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.

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

Identifying a Toxic Worker

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Getting the mix of personalities in the workplace right can be extremely challenging. 

Creating a harmonious workplace is difficult at the best of times, and if a toxic personality is thrown into the equation, it can disturb the equilibrium of the workplace. 

Let's take a look at how you can identify and deal with a toxic worker in your organisation. 

what are the traits of a toxic worker?

Essentially, a toxic employee is one who puts their own needs above those of their co-workers, and negatively influences those around them. 

There is no central factor that necessarily determines whether somebody is a toxic worker. But according to a paper published by Harvard Business School, 'key' toxic personality traits include: 

  • Strong adherence to rules, causing inflexibility; 
  • Emphasis on achieving a greater output than other workers, leading to rivalry and friction;
  • Worse qualitative output of work compared with other colleagues; 
  • Overrated understanding of their own skills;
  • Self-centredness and a lack of self-awareness regarding their impact on others. 

 The paper also identified a number of other potential signs of a toxic personality:

  • Perfectionism - those who are hyper-sensitive to criticism; 
  • Emotionally over reactive "drama queens";
  • Sociopathic, remorseless behaviour;
  • Paranoia and a failure to trust others;
  • Gossiping and manipulating;
  • Passive aggression

impact of toxic personalities in the workplace

Having a worker with a combination of these personality traits can lead to significant issues for an organisation, including a loss of clients, worsening reputation, poor morale or all the above. 

Toxic workers can cause an increase in bullying and harassment complaints being received and unsafe work practices, which may result in physical or mental harm to other employees. 

This type of employee can also be "contagious". An unhappy or unpleasant co-worker can spark dissatisfaction amongst employees, and result in high staff turnover. 

sO can you avoid a toxic worker?

It can be extremely difficult to recognise some of these personality traits in an interview process. 

For this reason, it's important for human resources teams to not only have training in how to identify toxic staff, but also in how to deal with their performance if they have been hired. The emphasis during reasonable performance management steps need to focus not only on the employee's output, but also on the conduct issues observed. 

One of the strongest defences against toxic workers is a strong culture that focuses on employee wellbeing, openness and transparency and the avoidance of competition between staff. 

Conducting regular staff surveys and business "health checks" by touching base with your workers, finding out what motivates them and ensuring that they are satisfied in their relationships with co-workers can also keep your organisation protected from the influences of toxic employees. 

how wise can help

One solution to spotting a problem in your workplace is a cultural survey. If your organisation has a concern about a toxic worker, or staff are making complaints, we recommend conducting one of these surveys. If you would like assistance with this, contact WISE today!  

Why Forced Mediations are Doomed to Fail

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Mediation can offer effective resolution of workplace disputes. It's a fair process that allows parties to be heard and encourages them to find a resolution both sides are satisfied with. 

Mediation should only be used when parties are willing to discuss their differences. In the case of a bullying complaint, an investigation is required in the first instance, to determine whether there is an active grievance or complaint afoot, causing one of the parties to feel unsafe in the workplace. 

Forcing an unwilling employee to the mediation table can lead to resentment and even legal action. 

How does mediation work?

In mediation, a third party facilitates an open discussion between two parties to help settle a dispute rather than going to court. Both sides are encouraged to reach an acceptable compromise. For employers, the idea is to resolve a dispute quickly and economically. 

while there are pros and cons for mediation, one positive is that a verdict is never 'handed down' but rather, the parties come to the decision together. It's an empowering process, giving the parties input into the outcome. 

The advantage of mediation is that disputes can be reexamined and reframed in order to find the appropriate solution. It's a flexible process that can be tailored to the needs of the players involved. 

A key aspect though, is that all parties need to act in good faith, and be open to discussion and negotiation. If mediation is forced upon an employee, they are likely to feel that the process isn't fair, leading to resentment, a difficult negotiation and disagreement with the outcome. 

Can an employer compel an employee to attend mediation?

While an employer can enforce mediation, and take disciplinary action if an employee fails to attend, there must be grounds to do so, and these grounds must be established. Without grounds, an employer may be left open to a claim of adverse action or victimisation. 

It's important in these situations, however, to carefully consider the reasons why the employee may not wish to be part of mediation. For example, they may fear a power imbalance or bias against them or may feel unsafe in their workplace, due to a bullying complaint which has not been addressed. 

Outlining the process: the role of the mediator

A mediator is appointed to facilitate the process. The mediator does not provide legal advice, nor do they offer legal counsel. A neutral third party, the mediator's role is not to make a decision, but to encourage the parties to come to their own, mutually agreed-upon resolution. 

In most cases, the mediator will make an opening statement and then give each party the opportunity to do the same. During this time, each party will share why they have agreed to the mediation and what they would like to achieve from it. This is not the time to air grievances. 

Just as a meeting is kept on track with an agenda, it's best to have a mediation meeting framework in place to ensure all steps are taken care of and all issues are dealt with accordingly. The agenda should be clearly spelt out and followed. The mediator will help determine what should and shouldn't be discussed and it's the mediator's role to keep the discussion on track. 

During the mediation, private sessions may also be helpful so parties can refresh and refuel. The mediator will meet with the individual parties one at a time to discuss how they are feeling. This process may be repeated if necessary. 

Once each agenda item has been addressed and discussed, a decision will be mutually agreed upon. The mediator will review, finalise and capture the agreement in writing. 

Approaching mediation

Asking an employee to mediate their grievance is a reasonable request - after all, restoring the peace between employees is important for business, and ensuring employees relations are happy and healthy is paramount. 

However, mediation will only work if the parties truly want to mediate. This means they want to come to an agreement together, and there's no possible reason why one party may be afraid or uncomfortable during the process. 

Forced mediation is not likely to be effective, as it is one-sided. 

When expert assistance is required

If the parties cannot find agreement on all agenda items, or there are behavioural concerns, it may be necessary to explore possible resolution options with an experienced external workplace mediator. 

If you need some support in how to conduct a mediation, need to engage a mediator, or would like to resolve a workplace conflict, contact WISE