Can Employers Investigate if Complainants Ask Them Not To?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

One of the more difficult aspects of managing an employment relationship is appropriately dealing with complaints, both from the perspective of the complainant and the accused. This is made even more complicated when a reluctant complainant brings something to the attention of Human Resources or management, then does not want it investigated. 

We examine why a complainant might not want to take an issue further, and what an employer's rights and obligations are in these circumstances.

why a complainant might be reluctant

There are many reasons why an employee might be reluctant to have a complaint investigated. These include: 

  • Fear of retribution - This is common in circumstances where the 'accused' holds a position of power over the complainant in the workplace. The complainant might fear reprisals and that their daily work life will become more difficult. This is particularly the case if the complaint relates to physical, sexual or emotional aggression. 
  • Fear that the complainant will not be taken seriously - The complainant might be worried their complaint will be considered 'trivial' or won't be dealt with objectively because of the position of the other party.
  • Time commitments - It is well known that an investigation will require a significant amount of time commitment from all parties. A complainant might not wish to be involved in a lengthy and time-consuming process. 
  • Lack of evidence - Complainants could feel that they are involved in a 'he said, she said' situation. The complainant might be concerned that an investigation will not ultimately support their version of events.    

The best way to address these concerns is for Human Resources or management to make clear to staff that all complaints are taken seriously and are duly investigated. This is regardless of who made the complaint, against whom it is levelled, and how much evidence might be required to fully conduct an investigation.

is a complainant allowed to withdraw a complaint? 

A complainant has the right to withdraw both the complaint and their support of any investigation. This generally spells the end of the investigation, because the person who receives a complaint is bound by confidentiality. This leaves the reluctant complainant as the only source of evidence to support an investigation.  

employer obligations to investigate

But employers are obliged to balance their duties of confidentiality with their obligations under workplace health and safety legislation. This includes eliminating discrimination and ensuring that everybody is able to undertake their jobs without unreasonable impostes. In circumstances of accusations of significant misconduct or even criminal activity, an employer may be justified in or even compelled to pursue an investigation, notwithstanding that a complaint has been withdrawn.

For example, if the complainant has raised issues of conduct that may constitute the commissioning of fraud, then the withdrawal of the complaint will not immediately result in the conduct alleged not being able to be independently investigated. There are also other considerations and duties of care that need to be taken into consideration before an informed decision to not undertake or to cease an investigation can be appropriately made. 

The dangers of a rigid policy structure

Although it is essential that all businesses have a complaints and grievances policy, there is some risk in having a procedure that is perceived as being too strict or rigid. If the general consensus amongst the staff is that there are only 'black and white' approaches toward dealing with complaints, this could result in staff being deterred from reporting incidents. This could ultimately result in employers breaching their legislative obligations and duty of care. 

At WISE Workplace, we have expertise in dealing with investigations involving reluctant parties. Talk to our team about full or supported investigation services for your organisation.

Sharing Information After a Workplace Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 08, 2019

For employers, the completion of a workplace investigation can feel like the end of a marathon. The relevant issues have been aired and discussed, a report delivered and decisions made. However, it is also important to effectively share relevant information with affected parties and the broader organisation as the investigation process draws to a close. 

It is likely that employees and other stakeholders affected by the workplace investigation will need feedback in order to comfortably move on from this often unsettling time in the workplace. 

Before commencing post-investigation communication, management should consider issues of confidentiality, the rights of all the affected parties and the best ways to share information across the broader organisation.

Providing confidence in the outcome

The period after a workplace investigation can be an excellent opportunity for both staff and management to make changes and move forward confidently from a difficult situation. 

Providing key stakeholders a broad summary of the investigative findings and a plan for improvement often fosters a sense of understanding and closure. For affected parties, a clear and concise summary of individual outcomes and actions will of course be appropriate and necessary. At every level, the goal is to communicate honestly and with a positive eye to the future.

keeping affected parties informed

Management should meet individually with those affected by the findings of the investigation. The process can be uncomfortable for those who are personally involved. There will often be a sense of apprehension, and in some cases, a curiosity about the decision-making process. 

Affected parties deserve a chance to have the outcomes and the decision-making process explained on a one-on-one basis. However, it is also important to ensure that only the appropriate amount of information regarding the investigation is shared. 

