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.

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. 

Analysing Evidence: The Key Step of Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 15, 2018

One of the most challenging and important tasks undertaken by a workplace investigator is the analysis of the evidence that has been gathered during the course of the investigation. 

Key questions to consider include: What evidence should be contained in the investigation report? How do I analyse what I have gathered? How does this connect with the findings I make in the investigation report? 

Here's how to effectively and transparently analyse the evidence.

WHAT evidence should be included? 

There is a simple answer to this question: ALL relevant evidence collected in the course of the workplace investigation will need to form part of the analysis, the findings and the final report. The act of leaving evidence out without explanation can - intentionally or otherwise - indicate a lack of thoroughness or even worse a prejudgement about a fact in issue. A piece of evidence might ultimately prove to be of little consequence, but this should be at least acknowledged and noted. So if in doubt don't leave it out. 

Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence

One way to begin marshalling material is to consider if the evidence is exculpatory or inculpatory. If we think of the allegation in question - let's say sexual harassment in the workplace - we can begin to analyse the evidence in terms of those items that most likely indicate that the conduct occurred, and those that point to the opposite conclusion. 

Evidence that indicates or tends to indicate that something occurred is known as inculpatory evidence. Conversely if evidence vindicates or tends to clear the alleged harasser of the wrongdoing, then this is known as exculpatory evidence. 

It is unlikely that you will have two neat piles from the start! However, this formal approach to organising the evidence can assist in creating a logical report that withstands future scrutiny. 

Analysis of the evidence

For each piece of evidence examined, investigators need to determine how strong or weak it is in the overall context of the investigation. Strong evidence will be consistent, reliable and in terms of witness statements, believable, probable and credible. 

Considering that a workplace investigation often reflects strong emotions and internal allegiances within the organisation, it is important to make an objective assessment of the reliability of statements made and items presented. Investigators will be on the lookout for statements that might be self-serving, or made a long time after the event in questions, for example.

Other factors to consider will be internal anomalies in statements or possible collusion between witnesses. An element of triangulation of the data will be required - the investigator is looking to detect where dubious connections indicate a weakness in evidence, or conversely where consistent evidence is noticeable across a number of different sources, including documentary evidence. 

It is important to compare and contrast evidence from different sources: Which parts of the evidence consistently support the view that the events in question occurred and which indicate that it did not occur. Once this is done, the weight or value of each part of the evidence can be assessed.    

writing up the analysis

Those new to workplace investigations can sometimes become daunted by the task of reporting on findings made. It is important to be clear about the methodology, about the manner in which the evidence was handled and how you have arrived at your findings. 

Take a methodical approach, which will assist your own thinking as well as allow any reader a logical progression through the document. Some organisations will require the report to be set out in a particular manner and it is important to ascertain if this is the case. 

Above all - make your findings clear. If your finding is that an event occurred, then state this clearly. It will be necessary to explain why you consider certain claims to be substantiated or where there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion on a contended point. This document could well be used in a number of forums including court and tribunal proceedings. It should be a reflection of the fact that the workplace investigation was fair, that all relevant evidence was considered and included, and that findings are based upon well-balanced evidentiary analysis. 

A workplace investigation is a systematic process for establishing facts and circumstances surrounding a complaint or allegation. If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, or would like support in analysing your evidence gathered, WISE provides both supported and full investigation services.

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.  

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.  

Professional Distance and Conflict of Interest at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

During the seventies and eighties, organisations started to realise that the improper use of power and authority and undeclared and/or ineffectively managed conflicts of interest, posed a significant risk to their integrity and public trust. 

The requirement for ethical business dealings focuses the spotlight on conflicts of interests and the factors involved in creating the perception of conflicts of interest in the workplace. 

It can be difficult to maintain a suitable professional distance with colleagues, subordinates and suppliers, particularly if a significant friendships have been formed outside the workplace. There is an increased risk when managers, employees and co-workers communicate on social media. Employers must also be vigilant about the risks of inappropriate levels of professional distance with clients or colleagues, especially in circumstances where such behaviour may lead to, or can be perceived as, grooming of vulnerable persons. 

When it comes to conflicts of interest, it is best to completely avoid any behaviour, which may result in the creation of a real or perceived conflict of interest. For this reason, many professions address this specifically in their Codes of Conduct or may draft specific conflict of interest policies, which set out expected and appropriate standards of behaviour. 

