Why Counter Allegations Must Be Investigated

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

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

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

the difficulty this causes for investigators

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

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

the danger of not investigating counter complaints 

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

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

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

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

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

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

what are the key lessons?

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

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

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

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

How to Transform a Toxic Workplace for a Productive 2019

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A toxic workplace culture can place significant barriers in the way of achieving business objectives. If toxicity has invaded your office, it is likely that you are dealing with staff who are unproductive, resentful, unmotivated and perhaps difficult to discipline - and it can affect senior managers to junior employees. 

This can have significant effects on all areas of the business, and can even impact your bottom line. We give you tips on how you can start 2019 with a new, improved workplace culture - even if you're already seeing signs of disharmony.

signs your workplace culture is toxic

Psychologists and workplace consultants have long analysed the circumstances which cause a business to develop a toxic culture. Obvious signs that your company is affected may include:

  • Development of silos - This is demonstrated when workers fail to collaborate with each other or stick to their individual teams without sharing information, work or projects across the whole business. 
  • Drama - When 'business as usual' can't continue because histrionics and obstructive behaviour set agendas and cause issues and hypersensitivity. 
  • Lack of trust and 'backstabbing' - A little gossip is normal in any group environment. But when employees undermine each other regularly and fail to communicate effectively, it can be impossible to build or maintain a strong team culture. 
  • High leadership turnover - This can be a strong sign that either the business continues to select the wrong people for leadership positions (which is likely to have a negative impact on their direct reports) or the business does not support people who are trying to effect positive change. Either way, this does not bode well for success. 
  • Refusal to change - All businesses need to adapt, whether it is to keep up with technology, implement new ideas or listen to the needs of customers. A business where change is impossible is unable to grow; and this attitude suggests that management is perhaps not functioning optimally either. 

identifiying a toxic employee

Generally, a toxic culture starts with a small number of toxic employees, whose negative influence spreads throughout the office. Although there are no defined criteria for a toxic worker, they may display traits of:

  • Insistence on following 'rules' in an inflexible and unproductive manner;
  • Turning in work which is of a poorer quality than that of their colleagues;
  • Overrated belief in their own skills;
  • Self-centredness and arrogance;
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism;
  • Disruptive, dramatic or obstructive behaviour;
  • Paranoid tendencies; 
  • Gossip and general unpleasantness towards others;
  • Passive aggression displayed towards co-workers. 

If any of your staff are displaying a number of these behaviours, it would be wise to ensure that Human Resources is aware of, is monitoring the situation and that a strategy to address the behaviour is formulated immediately.

strategies for implementing a better culture

You can deal with a toxic workplace by:

  • Offering purpose-driven work (so that all staff can see how they are assisting the company and providing clear outputs)
  • Encouraging cultural improvements (by offering rewards for staff who have the right attitude or engage in positive actions)
  • Improving leadership (staff are more likely to listen to senior management who set a good example, engage them and inspire them to perform better). 

WHERE DO I START? 

Once you have identified that your workplace culture is toxic, it is time to disrupt the negativity. A cultural or climate survey may assist in pinpointing particular areas of or reasons for malcontent. 

One of the most important things to do in this scenario is to be honest with your staff about your assessment of the culture. Indicate that senior management is aware of the issues and is going to take steps to effect changes. 

This will likely encourage those staff who are committed to a fresh start, while at the same time causing those who are unwilling to cooperate to either resign or be adequately and reasonably performance managed. 

All staff should be involved in these announcements at the same time, ideally in the same room, so that the business develops a new, shared vision and has a joint positive attitude. All executives and senior management should be setting a clear example and be well versed in the proposed new company direction, so that everybody is reading from the same runsheet, and change really is demonstrated to be 'top down'.

Importantly, once an action plan for repairing the toxic culture is developed, it should immediately be implemented, so that enthusiasm and motivation does not wane. 

It takes commitment and determination to disrupt a toxic culture. It's best undertaken by moving ahead quickly with a clear course of action and employee buy-in. As employees practise the new rules and behaviours, your culture will become self-reinforcing. If you have allegations that demonstrate a toxic workplace culture, and would like a cultural survey or fact-finding investigation into the circumstances done - contact WISE today! 