In particular, confidentiality will be necessary in relation to the statements of witnesses and other affected parties. Sensitive information, claims and descriptions have the potential to cause unnecessary harm and can jeopardise the integrity of the final report. 

A copy of the full report should not be released to those involved with the investigation. This document is accessible only by the employer at this stage. The affected parties to an investigation have a legal entitlement to be informed in writing of the findings, conclusions, recommendations and the basis of those findings. The parties therefore could be provided with a written summary of the full report, including the allegations and findings, at they relate to each individual party. 

A witness is not an affected party and should not be provided with the report or a summary unless they are also an affected party, such as a complainant or respondent. 

Communicating across the organisation

Confidentiality is of course of paramount importance. Neither witnesses nor staff want to be fed vague explanations about the outcomes of the investigations. A workplace investigation will commonly reveal deficiencies in policies and procedures, and/or the state of organisational culture. In clearly explaining the outcomes of the investigation, management can allay fears, dampen any gossip and provide a positive statement about any changes to come following the conclusion of an investigation. 

The investigation might well have been an unsettling time within the organisation. Post-investigation communication can be a valuable means of restoring confidence and providing a clear vision for future activities. For example, policies might need to be updated or individual procedures changed for the better. Positive communication about findings and the actions to be taken will help to restore staff equilibrium.

implementing change post workplace investigation 

It can be a challenge for management to know exactly where to start when explaining and implementing decisions following an investigation. 

At WISE Workplace we have significant experience with workplace investigations and helping to manage the aftermath of these processes. Should you require assistance in conducting workplace investigations and communicating outcomes, contact WISE today.

The Privacy Act: Implications for Workplace Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There can be many questions, fears and insecurities that arise in the course of a workplace investigation. Experienced investigators are often asked by witnesses and other staff to divulge what has been said and by whom. This is unsurprising; after all, for one or more people their reputation and/or job could be on the line as a result of accusations made. 

Workplace investigators must take care when dealing with the information gleaned from their enquiries. The Privacy Act 1988 creates a legal structure that controls how personal information can be obtained and used. From initial enquiries through to the final report, workplace investigators must carefully weigh the privacy implications of their work.

privacy and workplace investigations

The Privacy Act 1988 places firm legal boundaries around how businesses and government agencies are to deal with the personal information of individuals, including employees. Most employers will have the capacity under the Act to deal with employee information as they see fit - providing it is for a lawful purpose. 

Workplace investigators are bound by the privacy legislation, just as any person or organisation who deals with private information is. This can lead to considerable challenges within the course of the investigation, such as having private information that might or might not be of interest to another party or witness within the investigation. It is only in very unusual circumstances that such disclosures could be lawfully made. Overall, consent will not have been given for release to another party; consent is crucial in all such situations.

personal information and the final report

The client is of course the employer in workplace investigations, and it is to the employer that briefings and reports must be directed. It is not unusual for investigators to be bombarded by employees with requests for the release of information, statements, witness accounts and the like, that have been elicited during the investigation.

The reason for the requests is certainly understandable - people will be anxious to know what has been said, by whom and how this could potentially affect their employment. Yet legally this is not information that the workplace investigator is at liberty to provide, unless express consent has been given. 

Personal information at the disposal of the workplace investigator must be returned to the employer, generally in the form of the investigator's final report. Complainants, respondents and witnesses are certainly afforded a summary of the report and findings. Yet actual statements and transcripts involving personal information are certainly protected under the Act from most curious stakeholders.   

Privacy and future proceedings

It makes sense to keep a tight hold on information released during the investigation. Considering that investigative reports are often later scrutinised for their evidentiary worth, it is important for workplace investigators to keep in mind the ramifications of privacy principles upon their work. 

For example, statements that are tainted by knowledge of what another witness has said could certainly be inadmissible or weighted lightly in later proceedings. A loose investigative structure can also see one party privy to more information than another, raising inevitable questions of procedural fairness. 

Navigating a workplace investigation is certainly a matter of juggling many moving parts. Keeping a firm reign on the use of personal information during the investigation is one task that must remain at the forefront of all activities and decisions. For assistance on ways to ensure compliance with the Privacy Act 1988 during an investigation, get in touch with WISE.