In our planned six-part series we'll unpack the key elements of professional distance and conflict of interest, from maintaining professional boundaries to determining the difference between a lapse of judgement and grooming. 

breaching professional boundaries   

According to Dr. Anna Corbo Crehan, from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, questions of professional distance occur when two or more people involved in a professional relationship also have an additional relationship, such as one based on love, attraction, friendship or family. "So then, professional distance is the space a professional must keep between their professional relationship with another, and any other relationship they have with that person. By keeping this space, a professional can fulfil their professional and personal obligations, and be seen to do so, in a way that is impartial and/or non-exploitative in regard to the other in the relationship", she says. 

Breaching professional boundaries can also refer to the failure to manage conflicts of interest. A particularly close relationship between co-workers, especially those involving persons in a position of authority, may create the perception (whether real or imagined) of inappropriate work-related benefits or advantages being bestowed on a close associate because of the friendship. 

The most common types of conflict of interest are financial, such as where a monetary advantage is bestowed or a financial saving made, and personal, where a clear benefit is provided to the recipient such as a promotion or an opportunity for advancement or training and development. 

The best way to avoid perceived conflicts of interest is by maintaining clear professional boundaries, especially by those in a position of power, such as employers, supervisors, managers, or instructors. In extreme circumstances it may be prudent to completely avoid forming any relationships with colleagues outside of work.

codes of conduct and different professions 

Many professions abide by specific Codes of Conduct, which set out and govern acceptable standards of behaviour in their specific industry and provide comprehensive guidelines as to what is considered appropriately maintained levels of professional distance in that industry. 

For example, an inappropriate level of closeness may mean one thing in the context of a school teacher, and another thing in the context of a physical therapist. Professions such as nursing, teaching and social work need to have an additional emphasis on protecting vulnerable persons (such as children, the elderly, the disabled, of the mentally ill) from unscrupulous persons of the effects of inappropriately close relationships. 

In other professions, such as aged care or legal services, it is vital that professional distance is maintained to avoid any perception (whether actual or imagined) of financial abuse and conflicts of interest, when a client confers excessive financial benefits on the service provider. 

One recent example of a breach of an industry specific Code of Conduct involved a police officer who sold confidential information and provided accident locations to a tow truck driver, who gained a financial advantage from arriving on the scene ahead of competitors. 

On many occasions, a failure to maintain an appropriate professional distance occurs inadvertently or without any intentional wrongdoing. While it is beneficial for colleagues to develop good relationships with their co-workers, it is important for all employees to be able to maintain a perception of professional distance so that it does not appear as though they are incapable of making impartial business related decisions. 

professional distance and social media 

In the modern workplace, social media has become a virtually omnipresent phenomenon. With the advent of many different types of social media platforms, including LinkedIn and Facebook, there are many opportunities for workers to remain connected. 

Most employers recognise that social media is a platform that is both complimentary to, and additional to, other methods of communication and engagement used by them. Most employers also understand the beneficial networking functions of social media, particularly in the case of LinkedIn, however there is a far greater risk of boundaries being crossed or lines being blurred when communicating through social media. 

There can be particular difficulties in utilising social media when dealing with vulnerable people such as students, the disabled or persons with mental health issues. As a general rule, it is inappropriate for work colleagues or employers to share overly personal information or material on social media. Most workplaces have a clearly set-out social media policy. It is important that employees are made aware of its contents and application and are encouraged to use social media in a responsible, reasonable and ethical manner, in accordance with the employer's Code of Conduct. 

Broadly, if content is critical of a colleague, affects his/her reputation, is personal, hurtful, potentially embarrassing to a co-worker, or otherwise inappropriate, it could easily breach the requirements of professional distance.   

determining grooming, or an error of judgement. 

An important aspect of maintaining professional distance involves taking steps to avoid situations where it could be perceived that 'grooming' is taking place. This is essential not just in the context of children, but other people who are deemed to be vulnerable, including the elderly, those with disabilities, or those involved in situations where there is a power imbalance. 

The act of grooming is a criminal offence in many Australian states. It is a term which generally refers to deliberate and sustained contact with a vulnerable person in order to obtain their trust and prepare them to participate in the groomer's intended purpose, which may be sexually, financially or otherwise motivated. 

As a responsible employer, if somebody reports concerns about potential grooming, or you observe the possibility of such behaviour occurring, it is important that a workplace investigation is conducted to determine whether the contact is in fact grooming, or merely represents a lapse in judgement.

Dealing with a breach of boundaries 

The best litmus test when assessing appropriate levels of professional distance between managers and employees, between co-workers or between employees and clients, is whether there could, in the view of a reasonable person, be a perception of inappropriate behaviour, conflict of interest, favouritism, nepotism, or even grooming. 

If there is any possibility that such assumptions could be made, then it is likely that professional boundaries are being crossed. 

