COVID-19 decision making: Who is essential?

Eden Elliott - Tuesday, September 01, 2020

As employers, it can be difficult to classify any of your employees’ work as non-essential when every member of your team brings valuable individual strengths. These decisions can also pose significant risks where employers and employees want different things, sometimes leading to employees submitting appeals or complaints about their employer’s determination.

Image: balanced decision-making

We have all been surprised by COVID-19, and many employers have found a need to quickly develop  working from home and pandemic policies to support their decision-making around who stays home and who goes to work. What should these policies include?

  • Employers should always base their decision making on government directions at the applicable time, and appoint a designated officer to monitor and record new guidelines as they are issued. You don’t want to get caught having relied on old advice, or missed a crucial development. Any policies should be driven by this process of checking and applying guidelines, and identifying responsible decision-makers.
  • Review your other policies and make sure they capture the right circumstances. Does your definition of misconduct or bullying include online and remote behaviour? How are you upholding your data privacy obligations for staff working from home? Does your sick leave policy accommodate staff getting tested and waiting for results?
  • For larger organisations, it might be appropriate to decide working arrangements based on specific employee roles, which can provide employees with certainty and consistency around their futures. This can also increase practicality by allowing simpler identification of the working from home needs of each role.
  • Consultation is key to avoiding complaints, which means the policy should provide for employees to have the opportunity to request and make their case for how they prefer to work regardless of their role. These submissions should be kept private and confidential, and should invite employees to nominate practical, health & wellbeing, productivity and any other reasons. However, employers must take care to demonstrate that these submissions have been considered in any subsequent decision, and not ignored.
  • Put measures in place to support your staff while working from home and from the office in pandemic circumstances. Check in with them regularly, acknowledge the difficulties they face, and never forget to recognise their successes. Consider Employee Assistance Programs. Many employers have increased accountability measures for staff working at home, and it is  important to minimise feelings of micromanagement by recognising that these can also be a tool for identifying & addressing increased stressors and other difficulties that take up your employees’ time.
  • Put your duty of care first. At the end of the day, the wellbeing and safety of employees must take precedence, regardless of the short term frustration, decreased productivity and cultural changes to which working from home can contribute. The pandemic will not last forever, and an employer’s response to crises can have a significant impact on employee loyalty, retention and recruitment options in the future.
  • Get expert advice. If you find it difficult to build your processes, or if you receive complaints from staff, WISE can assist in reviewing decisions and policies to help meet employer obligations.

Call WISE on 1300 580 685 to help you develop your pandemic policy or respond to staff complaints.

How Fact-Finding and Disciplinary Investigations Differ

Vince Scopelliti - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

When dealing with allegations of staff misconduct, employers must be able to clearly delineate between fact-finding and disciplinary investigations. 

This includes communicating the difference to staff involved in the process.

fact-finding vs formal investigation

A 'fact-finding' process is often a necessary preliminary step in determining whether a disciplinary investigation is warranted. Following an incident or complaint, a third-party must interview involved parties to obtain objective information and determine whether the event merits a more detailed investigation.

Alternatively, the results may be sufficient to establish that there was no misconduct, or that the results of any further investigation are unlikely to provide any clear determination. Fact-finding may initially be a fairly informal process, although it should still be clearly documented.

It is extremely important that staff are made aware that a fact-finding process is simply that - not accusatory but only to gather information. This should be clearly spelled out in the organisation's policies and procedures, which staff participating in the process should be pointed towards.

By contrast, once an investigation has commenced, the process becomes much more detailed and formal. This includes the preparation of specific witness statements, collection of detailed information and supporting evidence, and the preparation of a report. That report will be relied upon by management and other decision-makers in determining the consequences following an investigation.

Disciplinary investigations are formal processes that involve specific allegations being put to employees. They are surrounded by confidentiality obligations, and are intended to determine whether an incident was a breach of policy which warrants disciplinary action, and not whether an incident actually occurred.

It is important to bear in mind that the point of a disciplinary investigation is to protect the rights of an individual subject to potential disciplinary proceedings.

communicating the process to the employees involved

Parties engaged in a fact-finding process should be advised clearly why they are involved.

Although it is an informal process, staff should be told that they are being interviewed to outline and assess matters of concern before management can determine a course of further action.

The purpose of the meeting should also be clearly outlined, as well as its status as part of a preliminary assessment or a potential precursor to a formal investigation. However, although the general nature of the query needs to be raised, there is no need for specific information to be divulged.