Protecting Whistleblowers: Are You Ready for the Changes?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 05, 2018

With new whistleblower protections to take effect in early 2019, it is essential that organisations understand the broad legislative changes to the Corporations Act 2001 due to be debated in Parliament. In addition to the requirement for formal mechanisms and strategies to protect and assist whistleblowers, both public and large private corporations will need to be able to 'spread the word' to staff in a practical way. 

Successfully embedding the changes to whistleblower protections into your organisation requires clear understanding, action and communication. With 2019 just around the corner, the time is right to ensure that you have all the information that you need to meet the new obligations.

WHat is the definition of a 'whistleblower'? 

Blowing a whistle has always been a common method for citizens to warn others of significant problems such as overcrowding, bad sportsmanship or dangerous waters. Whistleblowing has nevertheless developed some negative connotations in the corporate world. 

Despite the need to guard against corruption and corporate wrongdoing, corporations have in the past done little to actively protect those who speak up from being harmed. The new regime, due to be enacted in early 2019, includes compensation for any whistleblower who suffers statutorily-defined 'detriment'. 

No longer will the definition of whistle blower be restricted to current employees: past and present contractors, workers, suppliers, family members and many other stakeholders can rely upon the new protections.

who the changes apply to 

The proposed changes to the Corporations Act 2001 will effectively ensure that large employers provide the incentive, means and protection for individuals to blow the whistle when corporate wrongdoing is suspected. The changes formalise the legal protections that have been available in a relatively piecemeal manner across time. 

The new regime will mandate that all Australian public companies, large proprietary companies, and registerable superannuation entities will have compliant whistleblower policies in place by early 2019. Further, it will be necessary to demonstrate that stakeholders can safely and anonymously exercise their right to blow the whistle on corrupt practices. 

reach of the new bill

The demands on corporations flowing from the changes to whistleblower laws via the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistle-blower Protections) Bill 2017 can certainly seem daunting. As an example, the new Bill requires that corporations provide clear, comprehensive and anonymous pathways for any staff or stakeholders who wish to report suspected wrongdoing. 

This includes demonstrating that policies and procedures designed to promote and protect whistleblowing are accessible by all stakeholders. Further, access to an anonymous helpline is crucial to ensure that parties can talk freely about any suspicions of wrongdoing. 

The reach of the new Bill includes the ability to look at past corruption and in some cases to award damages to workers or others who have suffered detriment in the past as the result of blowing the whistle.

next steps? 

In the short time remaining between now and when the new whistleblower changes come into being, it is essential that all relevant organisations audit their current practices relevant to the new Bill. To assist our clients in understanding the proposed changes, we have published a white paper, which is available for free download. 

One core offering that we provide is our industry-leading Grapevine Confidential Whistleblower Hotline. Staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Grapevine provides employees with the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to trusted and experienced operators. 

WISE has provided Grapevine since 2016, and the hotline enhances the way our clients manage their business, but also allows them be legally compliant with the new regulations. January 2019 is fast approaching. If you would like any additional information or an obligation free proposal, contact WISE today! 

22 Types of Workplace Bullying Behaviour

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Bullying is the scourge of many workplaces. There are few things which destroy office morale, tear apart team cohesion or cause good staff to leave as quickly as victimisation and harassment in the workplace. Interestingly, research has identified 22 different types of bullying conduct which might be encountered in the average workplace. 

We outline these different types of bullying and provide tips on how to avoid situations that cause this type of conflict in the workplace. 

What is the legal definition of bullying?

According to Fair Work Australia, a person is bullied in the workplace if they are repeatedly subjected to unreasonable behaviour by another person or group of people, or if that behaviour creates a risk to the health and safety of the bullied employee. 

Bullying includes teasing, exclusion and unreasonable work demands, but does not include reasonable disciplinary action or control of workflow. 

types of bullying behaviour

Research conducted by the University of Wollongong into 500 Australian employees over a 12-month period identifies the following different types of bullying behaviour: 

  • Withholding information (relevant to a person's employment or role)
  • Humiliation and ridicule
  • Tasking a person with work that is below their level of competence
  • Removing responsibility from a person who has earned it
  • Spreading gossip or rumours 
  • Ignoring or excluding a worker
  • Making personal insults
  • Shouting at or otherwise berating a person
  • Intimidating behaviour
  • Providing hints or signals that a person should resign or abandon their job
  • Reminding a worker constantly of errors or mistakes they have previously made
  • Persistently criticising an employee
  • Ignoring a worker hostile behaviour towards a worker
  • Ignoring a worker's opinion
  • Playing practical jokes or pranks
  • Imposing unreasonable deadlines
  • Making unfounded allegations
  • Excessively monitoring an employee's work
  • Putting pressure on an employee not to claim entitlements such as annual leave, personal leave or carer's leave
  • Teasing an employee
  • Imposing unreasonable workloads
  • Making threats of violence or engaging in actual abuse

These types of conduct, if repeated, generally present themselves in categories of limited indirect bullying, task-related bullying, or occasional bullying, or frequent bullying. Regardless of the cause, bullying results in increased absenteeism as a result of physical and mental health consequences on the worker who is affected. 

The risks of bullying

Apart from the obvious risks of employees resigning or taking extended periods of leave due to bullying, employers should also be aware of the potential for presenteeism - where staff turn up but are too affected by the bullying to effectively perform their work. 

Should employers fail to deal with bullying behaviour, they may be in non-compliance with their duty of care and their obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

What can employers do? 

It is essential for employers to set clear boundaries on what sort of behaviour is and is not acceptable in the workplace. The most effective way to do this is to create clear and direct policies which are well publicised to all staff, ensuring awareness. 

Staff should also be trained in dealing with subtle acts of bullying, which could over time escalate into more serious types of bullying. 

Employers can best combat bullying by fostering a positive workplace culture as a whole, and encouraging strong leadership and communication. This includes giving staff sufficient resources to do their jobs effectively, providing positive feedback and resisting the urge to micromanage. 

WISE Workplace is against workplace bullying and provides training for employers on how to investigate allegations of bullying in the workplace. If your organisation wants to create a workplace environment that is free from discrimination, harassment and misconduct, contact us today! 

What To Do When Faced With Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In the event of an allegation of child sexual abuse in the workplace, it is essential that immediate steps are taken to ensure the safety of any child allegedly involved. 

Following from this crucial first response, mandatory reports need to be made to the relevant statutory child protection authorities and subject to any police investigation, the allegations must be objectively investigated. The investigation report must be provided to the appropriate authority. 

As a society, we are beginning to understand the true nature and extent of child sexual abuse, including the insidious manner in which this crime can take place. Employers must be swift to report where required, providing all necessary support to various parties throughout the course of the investigative process. 

If in doubt, reporting child abuse allegations to the Police is preferable to inaction.

preying on vulnerability

Child sexual abuse by its very nature is a violation of trust, relying as it does upon the vulnerability of minors. As well as involving criminal physical and sexual acts, emotional abuse 'grooming' and 'crossing boundaries' are now recognised as being part of the matrix of child sexual abuse. 

For example, in an educational setting or community group, crossing boundaries and grooming can involve subtle favouritism from the employee towards one or more children. This can develop into a falsely 'special' connection that can ultimately lead to more tangible forms of abuse. 

For employers, protection against child sexual abuse by employers will require knowing the warning signs of inappropriate relationships and acting swiftly where needed.

Employers' responsibility to report

If an allegation of child sexual abuse arises in the workplace, the first priority for the employer is to secure the safety and welfare of the child/ren allegedly involved. This holds true even if the allegation is speculative or based upon unverified reports. 

Some employers will have mandatory reporting requirements dictated by legislation, which will require the reporting of any activity causing or likely to cause harm to a child as soon as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. 

Above all, employers who become aware of possible child sexual abuse in the workplace must not delay reporting until a finding has been made. A report needs to be made as soon as the employer becomes aware of the allegation. 

Further, while strong policies around the reporting of child sexual abuse will guide timely and appropriate action, a failure to act cannot be blamed upon the lack of such resources.

Across australia - reporting child sexual abuse

As a nation - and particularly since Australians have become more aware of our institutional failures - we have learned to better protect and support children who are subject to child sexual abuse. 

If an allegation of child sexual abuse arises in connection with employment, there will be subtle differences between the Australian States and Territories regarding the form that a report should take. 

A summary report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) demonstrates that while there are some differences in the size and quantity of State and Territory legislation protecting children, the overall structure is similar - a Child Protection (or similarly named) Act, plus in many cases statutory reporting requirements to a statutory child protection department and/or Ombudsman, or similar body. 

Regardless of which jurisdiction an employer operates in, it is important to remember that procedural fairness must be provided throughout the entire process from allegation through to investigation and reporting. 

internal or external investigation? 

An allegation of child sexual abuse in the workplace will ordinarily be followed by practical steps to ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the child involved. 

Following this, the person or persons alleged to have carried out the abuse need to be informed of the allegation and advised of the next steps to be taken. 

Depending upon the severity of the alleged conduct, a period of immediate leave might be provided. It is vital to ensure that the person accused is given all necessary information about the process. This will include giving an initial outline of the allegation, the nature of reporting requirements and the type of investigation to be undertaken. 

Whether an investigation should be carried out internally or externally is a vital question for employers to consider. In such sensitive cases as child sexual abuse allegations, an internal investigator would need to be knowledgeable and experienced in all facets of objective and fair workplace investigations, be familiar with Child Protection Legislation and be experienced at interviewing children. If a workplace exhibits turmoil and division regarding the allegation, or expertise is simply not available in-house, then it might be best to source external assistance in conducting the investigation. 

When allegations of abuse arise the primary focus must be the safety, welfare and wellbeing of any child who may have been involved in the alleged conduct - or who may be at risk of harm due to contact with that employee. 

If you work with children and want to ensure your practices are current, WISE provides training services, including investigating abuse in care. Alternatively, if you have an allegation of abuse, and are unsure what to do, contact WISE today! 

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.

How to Deal with Bullying in Hospital Environments

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Hospitals - very few people like them, yet many of us will be a resident at one time or another. Even though hospitals can be sources of great joy, places where babies are born, miracles happen and lives are saved, they also represent sickness, injury, death, and some pretty ordinary food! 

The people who work in them - the doctors, surgeons, nurses, aides, assistants, administrators and catering staff - perform difficult work in an extremely stressful environment. Imagine the potential consequences when the added stressor of workplace bullying is added to the mix.

Factors which facilitate bullying in this environment 

Hospitals and the healthcare sector remain a particularly hierarchical environment - carers need to get sign-off from nurses before passing out certain medications, nurses confirm recommended treatments with doctors, doctors and surgeons rely on their own pecking order. 

This hierarchy, and the importance of culture and following rules, automatically puts certain workers in a subordinate position relative to others.

Lateral violence, verbal, physical and psychological bullying among peers, can also be an issue in the health services. 

Combined with the stress of having to deal with time-critical emergencies, becoming involved in physically and mentally straining situations and dealing with the trauma of patients suffering, hospitals are the perfect breeding ground for hostility, anger and frustration.

Prevalence of bullying

Bullying in the healthcare sector is an under-recognised but pervasive problem. Hospitals often have scant or limited resources and staff are under significant pressure, which may contribute to the prevalence of workplace bullying.

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine surveyed its members in 2017 and found 34% had experienced bullying, 16.1% had experienced harassment and just over six percent had been victims of sexual harassment. A landmark 2015 report commissioned by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons showed that almost half of all surgeons had experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. 

The Victorian Auditor General Office, in its 2016 report to the Victorian Parliament, 'Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector', stated 

"The Health Sector is unable to demonstrate that it has effective controls in place to prevent or reduce inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment. Key controls that would effectively reduce this risk to employee health and safety are either inadequately implemented, missing or poorly coordinated." 

However, by its very nature, bullying in this type of workplace can be particularly difficult to detect and manage. 

Consequences of bullying

The potential consequences of bullying are significant. In addition to litigation arising from the bullying and costs associated with worker's compensation or other payouts, a number of issues can arise. These include:

  • High turnover amongst dissatisfied staff
  • Presenteeism - where staff turn up at work, but are unhappy or stressed and perform inadequately, which is particularly dangerous in a hospital environment. 
  • Increased absenteeism
  • A poorly functioning team environment that can adversely affect staff and patients.      

are there solutions to bullying in high-stress environments?  

Key strategies to help solve the problem include:

  • A focus on workplace culture, including by conducting regular cultural audits. 
  • Encouraging a 'mentor' or 'buddy' system (in consultation with unions where appropriate), or otherwise provide a supportive environment whereby staff are encouraged to vent or ask for assistance with any matters they are struggling with. 
  • Facilitating easy access for staff to obtain confidential counselling, or advice services. 
  • Fostering an environment where staff feel comfortable raising concerns and complaints with their peers and management.
  • Having clear zero tolerance policies regarding workplace bullying and harassment, which are easily accessible to all staff
  • Ensure that this zero tolerance policy, is demonstrated by senior management, so there is a top down recognition of adherence to the policy from all staff. 
  • Staff need to be regularly reminded of the consequences of any poor behaviour in the workplace and this should be reinforced during staff meetings.  

Bullying or harassment - in any workplace - is simply unacceptable. Many incidents of bullying or harassment may be unreported for fear of reprisals. All staff should be encouraged to report any incident. 

If your organisation needs any assistance in this area please contact WISE to arrange a no-obligation appointment or otherwise contact us to discuss how we may assist you. Our services include investigation, training, provision of a whistleblower facility (which can be tailored to suit your reporting needs), and review of policies

When Workplace Relationships Go Wrong

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Given how much time employees spend at work every week, it is hardly surprising that romantic relationships develop in the workplace. 

But what happens when a romance is inappropriate, or attraction crosses the line into sexual harassment?

inappropriate vs unlawful

While there is nothing illegal about a workplace relationship between two consenting adults, in some circumstances it can be inappropriate, for example a romance between a manager and a subordinate. 

There is also a significant difference between mutual and enacted sexual attraction, and unlawful conduct such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or even abuse or assault. Sexual harassment is unlawful under both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Sexual abuse and/or assault is a criminal offence.

the issues and consequences

Workplace relationships can become problematic, particularly in situations where a relationship involves two employees, one of whom oversees the other's performance, management or appraisal. 

Other co-workers may feel aggrieved by a real or perceived bias involving any decisions made by the more senior worker involved in the relationship. Team morale can suffer if one member is seen to be treated more favourably than the rest when it comes to performance appraisals, the allocation of work and promotional opportunities. 

Partly for this reason, employers may be tempted to dismiss employees who have not disclosed the nature of their romantic relationships. The legality of any such dismissal is questionable - however, previous decisions of the Fair Work Commission have suggested that employees may be dismissed in cases where employees are untruthful when they are challenged about the existence of workplace relationships. 

Employees may also make unwanted advances to other employees, as a result of innocently misinterpreting signs of perceived sexual interest. While there's nothing wrong with a co-worker asking a colleague out on a date or making an advance, there is a problem if the 'advancer' fails to accept and move on from any rebuff. 

The potential for negative fallout when a relationship ends is also a key concern for most employers. This is particularly the case if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other party wants to move on - ongoing attention may tip over into sexual harassment. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is 'any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual'.

From an employer's perspective, if sexual misconduct occurs in the workplace (or at employer-sanctioned events such as Christmas parties or other functions) then the business may well be vicariously liable.

There is certainly potential for litigation or unwanted media attention and brand damage as a consequence of sexual misconduct or an inappropriate relationship.    

what can an employer do to minimise the fallout? 

From a risk mitigation perspective, employers should ensure that they have adequately drafted and communicated workplace policies.

At a minimum, these policies should include: 

  • Clear guidelines on the permissibility of relationships between co-workers and when such relationships should be disclosed; 
  • Procedures for what should happen when such a relationship is disclosed, for example when a change in reporting structure is required;
  • A clause addressing conflict of interest and perceived bias (especially when relationships occur between senior and junior staff);
  • A clause defining sexual misconduct, highlighting the definition of sexual harassment and what kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace. 
  • Workplace policies that promote awareness of all gender related issues, including sexual harassment. 

It is common for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. As an employer, it is important to ensure that these circumstances do not lead to incidents of sexual harassment or perceptions of conflict of interest. 

Employers should ensure that they address all complaints of sexual harassment with care. If you have had complaints regarding sexual harassment, or are concerned about potential bias, WISE provides full and supported investigation services

How to Improve Workplace Harmony

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Maintaining workplace harmony should be a key focus of every organisation. Conflict in the workplace can lead to behaviours such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. Staff can lack motivation, fail to work as a team and be generally unhappy. 

So how can employers and staff deal with conflict, and encourage staff to work together to promote harmony in the workplace? 

Common causes of workplace conflict

Organisational or operational changes can cause employees stress and discomfort. These can include changes in management, procedures, duties or position descriptions, redundancies, staff changes and particularly a restructure. The increased stress and pressure on employees may be reflected by an increase in complaints received in the workplace.

The following factors also increase the likelihood of disharmony in the office environment.

  • A lack of communication, whether between co-workers or between management and staff;
  • A failure to share a vision, or a misunderstanding of what the business' goals or team's core focus is;
  • Mistrust or suspicion;
  • Insufficient leadership - or at the other extreme, micromanagement. 

how to prevent DISHARMONY turning the workplace toxic

It is important for employers to tackle any potential cultural issues straightaway - if tensions are left to fester, small, easily solved problems are likely to become much harder to deal with. 

Tips to avoid conflict and disharmony include:

  • Clearly communicating a zero tolerance attitude towards bullying, victimisation, discrimination and other negative behaviours;
  • Introducing clear workplace policies setting out expected standards of behaviour from all employees, and ensuring that these are well-communicated, easily accessible and complied with by everybody in the organisation, including senior management;
  •  Applying change management principles to any necessary changes to operational, procedural or structural matters;
  • Encouraging 'buy-in' from employees by creating common goals for all staff in the organisation. This should motivate everybody to work together;
  • Making your organisation a great place to work and an employer of choice - in particular by encouraging staff to have a healthy work-life balance;
  • Holding employees accountable for their work and rewarding them appropriately for good performance;
  • Training managers in conflict resolution, so they can step in early and deal with issues;
  • Hiring new staff based on their cultural fit and their compatibility with organisational values. 

Employees also have a role to play in creating workplace harmony, by doing their jobs to the best of their ability, showing commitment to their work, raising issues when they arise and adhering to workplace policies and procedures.  

what is the role of mediation?

When conflicts do arise, mediation can be an extremely useful tool. It can facilitate a discussion between employees who are in disagreement and find common ground or a compromise to deal with ongoing issues. 

However, mediation should not be used as a band-aid measure to try and resolve ongoing conflicts or when an active grievance is afoot. In this case, prevention by creating a harmonious workplace culture is truly the best cure.

when is an investigation required?

In some cases, workplace conflict and disharmony cannot be dealt with by a mediation process and an investigation is required in the first instance. 

This is particularly appropriate in circumstances where one party has been accused of misconduct or inappropriate behaviour, and the accused is hoping to clear their name. Similarly, if a workplace policy has been breached and there are potential legal or industrial ramifications, an employer is obliged to conduct a thorough investigation. 

Conflict management and workplace mediation can help avoid the disruption and disharmony which workplace conflicts can produce. Should your workplace require assistance in managing workplace disharmony, WISE Workplace provides mediation services and investigation services. Contact us today for an obligation-free discussion and cost estimate.