When to Use an External Investigator

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Using in-house resources to sort out organisational problems certainly makes a lot of sense. HR departments tend to be well equipped to receive and manage internal complaints, facilitating solutions as they go. 

But while sourcing external assistance can seem unnecessary, there are certain serious workplace situations where calling in specialist investigative expertise will be the preferable solution.  

Internal or external: making the decision

When an event in the workplace requires investigation, questions arise that require timely answers. One of these will be - who should carry out the investigative process? Less impactful events such as personal differences, disputes or general rumours might naturally fall to an internal workplace investigator. After all, they will have inside knowledge of the culture and dynamics that possibly led to these ripples and allegations. 

Yet when alleged events are more serious in nature and/or the scope of the problem is potentially vast, engaging the expertise of a specialist external workplace investigator can not only relieve the internal workload. It can also mean the difference between smooth resolution of a workplace situation - or the unfortunate escalation of a matter into the costly adversarial realm. The more serious the allegation, the more important it can be to secure professional advice.    

workplace investigations - pitfalls to avoid

Whether internal or external, workplace investigators work hard to carry out investigations fairly and efficiently. In a well-run investigation, all involved will be treated in a professional and objective manner, with no overt bias towards one party or another. 

Yet unfortunately perceived bias can be just as damaging to the final collated report. One pitfall with using an internal investigator is that a perception might arise that one party was favoured over another, due to position, workplace friendship, or longevity within the organisation - just as examples. 

Similarly, if an internal workplace investigation is rushed or not provided with sufficient resources, outcomes can be similarly tarnished. It can be tempting to keep things in-house in order to save money. Yet in the long run, the overall quality of the investigative report can be tarnished, leading to the high likelihood of expensive actions by the aggrieved party.  

the expert investigator 

A further consideration when deciding whether to engage an internal or external investigator is the level of expertise. Invariably, internal investigators have other tasks and roles that take up their time in organisations. 

This is not the case for external workplace investigators. As trained professionals they have the in-depth specialist experience and up-to-date knowledge that is necessary for a fair and impartial investigation. For example, maintaining confidentiality within and across the workplace is a challenging task. An external investigator has the ability to coordinate the process in such a way as to preserve the integrity and confidentiality of all discussions.

The investigator's capability is particularly important when it comes to both the finality and reliability of the investigative report. Should an appeal of the decision eventuate, commissions, tribunals and courts will expect to see a level of thoroughness and objective detail that demonstrates adherence to the principles of procedural fairness throughout. 

In the 2017 matter of Anthony King v The Trustee for Bartlett Family Trust T/A Concept Wire Industries [2017], the Fair Work Commission certainly made it clear that imperfect investigations will be viewed dimly, stating: 'some investigation reports seen by the Commission in this jurisdiction fail to get to the heart of such a situation and rarely undertake a true balancing of the evidence seen by them'. 

Support and expertise

Yet it need not be a black-and-white choice between an internal or external workplace investigator. It is possible to access a supported investigation service. In this framework, the organisation gains assistance from an expert regarding the more complex aspects of the process, while carrying out other tasks internally. 

WISE Workplace is able to offer both full and supported investigation services. If you are concerned about making an error or a lack of knowledge in conducting your own investigation, or would like to train your staff in conducting workplace investigations, contact WISE today.  

Briginshaw Applied: Weighing Up The Evidence

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

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

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

is the balance of probabilities the same thing as briginshaw?

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

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

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

serious allegations - establishing the facts 

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

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

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

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

an unfortunate reaction

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

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

Making defensible findings 

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

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

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

Putting the 'Reasonable Person' to the Test

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

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

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

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

What is the reasonable person test?

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

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

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

a practical application of the test

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

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

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

WHAT can we learn from this?

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

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

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

obtaining assistance with investigations 

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

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

Is Briginshaw Still the Best Way of Solving the Puzzle?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As any HR manager will testify, conducting workplace investigations is one of the most important but vexed aspects of ensuring that an organisation runs smoothly. 

This is particularly the case when the various parties involved in an investigation are putting forward different versions of events - who do you know who to believe? For many years, workplace investigators have employed the Briginshaw test. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1930) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the proposition that if a finding, on the balance of probabilities, is likely to produce grave consequences the evidence should be of high probative value.

