all allegations are particularised before they are provided to a respondent. By doing this, a company ensures that a respondent cannot say that they were ambushed or otherwise unable to prepare a defence. 

2. Providing clear and transparent information about the investigation process, including how and when it will occur. A respondent should never be engaged in informal interviews as a way to test the waters, as this could result in subsequent complications. By the same token, arranging for external investigators from the outset can substantially lessen risks such as allegations of bias against internal investigators. 

3. Ensuring that nothing suggests that a 'predetermined outcome' has been arrived at. This includes removing any wording such as "bullying" from the complaint document. Instead, such matters should be framed, for example, as "allegations of alleged bullying".

4. Effectively balancing the need of timeliness in the investigatory process against ensuring that respondents have sufficient time to respond allegations. 

If you are concerned about the investigation process at your workplace, you can take simple and active steps to address these concerns. WISE Workplace is an expert within the field of workplace investigations and also offers training for your staff.