Workplace Bullying: Observations from Our Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Like schoolyard bullying, workplace bullying is far from a new phenomenon. When people who may not have much in common outside work are thrust together on a daily basis, there are bound to be disputes, friction and potentially even outright hostility. 

Of course, any serious matters need to be dealt with by conducting a thorough workplace investigation. Recently, our investigators have noticed a number of trends in workplace bullying during the course of their work. 

We are seeing more bullying in the not-for-profit sector, a rise in false or malignant allegations of bullying, and increasing use of workers' compensation claims during the investigation process. 

increase in bullying allegations in the non-profit sector

There have perhaps been less instances of workplace bullying in the non-profit sector than in the more cutthroat 'for profit' world. However, investigators are noticing that these organisations seem to be experiencing an upturn in bullying allegations. 

This might be because many boards have recognised that, despite their non-profit nature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain a viable entity without a certain degree of commercial acumen. This often results in the hiring of personnel from more traditional commercial roles, which in turn flows through to a change of management style and a shake-up of the way things have always been done.

Existing staff may perceive these types of changes as 'bullying'. It is therefore important that any measures taken by the organisation, such as performance management or disciplinary proceedings can be demonstrated to be 'reasonable management action'. 

false allegations of bullying

False complaints of bullying also seem to be on the rise. A classic example here could be a situation where a team member has been advised by their manager that they are being informally performance managed and can shortly expect a formal process to commence. That team member may attempt to avoid the - appropriate - disciplinary action by claiming that they are being bullied by the manager. 

In other cases, the bullied may turn out to be the bully - making allegations as a defence against potential complaints.      

worker's compensation

Another trend observed by WISE investigators involves staff who are being investigated for their conduct claiming workers' compensation, perhaps for stress leave or mental health issues arising from workplace bullying or harassment. 

Although there are certainly instances of legitimate workers' compensation claims in these circumstances, it can also be a way for employees to maintain their income and ensure their continued employment while an investigation takes place. 

This is because, regardless of the outcome of any investigation into the employee's conduct and any determination made as a result, no disciplinary action can be taken until the lengthy workers' compensation process is complete. 

This can be frustrating for employers, who are hamstrung in their ability to follow through on reasonable and necessary management actions as a result of staff who may be attempting to circumvent the system and avoid termination.

WISE has been a national provider of workplace investigation services for over 29 years and has assisted countless organisations through the formal processes. Our highly skilled team has the experience to help organisations navigate the challenging issue of investigating workplace misconduct and internal grievances. We are experienced with dealing with all types of misconduct, including bullying and harassment claims, providing our clients a level of comfort that the process can be relied upon to ensure it is procedurally fair, and false allegations or delay tactics are identified quickly and the matter resolved.             

Why Counter Allegations Must Be Investigated

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

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

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

the difficulty this causes for investigators

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

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

the danger of not investigating counter complaints 

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

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

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

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

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

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

what are the key lessons?

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

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

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

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

Is Briginshaw Still the Best Way of Solving the Puzzle?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As any HR manager will testify, conducting workplace investigations is one of the most important but vexed aspects of ensuring that an organisation runs smoothly. 

This is particularly the case when the various parties involved in an investigation are putting forward different versions of events - who do you know who to believe? For many years, workplace investigators have employed the Briginshaw test. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1930) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the proposition that if a finding, on the balance of probabilities, is likely to produce grave consequences the evidence should be of high probative value.

But how is this test applied to resolve disputes and make findings in workplace enquiries?

what is it?

The Briginshaw test refers to the civil standard of proof employed in the legal system, specifically in the 1938 divorce case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw. A 'standard of proof' refers to the evidence required by a court or, in the workplace context, an employer or investigator, to make a determination as to the likely truth or otherwise of allegations. 

Although the criminal burden of proof requires evidence to support a finding of 'beyond reasonable doubt', the civil standard only requires an assessment on the balance of probabilities - that is, whether it is more likely than not that one version of events occurred rather than another. 

In Briginshaw, the High Court warned that making a decision on the balance of probabilities does not require a purely mathematical 'weighing up' of the likelihood of one version of events being true over another. Instead, the decision in Briginshaw supports a conclusion that sufficient evidence has been provided if "the affirmative of an allegation is made out to the reasonable satisfaction of the tribunal". In the workplace context, the tribunal determining the matter is the investigator. 

CASE STUDY - SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN CITY HALL

In workplace investigations, individuals are required to respond to allegations, as was the case with the (now former) Lord Mayor of Melbourne. In late 2017, Robert Doyle was accused of having sexually harassed two female councillors by inappropriately touching them. 

In March 2018, an investigation conducted by a Queen's Counsel was finalised, although Mr Doyle had already resigned by this time. Given the seriousness of the allegations and the potential consequences, the investigation relied on the Briginshaw test, and applied a standard whereby the investigator was 'reasonably satisfied' that the specific allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct related to Mr Doyle in his role as Lord Mayor. 

In Mr Doyle's case, the investigators accordingly based their determination on being "satisfied to a level which goes beyond the mere likelihood that something happened" that the allegations could be substantiated. 

The findings included that specific allegations were substantiated. More specifically the investigator made three adverse findings of sexually inappropriate conduct, and a fourth finding that the three matters occurred in the context of the Mayor having consumed substantial amounts of red wine. 

Factors which were taken into account in making this determination, included the likelihood of Mr Doyle having engaged in the behaviour because he had consumed significant amounts of red wine, and his credibility as a witness. The investigation also noted that one of the complainants made contemporaneous complaints and was consistent in her allegations. 

The report stated no findings had been made by a court or tribunal based on the information reported on as part of the investigation, however, if proven the behaviour could constitute sexual harassment within the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and gross misconduct under the Local Government Act 1989.

what can we learn?

One difficulty with applying the Briginshaw test in workplace investigations, is that an investigation does not constitute a judicial process. Accordingly, participants give information on a voluntary basis only. 

This inability to compel testimony or information from witnesses may mean that a determination is made on the balance of probabilities - but without having all information available. Indeed, in the absence of a court or the threat of perjury, there is no real compulsion for accurate information to be given in a workplace investigation. Undue reliance on such information could result in an unjust determination. 

Failure to recognise the difference between a court and the role of an investigator can lead to mistakes, and allegations can be left unsubstantiated in circumstances when they may have occurred. In circumstances where the investigator is inexperienced or does not have access to all required information, it may well result in an inequitable outcome, or a situation where a conclusion is made based on partial information or poor facts. 

When a workplace or employee faces allegations, its important for the investigator to ask the relevant questions, examine documents, and analyse all relevant evidence carefully when making conclusions about what occurred. Making findings using the Briginshaw principle and explaining the reasoning behind the outcomes of the investigation can assist employers in considering what further action needs to be taken in light of the findings. 

It is important for employers and investigators to ensure that findings of workplace investigations will withstand the highest level of scrutiny. A higher level of skill will be required from an investigator when circumstantial or uncorroborated evidence is being considered. 

If you require assistance analysing evidence, or conducting an investigation, contact WISE today!  

Counter Allegations - Who Did What When?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Experienced workplace investigators are well aware that when two or more people are in dispute, there will inevitably be differing perspectives on what 'the truth' might look like. Contentious workplace issues can often play out in a 'he said, she said' fashion, with one allegation being closely followed up by a second person's counter-allegation. Such complications should be dealt with in a fair, considered and methodical way.

Separate allegations made by opposing parties will ideally be dealt with in discrete stages by workplace investigators, with each being handled in accordance with its individual merits. And as evidence comes to light regarding one or more of the competing allegations, investigators should aim to assess and weigh each piece of information with utmost care and objectivity.

When two tribes go to war 

When a counter-allegation is initially made, it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding this development. It does not necessarily mean that the first complainant was misrepresenting events or indeed that the second complainant is somehow defensive, guilty or panicky. It is possible that both the original and the counter complaints are valid.

Let's take an example: perhaps she took his stapler and he wiped her hard-drive. Two complete denials on the same issue can require the workplace investigator to look more closely at the milieu of the counter-allegations. For instance, if two workers in a scuffle both identically calm that "I did nothing - she pushed me", an astute investigator will know that a pointed and methodical approach to the counter-allegations is certainly called for.

In each of these scenarios, both allegations should be investigated and dealt with separately. It can be tempting to create one big file entitled 'Stapler/hard-drive fiasco' or 'Smith and Jones stoush'. Yet clear delineations between people, events and timing will ensure that impartiality and clarity are maintained for the duration of the investigation and that the validity of each complaint is tested.

Seen and unseen allegationS

Very occasionally a workplace investigation involving counter-allegations will be easily settled. For example, the employee might not have been at work on the day that she allegedly stole the stapler - a simple mistake, evidenced by the work roster and now the complaint file can (on that issue at least) be finalised.

If only things were so simple... In most workplace situations, the investigator will need to step carefully through complex evidence attached to each allegation. Some events might be directly witnessed in a cut and dried way; Brown was in the kitchen with Smith and Jones on 7 December 2017 and can confidently say she saw Smith push Jones, who then walked away. Yet in many cases there are no witnesses to wrongdoing in the workplace and the 'he did/she did' scenario must be dealt with. 

Further clarification in many forms becomes the best way to methodically tease out the knots of knowledge. This might take the form of documentary evidence, circumstantial evidence such as presence at a meeting that day, or a contemporaneous report such as an OH&S report involving counter-complainants. A tidy pattern of good circumstantial evidence can at times provide the clarity needed in the face of vehement counter-allegations. The workplace investigator must carefully assess the quality, reliability and utility of such material, being sure not to make assumptions and/or factual errors along the way.

Hearsay - treading lightly on complex terrain

As with all areas of law and investigations, hearsay evidence can provide helpful insights in situations where nothing more concrete is available. Hearsay is generally words or things observed by an individual who was not directly present when an event occurred. In other words, it is a type of indirect evidence. A simple idea, but surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre successfully during investigations.

Great care is needed in these situations, as hearsay evidence is notorious for causing problems later in post-investigation proceedings. Employees may go home and talk openly to their spouse about distressing events. Or they stomp back to their desks, muttering to a colleague about 'the stapler thief'. Yet the spouse or the colleague cannot tell us much about what actually happened. They are a friendly ear - after the alleged event.

Such indirect evidence can be the least helpful in many cases. However, experienced investigators will know how to gather and utilise such material when more direct evidence is difficult to obtain.

Workplace allegations and motivations

It is not unheard of that rather ulterior motives can exist in a workplace allegation. When stories are not gelling, it is natural for the workplace investigator to think - what am I missing? Why would this person make this up? It is important to consider the possibility that rivalries, emotional issues and/or collusion might unfortunately form part of the mix that has motivated an internal complaint. While it does not pay to assume such a phenomenon, investigators should be aware that such dynamics can and do arise in the workplace.

In workplace investigations, we find that it is never simple. If you have an investigation that has 'blown' out, or you are reviewing cross and counter complaints and could use some professional assistance, then contact WISE today.