But how is this test applied to resolve disputes and make findings in workplace enquiries?

what is it?

The Briginshaw test refers to the civil standard of proof employed in the legal system, specifically in the 1938 divorce case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw. A 'standard of proof' refers to the evidence required by a court or, in the workplace context, an employer or investigator, to make a determination as to the likely truth or otherwise of allegations. 

Although the criminal burden of proof requires evidence to support a finding of 'beyond reasonable doubt', the civil standard only requires an assessment on the balance of probabilities - that is, whether it is more likely than not that one version of events occurred rather than another. 

In Briginshaw, the High Court warned that making a decision on the balance of probabilities does not require a purely mathematical 'weighing up' of the likelihood of one version of events being true over another. Instead, the decision in Briginshaw supports a conclusion that sufficient evidence has been provided if "the affirmative of an allegation is made out to the reasonable satisfaction of the tribunal". In the workplace context, the tribunal determining the matter is the investigator. 

CASE STUDY - SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN CITY HALL

In workplace investigations, individuals are required to respond to allegations, as was the case with the (now former) Lord Mayor of Melbourne. In late 2017, Robert Doyle was accused of having sexually harassed two female councillors by inappropriately touching them. 

In March 2018, an investigation conducted by a Queen's Counsel was finalised, although Mr Doyle had already resigned by this time. Given the seriousness of the allegations and the potential consequences, the investigation relied on the Briginshaw test, and applied a standard whereby the investigator was 'reasonably satisfied' that the specific allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct related to Mr Doyle in his role as Lord Mayor. 

In Mr Doyle's case, the investigators accordingly based their determination on being "satisfied to a level which goes beyond the mere likelihood that something happened" that the allegations could be substantiated. 

The findings included that specific allegations were substantiated. More specifically the investigator made three adverse findings of sexually inappropriate conduct, and a fourth finding that the three matters occurred in the context of the Mayor having consumed substantial amounts of red wine. 

Factors which were taken into account in making this determination, included the likelihood of Mr Doyle having engaged in the behaviour because he had consumed significant amounts of red wine, and his credibility as a witness. The investigation also noted that one of the complainants made contemporaneous complaints and was consistent in her allegations. 

The report stated no findings had been made by a court or tribunal based on the information reported on as part of the investigation, however, if proven the behaviour could constitute sexual harassment within the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and gross misconduct under the Local Government Act 1989.

what can we learn?

One difficulty with applying the Briginshaw test in workplace investigations, is that an investigation does not constitute a judicial process. Accordingly, participants give information on a voluntary basis only. 

This inability to compel testimony or information from witnesses may mean that a determination is made on the balance of probabilities - but without having all information available. Indeed, in the absence of a court or the threat of perjury, there is no real compulsion for accurate information to be given in a workplace investigation. Undue reliance on such information could result in an unjust determination. 

Failure to recognise the difference between a court and the role of an investigator can lead to mistakes, and allegations can be left unsubstantiated in circumstances when they may have occurred. In circumstances where the investigator is inexperienced or does not have access to all required information, it may well result in an inequitable outcome, or a situation where a conclusion is made based on partial information or poor facts. 

When a workplace or employee faces allegations, its important for the investigator to ask the relevant questions, examine documents, and analyse all relevant evidence carefully when making conclusions about what occurred. Making findings using the Briginshaw principle and explaining the reasoning behind the outcomes of the investigation can assist employers in considering what further action needs to be taken in light of the findings. 

It is important for employers and investigators to ensure that findings of workplace investigations will withstand the highest level of scrutiny. A higher level of skill will be required from an investigator when circumstantial or uncorroborated evidence is being considered. 

If you require assistance analysing evidence, or conducting an investigation, contact WISE today!  

How to Write a Robust Workplace Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 05, 2018

At the conclusion of a workplace investigation, the investigator has the challenging task of pulling together all relevant material into a cohesive report. The style of report that is chosen will be firmly linked to the purpose of the investigation, keeping in mind the requirements of the readers and users of the document. 