If you have doubts regarding a potential conflict of interest or breach of professional distance, then it is best to get an impartial third party to investigate. Our services include full and supported workplace investigations and training. Contact WISE Workplace today to find out how we can best be of assistance.

Document Examiners: When to Make Use of Them

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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

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

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

What is document examination?  

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

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

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

How is it done and what are its limitations? 

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

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

USE IN CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS 

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

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

Case study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considering Suspending an Employee? What Should You Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

When faced with an allegation of serious misconduct made against a worker, an organisation may seek to suspend the respondent. 

But in what situations is it appropriate to take this kind of action?

tHE LEGALITY OF SUSPENSION 

When taking the significant step of temporarily suspending an employee, an organisation must be able to demonstrate an objectively good reason for doing so. 

Once preliminary enquiries have indicated that there is prima facie evidence to support an allegation of serious misconduct, a risk assessment needs to be carried out, to determine what the risks are associated with suspending or not suspending the respondent. 

The risk assessment should include: 

  • Risks to the complainant and other workers should the respondent remain in the workplace and the potential psychological impact this may have, especially in cases of sexual harassment
  • Risks of the respondent interfering with witnesses or tampering with evidence
  • Potential impact of suspending or not suspending the respondent on the morale of the workforce and the reputation of the organisation
  • Potential impact of suspension on the respondent
  • Whether the suspension or non-suspension is in accordance with the relevant disciplinary policy. 

Generally, it is appropriate to suspend a worker if an investigation into their serious misconduct is being carried out, and their continued presence in the workplace may jeopardise the process. This could include concerns about the misconduct continuing undue influence on or harassment of witnesses, or safety and security issues.

It is important to bear in mind the distinction between 'standing down' and 'suspending' an employee.

In a 'stand down' situation, the employee has not necessarily done anything wrong but the employer cannot usefully employ them for reasons that are outside the employer's control - for example, a fruit picker who cannot continue working during a significant weather event. In those situations, the employee is not paid during the stand down period. 

However, during a suspension period, the employee remains entitled to all rights of their employment contract, except the right to attend work to undertake work duties. 

An alternative to suspension could include redeploying the employee into another area, if the conduct is not of the most serious kind and or if the employer has an alternative site or role available. 

Circumstances leading to suspension 

Suspension should only be utilised in the most serious situations, where the only appropriate next step would likely be termination of employment. 

As such, appropriate circumstances leading to a suspension of an employee generally include accusations of serious misconduct such as defined in Regulation 1.07(2) of the Fair Work Regulations 2009 (Cth)

  • Willful or deliberate behaviour by an employee that is inconsistent with the continuation of the contract of employment;
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the health or safety of a person; or
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the employer's business;
  • The employee, in the course of the employee's employment, engaging in:
            • theft;
            • fraud; or
            • assault;
  •  The employee being intoxicated at work; and
  • The employee refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable instruction that is consistent with the employee's contract of employment. 

Generally, it is appropriate for an employee to be suspended at the beginning of a workplace investigation, although the employee can be suspended during the course of the investigation if it becomes apparent that their presence is or could be interfering with the investigation.

Appropriate conduct by an employer during a suspension

During a period of suspension, an employee is generally asked to keep away from the workplace, colleagues and clients of the business. If they are on full pay then they are generally not entitled to conduct any outside of work employment without the employers consent. 

Although a suspension may be the precursor of a final dismissal once the investigation has been finalised, employees who have been suspended remain entitled to a number of rights, including:

  • Full pay during the period of the suspension
  • Regular review of the suspension period
  • An endeavour to keep the suspension as short as possible
  • A clear explanation of the reasons for the suspension and the anticipated length of the suspension
  • An explanation of the employer's expectations of the employee during the suspension period, such as requiring the employee to be available by telephone during normal business hours. 
  • An assigned contact within the human resources or management team with whom the suspended employee can liaise. 

Avoiding further legal issues

Suspending an employee from the workplace is a serious intrusion on their employment and personal rights. It is essential that employers ensure that all criteria of appropriate conduct are met, in order to avoid a situation where it may be argued that the suspension amounted to a constructive dismissal. Ensuring procedural fairness, transparency and clarity in the process will assist with this objective. 

If you require assistance with a workplace investigation where an employee has been suspended, contact us. We provide full independent and transparent investigation services, or supported investigations where we offer advice and guidance as you compete the process.