Before potential respondents are interviewed during the fact-finding process, management should give serious consideration to whether it is essential to do so. If it really is required, the potential respondent must be told that the next steps could involve moving to a formal investigative process and potentially the issue of misconduct allegations which will require a formal response.

what happens when the line becomes blurred

At any point when fact-finding starts getting too close to asking specific questions related to the subject nature of any potential complaint, it is straying towards an informal disciplinary investigation.

This is rife with potential implications for the business, particularly if formal disciplinary processes are commenced as a result. The rights of the accused employee are at risk, and any conduct endorsed by the business could result in unfair dismissal or similar actions by the employee. At this stage, it is recommended that a business involve the services of a formal, external investigator to finalise the process.

If you want to protect your business, draw a real distinction between fact-finding and disciplinary investigations. This can be achieved by using an external provider for all disciplinary proceedings. WISE Workplace offers independent, unbiased and expert third-party investigation services to support you every step of the way - from unpacking the facts of a workplace problem to analysing all sources of evidence raised in relation to misconduct. 

Sacked on Leave: Procedural Fairness and Unfair Dismissal

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The rules around when staff can be terminated while they are on leave can be a source of consternation for management and human resources professionals. 

The consequences of getting it wrong are demonstrated in the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Tuan Nguyen v Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies Pty Ltd [2020] FWC 79 (30 January 2020). 

In this case, the employer was ordered to pay compensation to an employee deemed to have been unfairly terminated. 

The Facts of the matter

Mr Nguyen was a business manager for Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies who was dismissed from his employment following allegations of fraud and dishonesty associated with the supply of products to a customer. 

Following his termination, he lodged an application for unfair dismissal, arguing that the seriousness of the allegations levelled against him were not supported by the available evidence. 

Although the Commission found that there was legitimate cause for concern about Mr Nguyen’s reckless conduct, and he had been validly terminated, it was ultimately held that due process had not been followed in effecting the termination. 

This was because Mr Nguyen was found not to have been given prior warning or a “genuine opportunity” to deal with the serious substance of the allegations, particularly given as Mr Nguyen was on extended sick leave at the time of the termination. 

Accordingly, the dismissal was found to have been harsh, unreasonable and unfair, with the Commission ordering compensation in the sum of $10,000. 

key lessons employers can learn

Employers should take note of a few key principles which underpinned the decision in Nguyen, namely:

  • The Commission expects employers to provide a “fair go all round”. In practice, this means that decisions in relation to employment status cannot be made arbitrarily. Instead, they must take into account a balanced, practical and common sense method to ensure that both the employer and the employee are treated fairly. Notably, this includes an opportunity to respond to allegations made against the employee by the business.
  • Procedural fairness is king. Although it is certainly understandable that employers wish to exit staff who are underperforming or otherwise breaching workplace practices or even the law as expeditiously as possible, there is no excuse to “rush” the process, at the cost of following due process. This means providing employees with clearly articulated warnings, notice of the reasons for dismissal, ensuring a legitimate and practical opportunity has been given for them to respond, and permitting the employee to have a support person of their choosing attend any interviews. 
  • In addition, objectivity is crucial. When making decisions as to ongoing employment, it is essential that the results of any investigation can stand up to objective standards of evidence, and will not be undermined by allegations of subjectivity or bias. 
  • Take your time. Unless there are urgent reasons to immediately terminate employees (such as serious criminal activity), there is no benefit in terminating too quickly. This is especially the case when employees are on sick leave, as in most cases the Commission will determine that due process has not been followed in dealing with those staff. 
  • Engage in performance management early. Although there may be a concern that a documented performance management process will further alienate an unhappy or recalcitrant employee, engaging in this process at appropriate times and in a correct fashion will bolster any ultimate termination, should this become necessary. It also affords the employer a reasonable management defence when challenged. 
In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will prioritise “a fair go all round” and not hesitate to find in favour of an applicant (notwithstanding that they may have engaged in legitimate misconduct) if procedural fairness is not followed. To ensure procedural fairness when dealing with misconduct, contact WISE for resources, expert advice and independent, unbiased investigation services.


Racial Discrimination at Work

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 05, 2020

We are all familiar with the more obvious signs of workplace discrimination; but with targeted racism and xenophobia spreading faster than the Coronavirus, it is vital to be aware of the more nuanced and subtle acts of discrimination at work. 

Queensland has seen MP Duncan Pegg slam a phoney health department bulletin that warned online communities to avoid areas with high proportions of Chinese residents. In France, East-Asian communities began the now global #imnotavirus campaign, highlighting discriminatory comments from “are you dangerous if you cough?” to “stop eating wild animals then infecting everyone around you.” 

This problem is not new. In Canada in 2003, a similar wave of outbreak-fuelled xenophobia cost Toronto an estimated C$1bn, prompting public health officials to remind Canadians not to let ignorance triumph over respect in their communities.  

This viral endemic has already had a global impact on small businesses, schools and communities around the world, and workplaces are far from immune. Queensland surgeon Dr Rhea Liang said that “misinformation” on the virus has led to racially motivated remarks such as were made to her at work last week. Dr Liang’s patient refused her routine handshake, saying “you might have coronavirus” in front of her colleagues and several medical students. 

Most Australian workers are not at significant risk of infection, and employers and employees alike should be aware of the legal pitfalls they may encounter, and harm they may inflict, in attempts to protect themselves from the virus. In Dr Liang’s case, her colleagues were immediately supportive, but she worries about more vulnerable people exposed to racism that results from the stereotyping. 

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status. This extends to expressions of racial hatred against another person, and discriminating in the provision of services, entertainment and facilities or on less favourable terms and conditions. 

WHAT Does this mean for you?

We are all familiar with the obvious signs of racial or xenophobic discrimination, like slurs, segregation, targeted aggression and spreading racist rumours. Refusing to serve or deterring customers on the basis of their nationality or race, out of fear of Coronavirus is also an obvious and unlawful form of discrimination. However as a modern employer, it’s important to recognise the more subtle and nuanced forms of racism which can go unnoticed, and therefore be more damaging than overt behaviours. 

It is likely that racism at work is vastly underreported. 20% of Australians experience racism every year, but the Australian Human Rights Commission receives just several hundred racial discrimination complaints annually. 
More subtle and dangerous examples of discrimination include:

  • Xenophobic or racist ostracism of, or hostility towards, colleagues or customers in their workplace.
  • Avoiding contact or proximity with, or hostile body language towards people on the basis of their skin colour or nationality 
  • Unintentional or subconscious behaviour 

Subconscious biases and assumptions, even with positive intentions regarding safety or risk to others can all be considered racist behaviour. 

Prevention is always better than cure, and as an employer, workplace culture starts with you. If you are worried about your workplace culture, contact us to organise a Cultural Review. 

SO, how can i prevent racial discrimination from infiltrating my workplace? 

Education: 

Education on racial discrimination at work empowers employee understanding, sensitivity and conversation. Training programs are an important tool for eliminating more subtle discriminatory behaviours, by highlighting the nuanced nature of racial and cultural experience and necessity for sensitivity, and avoiding unintentional or subconscious infliction of harm. This can not only reduce incidences of discrimination but also create a positive culture where employees support each other, demonstrate and monitor their own standards of conduct and can minimise the emotional and psychological impact of external harm to their peers.

Conversation:

Creating space for productive conversations about race and discrimination at work is vital to a positive workplace culture. To encourage employee participation and make the most of these conversations, frame them in a positive and constructive way.

Outline the purpose and goals of the conversations from the outset:

  • Discuss views and experiences relating to racism in a non-judgmental and safe environment 
  • Learn from each other’s experiences and gain understanding that people experience racism in different ways
  • Reflect on intention and how we can unintentionally cause racial harm to our peers or colleagues 
  • Identify opportunities for growth within the organisation and develop systems for positive change 

Be prepared to support employees who may lack understanding of the real prevalence of racism and need for proper attention. People who are not part of a minority group are likely to have less experience of racism, so the nuanced nature of modern discrimination might come as a surprise. Constructive conversations can help these team members challenge their preconceptions, and help them to approach the issues with awareness and understanding. 

For tailored, expert and neutral third-party training programs or conversational facilitators to improve your workplace culture and tackle complex issues such as racial or xenophobic discrimination, contact WISE Workplace today. Working with an experienced facilitator or training provider such as WISE minimises the risk of tricky power imbalances countering your efforts to eliminate racial discrimination at work. 




Whistleblowing in 2020: Is Your Organisation Ready?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 23, 2020

The concept of whistleblowing was once frowned upon, or at the very least looked upon with trepidation. However, in recent years, the value of promoting whistleblowing as an acceptable way to improve corporate regulatory compliance and culture has been demonstrated. In this changing landscape, organisations are embracing whistleblowing - and many also have new obligations to comply with. 

Is your organisation ready for whistleblowing in 2020? Let's look at who can be a whistleblower; who is authorised to receive disclosures; and which organisations must have a whistleblower platform in place. 

What is whistleblowing?

Whistleblowers are individuals with some connection to an organisation, who choose to report corporate misconduct or illegal activities. 

Legislation, including new legislation which came into force on 1 July 2019, provides extended rights and protections to whistleblowers. Ultimately, the intent of the legislation is to ensure that whistleblowers are protected against reprisals, legal action, or general detriment, such as disciplinary action taken by the employer. 

Whistleblower protection may be afforded to various categories of people, including: 

  • Current employees of a company (or a related company)
  • The spouses or relatives of employees 
  • Officers of a company 
  • Contractors who have dealt with the company (potentially including volunteers)
  • General associates of the company

Whistleblowing also includes public interest disclosures. An example of a public interest disclosure might be an employee making a report about a bank which has been consistently charging members fees for no service. These apply in circumstances where a previous report has been made to ASIC or APRA and not actioned within 90 days, and the whistleblower is of the view that the information is of such importance to the public interest that it would be worthwhile reporting concerns to a journalist or a parliamentarian. 

Alternatively, emergency disclosures may be made if concerned parties have reasonable grounds to believe that the matters to be reported concern substantial or imminent danger to health and safety of people or the environment. 

how the disclosure process works

Disclosure about misconduct may be made anonymously, but must be reported to a specific group of people, including: 

  • Directors, company officers or senior managers
  • Auditors of the company 
  • Actuaries associated with the company 
  • A person specifically authorised to receive disclosures (generally a Human Resources officer) 
  • Regulatory authorities such as ASIC or APRA
  • Legal practitioners

Concerns can be reported internally using pre-determined organisational systems such as phone or online reporting. At the very least, an organisation should publish its whistleblowing policy and identify the people who are entitled to receive reports. 

Within a company, those authorised to receive disclosures must act on disclosures by investigating and protecting whistleblowers. 

WHY IS A WHISTLEBLOWING PLATFORM IMPORTANT?

The new legislation means that all public companies, large proprietary companies and corporate trustees of superannuation funds must have a whistleblower policy from January 1, 2020. Large proprietary companies are classed as those that have a consolidated annual revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees.  

In addition to the legislative requirements, there are reasons why all organisations should have a strong platform for whistleblowing. 

These include increasing public and employee confidence in the desire of the organisation to “do the right thing”, and ensuring that senior personnel are safe in the knowledge that, if anybody is committing wrongdoing, staff and related persons can be confident to report those matters without fear of reprisals. 

One of the most effective ways to deal with whistleblowers is to set up an external hotline. This means that reports can be made anonymously. People can avoid potential embarrassment or concerns about making a report in circumstances where they potentially see the people whose conduct they are reporting on a daily basis.

WISE is a leading provider of whistleblowing services in Australia, offering organisations a secure service known as ‘Grapevine’ for staff to report concerns. 

Grapevine allows for anonymous reporting via phone call or online report. Reporters are enabled to provide supporting evidence, and can also choose whether to remain anonymous or leave their contact details. Each report is assigned a case number so it can be tracked throughout the whistleblowing and assessment process. Reports are reviewed by a highly trained and experienced team, and the organisation's nominated contact person is notified within 24 hours. Updates are available online. Depending on the level of service, the Grapevine team can also follow up and take action according to an organisation's whistleblower policy.

For more information on complying with whistleblower legislation, please download our free whistleblowing whitepaper which can answer your questions regarding the changes. If you would like an obligation-free cost estimate to implement a confidential hotline in your workplace, contact us here.

Managing Volunteers in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 16, 2020

Volunteers can be a fabulous resource in any business. Generally, they bring enthusiasm, true passion for the organisation's ethos and purpose, and a "can-do" attitude to the job.

However, volunteers in the workplace can also bring their own set of challenges for organisations. Even though they are not on the payroll, volunteers enjoy the same protections as paid workers are entitled to. Indeed, the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) defines volunteers as "workers", thereby putting them on equal footing.

So let's look at some tips and tricks for managing volunteers in the workplace.

Employee and volunteer conflict

One of the risks inherent in relying on volunteers is conflict with employees. In part, this may be due to a "us against them" perception. Further, staff who are employed in the business on a daily basis, may perceive that volunteers have less of an understanding or practical knowledge of how tasks should be completed, or how things are done. Employees may also resent the apparent flexibility afforded to volunteers. A pertinent example is the longstanding feud between paid and volunteer Country Fire Authority staff in Victoria, which resulted in the CFA being devolved into a volunteer-only organisation in early 2019.

Difficulties managing volunteer conflict

In addition to the everyday personnel issues facing organisations, additional challenges involving volunteers include:

  • An unwillingness of volunteers to raise concerns or "rock the boat", largely due to the fact that they may already feel isolated or otherwise segregated from employees. Any conflicts or issues may not be raised with management, for fear of reprisals or concerns about not being taken seriously.
  • A lack of understanding of protections. Many volunteers may not be aware that they are entitled to the same protections as paid staff, and may consider it pointless to raise any conflicts or concerns with management.
  • Lower priority for the organisation. Even if volunteers do raise concerns, management may deal with these issues less expeditiously, because volunteers could be perceived as being easily replaceable. 

responsibilities of volunteer-active workplaces

Employers who rely on volunteers or who are considering welcoming them into the workplace, have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment. They must therefore take steps to protect volunteers from bullying and harassment.

In the same fashion, employers remain vicariously liable for volunteer's conduct and behaviour. For example, if a volunteer engaged in an activity on behalf of the organisation and negligently or otherwise causes injury to a third party, the employer could be found liable. This is despite the absence of any financial relationship between the volunteer and the business.

Organisations need to ensure that policies are updated (where required) to identify that they also encompass volunteer staff. Volunteers should be provided with copies of all policies, and their workplace rights and obligations should be clearly communicated.

When commencing a relationship with a volunteer, it is also important to ensure that there are very clear volunteer engagement "Agreements" in place. These should be carefully drafted to ensure that both parties are well aware of their rights and obligations under the agreement.

Volunteer-based organisations, like all workplaces, have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for all their workers. All conflict and alleged misconduct should be taken seriously, whether it relates to paid staff and/or volunteers. If your organisation needs assistance managing a challenging workplace conflict, WISE offers both supported and full investigation services to provide you with the flexibility you need. 

How to Write Letters of Notification and Allegation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

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

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

notifying the parties involved

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

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

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

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

the elements of a letter of notification

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

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

Writing letters of allegation

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

The letter should clearly set out: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating an Action Plan: ToR and External Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is crucial to be able to demonstrate that appropriate procedures have been followed. This is essential in defending any subsequent action that may be taken. 

It can be helpful for employers to create an action plan utilising Terms of Reference (ToR) and the services of an external investigator to keep the investigation process on track. 

3 Key principles for drafting the tor

The ToR is a framework that provides structure and a plan for the investigation. Without it, an investigation runs the risk of becoming too broad or unwieldy. There are three basic guiding principles for employers to keep in mind when drafting the ToR. 

1. Reason

This sets out why an investigation is necessary, which people are anticipated to be involved (at least the complainant and respondent) and the key questions which need to be answered as a result of the investigation. 

2. Remit

The remit section provides the parameters for the investigator's involvement and identifies what the investigator is supposed to do. 

In certain circumstances, the investigator will be required simply to engage in a fact-finding mission, in order to collate information for the employer to make a final determination or outcome. Alternatively, an investigator may be tasked with dispute resolution, or even providing disciplinary recommendations. 

This section can also identify what, if anything, is 'off limits'. For example, an investigator may be prohibited from having access to commercially sensitive information. 

However, it's also important to note that an investigator will be hampered if there are too many restrictions placed on them. 

3. Report

This practical aspect of the ToR identifies in what format the final report is to be provided. The due date and expected distribution list should also be noted in the ToR.

In order to maximise the success of the investigation, the TOR should be drafted as soon as possible after a decision has been made to investigate a complaint.

Why appoint an external investigator? 

Even the most experienced HR professional may struggle to undertake a completely unbiased investigation. Cross allegations and accusations of unfairness can cloud issues and throw the investigation off-track. 

By outsourcing investigations of this nature, employers can prevent any perceived or actual apprehension of bias. External investigators are impartial, and in some cases, better able to conduct an objective investigation than someone internal. 

An external investigator is particularly helpful in circumstances where: 

  • The organisation requiring an investigator is small and all staff are well known to each other.
  • The allegations requiring investigation are particularly egregious, serious or even traumatic.
  • There is potential for criminal or civil proceedings to arise out of the investigation.
  • Senior management or HR staff are directly involved in the complaint, whether as respondents or complainants. 

External investigators also have a level of experience and expertise that can be difficult to match in-house. Even with clear ToR, an internal investigator may find investigating the allegation and writing the final report challenging. 

Appointing an external investigator can also save time. Often, the person chosen to head an investigation internally, will also still have their core duties to perform.

Engaging an external investigator

When you engage an external investigator, it's a good idea to write a letter of appointment/engagement. This should set out clear instructions and confirm the scope of the investigator's role. The ToR should also be included. 

If you require assistance in defining the scope of your investigation, or would like to engage an expert to tackle workplace matters requiring investigation, our investigators are committed to dealing with complaints independently, providing expeditious, thorough investigations with integrity. Visit our website or contact WISE to find out more. 

Receiving Workplace Complaints

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Employers should be well aware of the legal and associated requirements that come into play when someone in the workplace raises their hand with a grievance. 

Complaints about unacceptable and/or inappropriate behaviour can arise from any work area, and in regard to a wide variety of issues. Grievance handling needs to be fair and consistent - yet with each situation being approached on an individual basis. 

We take a look at creating a sound process for the receipt of complaints, which reflects and follows existing policies and procedures.

types of complaints

Complaints can be made in relation to all manner of behaviours. Examples include allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment and even - in workplaces involving children - child abuse. 

Harassment itself covers a wide range of behaviours that could occur on or offsite, including those via digital communication such as email, social media platforms and messaging. 

Employers should note that alleged perpetrators can be colleagues, managers and even occasionally worksite personnel such as contractors.

steps to take when receiving a complaint 

For employers it can sometimes be difficult to know just where to begin once a complaint has been received. At a basic level, all internal procedures and policies should be carefully followed to ensure fairness and consistency. 

A clear and well-understood complaints process needs to be in place prior to the (inevitable) receipt of a workplace complaint. All those involved should receive even-handed treatment, with any decisions being made in a defined and measured way. 

In some instances, the alleged behaviour will constitute reportable conduct, with an employer obliged to notify a specified body about the allegation under a compulsory reporting regime. 

As society comes to grips with some of the behaviours that can occur in relation to our most vulnerable individuals, more stringent reporting requirements for employers continue to be developed. For example, the National Disability Insurance Scheme has been designed to ensure that employers take timely and objective steps upon receipt of any relevant complaint

key principles when responding to complaints 

In the case of complaints, it pays to ask some basic questions about the situations such as:

  • Is the behaviour unacceptable or not?
  • Does the situation warrant measures to minimise the risk of ongoing harm?
  • Do I have a clear understanding of the issues?
  • Do I need additional information or assistance?
  • Can the matter be safely resolved between the parties or at a team level?
  • Should the matter be progressed to an investigation? 

A key issue is the manner in which the people involved in a complaint are treated and how any required information is communicated.

At all times, employers should take the matter seriously, refrain from victimising any individual and ensure the same treatment for all personnel involved.

Confidentiality should be maintained at all times and support mechanisms put in place for what is, inevitably, a difficult time in the workplace. 

Taking the right approach

It is vital for employers to be aware of their legal obligations and best practice when it comes to addressing workplace complaints. Complaint handling can become quite complex depending on the type of complaints and the number of people involved. 

WISE provides professional and up-to-date training on conducting workplace investigations. Our courses are specifically designed for those engaged in the investigation of workplace misconduct, including bullying and harassment. Please call us if you would like expert assistance around complaints processing and the best way to ensure fairness if - and when - a workplace complaint is received.  In addition keep an eye out over the next seven weeks, as we will be publishing a series of articles, in which we examine the workplace investigation process. 

Uncovering the Steps of an Effective Investigation Process

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

Following a clear path

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

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

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

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

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

A step-by-step investigative process

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

1. Receiving a complaint

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

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

2. Establishing terms of reference

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

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

3. Letters of notification and allegation

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

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

4. Interviewing techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLOSURE: Complete the interview politely and professionally.

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

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

5. Report writing

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

6. Making findings

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

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

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

7. The role of the Fair Work Commission

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

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

Obtaining professional guidance 

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

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