Investigators need to consider closely the manner in which findings are made and how best to share findings with key parties in a clear and appropriate manner. The outcome of a workplace investigation and report might well be that mediation and/or other processes are indicated as next steps. The tasks of drafting, writing and communicating a workplace investigation report are all crucial parts of the process.

whAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE REPORT?

Any investigation report must provide a clear and unbiased summary of the process and outcomes of an investigation. This is a document that leaves nothing to guesswork when it comes to describing the background, methodology, parties involved, timeline of events, policies and findings that have arisen across the entire timespan of the investigative process. 

It can be tempting for an organisation to decide during an investigation not to obtain a report, and to keep any outcomes 'informal'. However, if there are adverse outcomes for one or more parties, a transparent report will be the best way to prevent any future claims of unfair process. 

the style of report

No two investigation reports will have exactly the same style, the author, allegations, organisation type and specific circumstances all lend a unique nature to a report. Yet some common themes can be found in all high-quality investigations. 

Firstly, the report should be written in professional plain English. A variety of readers should be able to interpret the report - without recourse to a thesaurus! In-house descriptors and acronyms can be used, but these must first be defined or form part of a comprehensive glossary. Clear contents and a logical progression from index and executive summary through to scope, methodology, evidence, discussion, findings and recommendations will also assist any audience to understand the document. 

making findings

All findings made in an investigation report must be supported by the facts. If the facts are established, the investigator needs to determine what policy and/or law have been breached by the conduct. Once these elements are established, they must be communicated effectively and clearly in the written report. 

As with the report's overall style, findings should be logical. The report cannot simply list evidence then move to findings. Careful and reasoned explanation is needed of both the process of analysis and the deliberations undertaken by the investigator. 

This includes explaining what and why certain weighting was given to particular parts of the evidence, or why an interviewee might have been persuasive or unpersuasive on a particular point. Making clear findings is often harder than it might at first appear. Similarly, clearly reflecting the author's final thoughts in a clear and concise manner, making the report user friendly for all readers, is a challenging yet essential part of making defensible findings. 

Informing Parties

One issue to consider closely is how the outcomes of the investigation, contained in the report, will be communicated to the participants. Given that witnesses have provided evidence in confidence, their privacy needs to be protected. 

Other questions which need to be considered when sharing the outcome of an investigation with parties include:

  • Could safety be in issue by the release of particular data?
  • Is the presence of a support person necessary?
  • Should the report be presented to all parties together at a meeting? 

While a report must be clear and comprehensive in all of the matters that formed part of the process, consideration should be given to the use, delivery and description of information provided during the workplace investigation. 

Moving on from a workplace investigation

A common recommendation is for parties involved in a workplace investigation to participate in mediation in relation to one or more issues. This is often the case where emotions have stalled effective interactions at work, or where a 'he said - she said' situation makes it impossible to make a clear finding on issues of fact.

It is important to establish if all issues warrant mediation, or if only a few can realistically be dealt with in this way. Who should conduct the mediation is an interesting topic in itself - and one for future discussion. Effective mediation can create resolution of the issues and, ideally, improve workplace relationships. Yet if such discussions fall through, it is important that the report itself will withstand any future scrutiny or review.

If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, contact WISE now or enrol in our popular and effective 'Conducting Workplace Investigations' training course.

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.

Counter Allegations - Who Did What When?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Experienced workplace investigators are well aware that when two or more people are in dispute, there will inevitably be differing perspectives on what 'the truth' might look like. Contentious workplace issues can often play out in a 'he said, she said' fashion, with one allegation being closely followed up by a second person's counter-allegation. Such complications should be dealt with in a fair, considered and methodical way.

Separate allegations made by opposing parties will ideally be dealt with in discrete stages by workplace investigators, with each being handled in accordance with its individual merits. And as evidence comes to light regarding one or more of the competing allegations, investigators should aim to assess and weigh each piece of information with utmost care and objectivity.

When two tribes go to war 

When a counter-allegation is initially made, it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding this development. It does not necessarily mean that the first complainant was misrepresenting events or indeed that the second complainant is somehow defensive, guilty or panicky. It is possible that both the original and the counter complaints are valid.