Natural Justice - Privacy and Reliance on Covert Workplace Surveillance

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

In a recent decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC), a nurse has been reinstated following her termination in circumstances where covert video surveillance was the 'sole foundation' of allegations against her. The FWC also found that her employer's human resources department acted incorrectly and inappropriately in the circumstances surrounding her dismissal.

facts of the case

Ms Tavassoli, an Iranian refugee, was employed as a nurse at a Bupa Aged Care Australia Pty Ltd nursing home located in Mosman, NSW. 

In Tavassoli v Bupa Aged Care Mosman [2017] FWC 3200, she claimed that she had been constructively dismissed after being falsely accused of serious misconduct by her employer. 

A colleague of Ms Tavassoli's had secretly recorded her on a personal mobile phone, which allegedly showed Ms Tavassoli:    

  • Making fun of a resident
  • Singing select, mocking lyrics from a musical including "Anything you can do, I can do better."
  • Continuing to drink tea with another co-worker while residents were calling for help.
  • Laughingly telling a colleague that she was lucky to have swapped a shift during which two patients passed away. 

Ms Tavassoli's colleague took the footage to the facility's acting general manager and care manager. 

In response, the very next morning, the general manager took Ms Tavassoli, off-site for a disciplinary hearing. Despite pulling Ms Tavassoli out of a training session the general manager did not inform her what allegations had been made against her, and caused her to wait for two hours before the meeting actually took place. 

During that time, Ms Tavassoli thought about what accusations may have been made against her and became concerned that she would be accused of theft after a patient had gifted her with some beer. Accordingly, Ms Tavassoli drafted a resignation letter. 

When the meeting finally took place, Ms Tavassoli was accused of various types of misconduct. Although she didn't fully understand the accusations against her, Ms Tavassoli tendered her resignation, providing four weeks' notice. However, the general manager advised her that the resignation would be effective immediately, and requested that Ms Tavassoli amend the resignation letter to remove the reference to a four-week notice period. 

Ms Tavassoli attempted to withdraw her resignation only two days later but was denied this right. 

decision of the commission

In deciding to order that Ms Tavassoli be reinstated to her former position, Commissioner Riordan determined that:

  • Ms Tavassoli had been constructively dismissed
  • The general manager acted without due procedural fairness when he refused to permit Ms Tavassoli to withdraw her resignation and return to her former position. 

A particular factor taken into account by Commissioner Riordan was that Bupa is a large organisation, with considerable resources. As a result, he concluded that the human resources department should have followed appropriate processes in dealing with Ms Tavassoli, and crucially should have shown Ms Tavassoli the video evidence collected against her. This was heightened by the employer's knowledge that Ms Tavassoli's English skills were poor. 

The decision not to show the footage was considered to deny Ms Tavassoli the right to know what case she had to answer. Indeed, Commissioner Riordan went so far as to suggest that the human resources department failed in their obligations to Ms Tavassoli and committed 'a form of entrapment' by not showing her exactly what information had been gathered against her. 

He found that the employer had made a determination of Ms Tavassoli's guilt immediately upon seeing the footage, and had failed to undertake any proper investigation as to the circumstances surrounding the behaviour. 

Commissioner Riordan further noted that, by requesting that Ms Tavassoli amend the terms contained in her resignation letter, the general manager effectively 'took over' the termination, which supported a finding of constructive dismissal. 

He was also highly critical of Ms Tavassoli's colleague who had taken the recordings, but accepted that the Commission did not have any rights to proceed against the colleague.

Against this background, Commissioner Riordan ordered that Ms Tavassoli be returned to her former role. 

Legality of secret recordings

Perhaps the most crucial factor in Commissioner Riordan's decision was his concern that the video recordings breached the Workplace Video Surveillance Act 1998 (NSW)

According to the Act, any surveillance conducted by an employer in the workplace is considered 'covert' unless the employee:  

  • Is notified in writing, before the intended surveillance, that it will take place.
  • The surveillance devices are clearly visible.
  • Signs are clearly noticeable at each entrance which point out that employees may be recorded in the workplace. 

Even though the employer did not take the footage in this case - with the recordings instead being made by a colleague of Ms Tavassoli - the fact that the employer relied upon the footage to discipline Ms Tavassoli was considered by Commissioner Riordan to be a sufficient breach of her privacy to run afoul of the Act. 

The Key message FOR EMPLOYERS

The takeaway message for employers here is twofold. Firstly, it is always essential that employees have the opportunity to respond, in detail, to allegations which are made against them, as well as being presented all the evidence which is being relied upon to support the allegations. Secondly, employers must be careful not to rely upon inappropriately obtained evidence which contravenes privacy legislation or any other relevant laws. Employers must comply with any applicable surveillance laws when relying on such evidence.   

Should you require an external workplace investigation into allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace