Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 07, 2018

When conducting investigations or otherwise making determinations in the workplace, it is essential to avoid bias, whether conscious or unconscious. It is equally important to avoid a situation where co-workers believe decisions made in the workplace are biased - whether real or perceived.

What is unconscious bias? 

Unconscious bias may take a number of different forms, including:

  • Preferring or tending to support people who are similar to us (for example, people who attended the same high school, or who share the same ethnic background or sexual preference)
  • 'The beer test', also known as the 'in group' versus the 'out group' - having a bias in favour of people you would enjoy spending time with yourself.
  • The halo effect - where a specific characteristic or attribute of a person dominates impressions formed about that person. For example, if somebody is physically attractive this may increase their inherent like-ability, without merit. 
  • Confirmation bias - effectively, making judgements which support existing, previously held beliefs. 

For investigators, objectivity and drawing reasonable and unbiased conclusions is an essential component of a fair investigation. This doesn't alter the fact that everybody has unconscious biases. In order to remain neutral, investigators should take careful stock of what those biases may be for them specifically and ensure that they do not allow bias to influence their analysis of a party's credibility or their ultimate conclusions.

the effects of bias 

From an investigator's perspective, a failure to be objective may mean that they have subconsciously drawn premature conclusions about the outcome of the investigation. 

A common example involves a situation where a senior executive has been accused of serious wrongdoing, and the investigator understands that the removal or significant disciplining of the executive is likely to result in immediate negative effects for the business. 

Against that background, the investigator may be more likely to conduct the investigation in such a way that it justifies a decision which has already been made - namely that the executive will not be terminated or otherwise harshly disciplined. 

It is incumbent on impartial investigators to seek to uncover all facts that will help them determine the credibility of the parties involved, and assist in reaching a fair conclusion. It is equally important for investigators to remember that all evidence (however unpalatable) uncovered during an investigation must be taken into account in making a final determination, regardless of whether the information supports or contradicts the allegations. 

what is best practice?

Forming an inherent bias is a completely natural human response. It is important to ensure, however, that it does not lead or alter the outcome of an investigation. To this end, strategies for preventing inherent bias include:

  • Scheduling 'interrupters' - these are regular pauses in the process which are designed to force a decision-maker to step back and take an overview of how they have progressed with the investigation, as well as consciously consider whether they are being influenced by bias or not. 
  • Ensuring that the investigator's approach is as transparent as possible, and ideally an investigator should not be required to investigate people with whom they have ties. 

what can employers do?

Employers need to facilitate open and honest communication about the potential of bias affecting a decision-making process. This includes ensuring that all staff who are likely to conduct investigations or make sensitive decisions are aware of the potential impacts of bias, and take steps to avoid it. 

Another important stratagem is to ensure that investigators are not required to conduct investigations involving those with whom they have a prior relationship, to avoid any perception of bias. 

Investigations are an important tool for companies dealing with breaches of policy misconduct. If an employee views a process as fair and unbiased they will be more likely to report concerns. If you think there is an issue in your workplace and are concerned about potential or perceived bias, WISE can conduct independent and unbiased investigations. Contact us today for an obligation-free cost estimate.  

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

Failing to Involve HR and Other Investigation Mistakes

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 16, 2018

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

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

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

WHy are workplace investigations necessary?

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

Investigations are necessary when:

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

what does an investigation involve?

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

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

what are some key investigation mistakes?

Significant mistakes which can occur during an investigation include:

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

so, who should investigate?

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

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

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

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

Should an external or internal investigator be appointed?

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

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

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

Risks of an investigation being conducted incorrectly

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

Lesson for employers

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

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

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

Managing Relationships in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anyone who has been following the news recently will be aware that scandalous sexual relationships in the workplace have become something of a common theme. 

The stories of Seven West Chief Executive, Tim Worner and his former executive assistant (a relationship which ended in legal action), the forced resignations of senior AFL executives over their relationships with younger staff, and the notorious pregnancy of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's staffer have all been highly publicised. 

The ironic fallout of Mr Joyce's relationship is the so-called "bonk ban", instituted by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That ban is intended to prevent all relationships between ministers and their staff, and presumably avoid another scenario such as Mr Joyce's extra-martial affair. 

But is this something which employers can actually impose? Particularly in circumstances where many romantic relationships are forged in the workplace?

can employer prohibit relationships in the workplace?

Although it is virtually unheard of for blanket bans on all relationships to be imposed in any workplace, it is not uncommon for disclosure policies to be introduced. 

The intention of such policies is to require staff members to disclose sexual relationships which could result in a conflict of interest, for example when the relationship is between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Such a code of conduct is designed to manage situations where the interests of the business may be in direct conflict with the romantic or personal interests of the employees. 

Actual conflicts of interest vs perceived conflict of interest

Arguably any relationship in the workplace - not necessarily even a romantic one - could lead to a conflict, particularly when the relationship falls apart or ends badly. This can result in staff feeling unable to work together or believing that they are being victimised by their former lover or friend. 

However, it is important to understand the difference between an actual conflict, and a perceived conflict. 

The Fair Work Commission's decision of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation [2015] FWC 2087 illustrates the difference. In this case, a Westpac bank manager was dismissed from his role due to his conduct arising out of his relationship with one of the bank's employees. 

According to Westpac, Mr Mihalopoulos was dismissed because he was dishonest about his relationship with the worker, breached an apprehended violence order imposed by the worker (after the relationship ended) and inappropriately discussed details of their relationship with his subordinates. 

During the course of the hearing, Mr Mihalopoulos admitted that he had put forward his lover for promotions while they were in a relationship, despite denying their relationship to superiors. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined that employers were entitled to expect that their workers were honest about the nature of relationships that had formed, so that any conflicts of interest arising from these relationships could be managed. 

Further, Mr Mihalopoulos' ongoing and repeated dishonesty about the circumstances of his relationship meant that the business was not in a position to appropriately manage conflicts and therefore manage its own risk. Accordingly, Mr Mihalopoulos' unfair termination application was ultimately dismissed. 

How can relationships be managed in the workplace?

In order to manage the minefield of personal relationships in the workplace, Human Resources departments should ensure that both conflict of interest and disclosure policies are in place, which employees should sign up to as part of their terms of employment. 

Once a disclosure has been made, the conflict of interest policy should provide steps to be taken to minimise ongoing risks to the business. For example, staff might be reassigned to different supervisors to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action can still be taken. 

It is critical not only that these policies exist but that they are clearly communicated to all staff, and that staff are made aware of the potential consequences of failing to adhere to these policies, including redeployment or dismissal. 

If you need assistance in managing workplace relationships at your organisation, contact us. Our team can help formulate policies around disclosure and conflict of interest, and can investigate allegations of misconduct.