Let's take an example: perhaps she took his stapler and he wiped her hard-drive. Two complete denials on the same issue can require the workplace investigator to look more closely at the milieu of the counter-allegations. For instance, if two workers in a scuffle both identically calm that "I did nothing - she pushed me", an astute investigator will know that a pointed and methodical approach to the counter-allegations is certainly called for.

In each of these scenarios, both allegations should be investigated and dealt with separately. It can be tempting to create one big file entitled 'Stapler/hard-drive fiasco' or 'Smith and Jones stoush'. Yet clear delineations between people, events and timing will ensure that impartiality and clarity are maintained for the duration of the investigation and that the validity of each complaint is tested.

Seen and unseen allegationS

Very occasionally a workplace investigation involving counter-allegations will be easily settled. For example, the employee might not have been at work on the day that she allegedly stole the stapler - a simple mistake, evidenced by the work roster and now the complaint file can (on that issue at least) be finalised.

If only things were so simple... In most workplace situations, the investigator will need to step carefully through complex evidence attached to each allegation. Some events might be directly witnessed in a cut and dried way; Brown was in the kitchen with Smith and Jones on 7 December 2017 and can confidently say she saw Smith push Jones, who then walked away. Yet in many cases there are no witnesses to wrongdoing in the workplace and the 'he did/she did' scenario must be dealt with. 

Further clarification in many forms becomes the best way to methodically tease out the knots of knowledge. This might take the form of documentary evidence, circumstantial evidence such as presence at a meeting that day, or a contemporaneous report such as an OH&S report involving counter-complainants. A tidy pattern of good circumstantial evidence can at times provide the clarity needed in the face of vehement counter-allegations. The workplace investigator must carefully assess the quality, reliability and utility of such material, being sure not to make assumptions and/or factual errors along the way.

Hearsay - treading lightly on complex terrain

As with all areas of law and investigations, hearsay evidence can provide helpful insights in situations where nothing more concrete is available. Hearsay is generally words or things observed by an individual who was not directly present when an event occurred. In other words, it is a type of indirect evidence. A simple idea, but surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre successfully during investigations.

Great care is needed in these situations, as hearsay evidence is notorious for causing problems later in post-investigation proceedings. Employees may go home and talk openly to their spouse about distressing events. Or they stomp back to their desks, muttering to a colleague about 'the stapler thief'. Yet the spouse or the colleague cannot tell us much about what actually happened. They are a friendly ear - after the alleged event.

Such indirect evidence can be the least helpful in many cases. However, experienced investigators will know how to gather and utilise such material when more direct evidence is difficult to obtain.

Workplace allegations and motivations

It is not unheard of that rather ulterior motives can exist in a workplace allegation. When stories are not gelling, it is natural for the workplace investigator to think - what am I missing? Why would this person make this up? It is important to consider the possibility that rivalries, emotional issues and/or collusion might unfortunately form part of the mix that has motivated an internal complaint. While it does not pay to assume such a phenomenon, investigators should be aware that such dynamics can and do arise in the workplace.

In workplace investigations, we find that it is never simple. If you have an investigation that has 'blown' out, or you are reviewing cross and counter complaints and could use some professional assistance, then contact WISE today.

Managing Complaints - How To Find The Positive

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When an employee complaint alleging workplace discrimination or harassment is lodged, it is usually seen as a negative moment in the life of the organisation.

However, it is possible for an employer to view this as a positive phenomenon, rather than a sign of complete failure. This is because well-handled complaints can illuminate hidden corporate weaknesses, as well as any lurking issues affecting staff morale or motivation. Such information can become a valuable catalyst for positive change across the broader business - a win-win for internal and external stakeholders alike.

Best-practice in complaints handling is dependent upon a structured complaints process that includes two key ingredients: the quality of investigation process and the structure of the complaints process itself.

1. A thorough high-quality workplace investigation is an essential tool in the management of internal complaints, including allegations of discrimination and harassment.

2. The structural framework of internal complaints policies and procedures will necessarily be clear, accessible and well-publicised. A well-managed complaint can be a good news story not only for the people involved, but for the broader success of the business.

INVESTIGATING DISCRIMINATION AND HARASSMENT 

When an employee complains that they have been the subject of discrimination or harassment, it is highly likely that there will be differing opinions and perspectives as to whether or not this is actually the case.

As a result, best-practice workplace investigation requires fair, open and even-handed treatment of all who are involved in the investigative process. Further, it is important for investigators to move at a reasonable and logical pace, first making preliminary enquiries before deciding on any next steps.

But what does a good investigation mean on the ground? One key concept is procedural fairness. This means that parties involved are equally able to access the process, to be heard in a substantive way and to be given a fair opportunity to understand and respond adequately to any claims made against them. Under procedural fairness parties have the right to an impartial decision-maker and to having a support person present during their interview. Professional investigators must be seen to be unbiased in every phase of the workplace investigation.

Added to this, a high-quality workplace investigation will ensure that all relevant and reliable evidence has been carefully obtained, anaylsed and included appropriately in the final report. There can be no room for short cuts or preferential treatment in workplace investigations.       

Robust complaints policies and procedures

Employers, investigators, complainants and witnesses alike should ideally all have access to a durable set of internal policies and procedures covering common areas of complaint.

A strong policy document detailing how and to whom to make a complaint should be accessible, user-friendly and up-to-date. The policy should also direct the reader to one or more procedures that need to be followed in the event that an alleged instance of harassment or discrimination has occurred. This is often a time of great stress, and instructions to complainants should be clear and helpful.

Internal policies and procedures that are complicated, badly written or tucked away in a dusty filing cabinet are of little-to-no assistance to the individual seeking to make a complaint.

This is why good investigations and good complaints policies go hand-in-hand: even the best investigator will struggle to keep things fair if complaints policies are convoluted or absent, or if procedures leading up to the investigation are sub-optimal.

Perhaps most importantly, managers and employees should be trained in practically accessing and using these documents, at all stages being assured that complaints are taken seriously and are indeed welcomed by the organisation.

Step by step pathways

A sound complaints process begins with employees first being made aware of a useable and fair pathway for their grievance. A good internal complaints system will work step-by-step through a logical process. This means initially providing clear and succinct information on the nature of common complaints, some definitions where appropriate, the bigger picture of the complaints process and - perhaps most importantly - who to speak with in the first instance about the particular concern.

An internal complaint is a golden opportunity for employers to gain important information about people and workplaces. For this reason, the internal complaints system should be presented in a simple, cordial and helpful format.

Problems arise every day that require the existence of an effective complaints and investigations pathway. Thankfully many complaints can be quickly and easily resolved. However, if you need to undertake investigations or a review of your HR policies, and want to ensure you are conducting it with best practice, our training is developed by investigators for investigators. Contact WISE today to find out more.

Failing to Involve HR and Other Investigation Mistakes

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Being able to conduct a competent workplace investigation is essential for employers, especially when allegations of bullying, misconduct or inappropriate office behaviour are made. 

Mistakes made during an investigation may result in serious consequences, including legal action. 

Let's take a look at the basics of an investigation, and some key mistakes to avoid.

WHy are workplace investigations necessary?

Workplace investigations are used to establish whether conduct or incidents occurred as alleged by the complainant, and to ensure that appropriate action is taken. 

Investigations are necessary when:

  • An employee may have engaged in behaviour which could result in disciplinary action or termination;
  • Complaints or reports of inappropriate conduct are received;
  • Allegations have been made by one staff member against another - such as claims of workplace bullying, harassment or unreasonable performance management.
  • There is evidence of breaches of safety provisions or other procedures.
  • There are allegations of child abuse. 

what does an investigation involve?

An investigation involves the unbiased gathering and evaluation of relevant and objective evidence, for example by interviewing witnesses and involved parties, reviewing documentary evidence, and or doing a site inspection. 

The conduct, once it established that it occurred, is then measured against the organisation's policies and procedures, Code of Conduct, regulations or legislation, to determine whether a breach has occurred.

what are some key investigation mistakes?

Significant mistakes which can occur during an investigation include:

  • Failing to consider all the relevant evidence - for example, by failing to interview all relevant parties, not asking appropriate questions or failing to document all information collected;
  • Appointing the wrong investigator - for example, by appointing an investigator who is not seen to be independent or who lacks experience in conducting workplace investigations; 
  • Not reporting a complaint to Human Resources and a failure to seek advice;
  • Not allowing the participants procedural fairness by failing to inform them accurately of the complaint against them, failing to give them adequate time to prepare a response or failing to inform them of their right to have a support person present. 
  • Failing to anticipate all the potential risks that could arise during an investigation
  • Failing to provide appropriate notification to all the relevant parties; and
  • Breaching privacy obligations 

so, who should investigate?

The appropriate person to investigate is often determined by the nature of the complaint or allegation - depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to have a senior manager or a member of the Human Resources department review an allegation. 

Avoid actual, perceived or potential conflicts of interest. The investigator must be a neutral party, not someone who is closely connected to the matter, who has had prior involvement in it, who has a direct interest in the outcome or may be a witness in the matter.

When determining who to appoint as an investigator, it is also crucial to assess who has the right level of experience and appropriate skills. 

This was highlighted in a High Court case involving Patrick Stevedores, where an HR manager was appointed to conduct a serious misconduct investigation. However, her lack of experience meant that she failed to gather crucial evidence supporting the dismissal of an employee - who was ultimately found to have been unfairly dismissed.

Should an external or internal investigator be appointed?

In some circumstances, it may not be appropriate to investigate a complaint in-house. Some reasons to appoint an external investigator include; 

  • Internal staff may lack the required skills or knowledge;
  • There is insufficient internal capacity to focus on an investigation; 
  • Allegations have been made against a senior employee, who in other circumstances may be the one tasked with an investigation; 
  • There are concerns an internal investigator may be perceived as being biased and a higher level of neutrality and objectivity is required.
  • The issues raised are complex and/or involve a large number of people in the organisation or significant external oversight. 

If the allegation involves an internal procedure or a matter involving particular expertise (such as a medical incident occurring in a hospital) then it may be more appropriate to engage an internal investigator, or have both external and internal investigators working together. 

Risks of an investigation being conducted incorrectly

There are many situations in which a poor workplace investigation can have serious consequenced for a business. It can lead to adverse legal action - such as in the Patrick Stevedores case. It can also result in serious mental health implications for staff who are unfairly treated during the investigative process, with a subsequent increase in resignations or terminations. It can also result in failure to meet legal or procedural requirements set by external oversight bodies. 

Lesson for employers

When making decisions in relation to workplace investigations, employers should:

  • Ensure that employees are aware of existing internal policies about harassment and discrimination and conduct regular training in these areas;
  • Have a regular system for updating and reviewing policies and procedures, including complaints procedures;
  • Select an appropriate and impartial investigator;
  • Respond promptly and undertake enquiries in relation to each complaint or allegation to determine whether a formal investigation is required;
  • Evaluate all facts with a view to reaching an adequately reasoned conclusion in the circumstances of an allegation;
  • Inform the parties involved of the outcome of the investigation.  

Are you concerned about a lack of knowledge or the risk of making mistakes in your workplace investigations? WISE Workplace is able to offer both full and supported investigation services. In addition, we can train your staff in how to conduct effective workplace investigations.

Conducting Workplace Investigations: What You Need to Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Part of running an effective organisation is ensuring that all staff are held accountable for their actions in the workplace, and are able to air grievances and raise complaints in a safe forum. This means that employers may need to undertake investigations into staff misconduct from time to time. 

Managing an unbiased and thorough workplace investigation can be a challenging and complicated process, particularly given the need to deal with sensitive topics and personal feelings. 

So, what are the most important things you need to be aware of when conducting a workplace investigation?

understanding why an investigation is necessary

All employers have a duty to provide a healthy and safe place of work. This includes obligations around workplace bullying, which can be enforced by the Fair Work Commission. 

Workers Compensation claims can arise from employees experiencing stress or other physical or mental harm because of issues with co-workers. If the alleged behaviour is serious enough (such as sexual harassment or assault for example) the employer could become civilly or even criminally liable. 

Employers must conduct fair investigations into all types of allegations made by complainants. Similarly, the accused worker has the right to have the complaint against them determined objectively and the sanction decided on by an unbiased decision-maker.

how can your human resources team support you?

If your organisation is large enough to have a dedicated Human Resources officer or even an HR team, it can be extremely helpful to have them involved in an investigation. 

Your HR team can facilitate a successful investigation by:

  • Keeping open channels of communication with both the complainant and the respondent (as long as confidential information is kept private);
  • Providing a clear timeline and outline of processes;
  • Ensuring that staff are aware of their rights to have support persons involved;
  • At all times maintaining respectful contact and a clear demonstration of objectivity when dealing with witnesses or parties involved.  

fact finding vs formal investigation

Any workplace complaint requires a process of fact-finding or initial enquiry, whereby a third party interviews both the complainant and the accused party for information about what happened. The objective of this process is to determine whether the matter is serious enough to warrant a formal investigation or whether the conduct complained of can for instance be deemed trivial or minor in nature and can be dealt with on that basis. 

A formal investigation process goes much further. It requires the collection of information and evidence, interviewing of witnesses and the drafting of formal statements, the preparation of a detailed investigation report, analysis of the evidence and subsequent detailed consideration by key decision-makers as to the appropriate consequences.

The need for procedural fairness 

A key element of any workplace investigation is to ensure that all parties are afforded procedural fairness - a failure to do this could result in criticism of any decision taken by the employer after the investigation and could expose the organisation to legal liability.

The key elements of procedural fairness include:

  • Providing adequate information about the allegations, generally in written form, and the potential consequences if the employee is found to have engaged in the alleged behaviour;
  • Permitting a reasonable amount of time for the employee to respond to the allegations;
  • Allowing a support person to be present during interviews and providing adequate notice to the interviewee to arrange a support person of their choice;
  • Ensuring that the investigator as well as the ultimate decision-maker is unbiased and objective;
  • Ensuring that decisions effecting the employee are based on evidence. 

So what is involved in conducting a workplace investigation?

The key elements of an effective investigation include:

1. Planning the Investigation

  • Adequate planning before the investigation starts, including considering any potential conflicts of interest;
  • The investigator familiarising himself/herself with the potential consequences which could flow from the investigation, and ensuring that all relevant parties will be interviewed;
  • Preparing a list of interview questions for each witness;
  • Gather and review relevant documents such as the complaint, employment contracts, performance reviews, relevant policies and procedures, incident reports, and any other relevant emails, notices, memos, other documents and information;
  • Notify all parties of there involvement, rights and obligations. 

2. Interviewing

  • Provide sufficient notice and make appropriate arrangements with all witnesses
  • Conducting formal interviews objectively and sensitively, having regard to the circumstances;
  • Checking that representation or support has been offered and outlining the investigation process and timeline;
  • Obtaining as much detailed evidence as possible

3. Analysing and Weighing the Evidence

  • Assessing the evidence with regard to reliability, consistency and credibility;
  • Preparing an investigation report setting out your findings, including the behaviour that has or has not occurred and consider whether it is unlawful, unreasonable, or a breach of policy;
  • Coming to a conclusion and making a finding, based on the evidence gathered. 

4. Facilitating a Resolution

  • This could include making amendments to business policies, training improvements, broad disciplinary action, mediation and counselling. 

When to ask for help

The consequences of a flawed investigation can be serious: decisions can be challenged in the courts, reputations can suffer and employee morale can take a nose-dive. 

In some situations, it may not be appropriate to conduct an investigation internally, and an external investigator is required to help ensure a fair and unbiased process. 

This could include situations where: 

  • Serious allegations are made and there is a potential risk of criminal or civil litigation;
  • Complaints are made against senior employees;
  • A real or perceived conflict of interest exists, meaning complaints cannot be investigated objectively internally; 
  • There is a need for legal privilege to cover the circumstances;
  • There are insufficient internal resources, where your organisation is simply not able to investigate a complaint thoroughly, due to a lack of expertise, particularly if it involves multiple parties or complex issues that require specialist knowledge. 

If you require assistance with investigating allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace. We offer full investigation services, supported investigations and staff training on how to conduct workplace investigations.