To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

For many employees, one of the most difficult aspects of navigating the modern workplace is deciding whether to disclose a mental health issue.

Not every employee is required to be open about their condition, and there is often a fear of the potential consequences for their career if they are. 

We take a look at when an employee is obligated to disclose, what employers must do, and the pros and cons of disclosure. 

what does the law say about the employee's responsibility? 

When dealing with mental illness in the workplace, employees are not required to share details of their condition with employers unless there are legitimate concerns that it may affect their ability to perform their role properly. 

For example, employees who operate heavy machinery but are struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction or are reliant on certain types of medication should advise their employers, so that they do not risk their safety or that of their colleagues. 

Failing to share this information could mean that the employee is in breach of their obligations under Work Health and Safety legislation.

what must employers do?

Commonwealth legislation determines that it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees for a variety of reasons, including discrimination on the basis of a mental health condition. 

According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), employers cannot act in a discriminatory fashion towards employees based on past or future conditions, temporary or permanent conditions, or actual or imputed disabilities. 

Types of discrimination which employees with mental health conditions may face include:

  • Direct discrimination, for instance when a candidate is not hired or an employee is disciplined inappropriately because of their mental health. 
  • Indirect discrimination, for example requiring all employees to eat lunch in the staff lunchroom - which for instance might cause difficulties for employees with anxiety. 

Choosing not to make adjustments for an employee who is struggling with their mental health is a form of discrimination. 

There are also obligations on employers around disclosing an employee's mental health status to others in the organisation. All employment relationships include an inherent requirement of confidentiality, which means that employers are prevented from discussing or disseminating information about their employees' mental health. 

Exceptions can be made in circumstances where the information must be shared in order to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of the employee or as required by law.

pros and cons of disclosure

Workers who don't have an obligation to disclose often struggle with the pros and cons of sharing this information with their employers and co-workers. 

A clear advantage of disclosing this information is that colleagues are aware of the circumstances under which the employee is operating and can provide a level of social support. Managers who know that a team member is struggling with mental health issues may well be more sympathetic, and can assist by providing more flexible working arrangements, lessening workloads in times of crisis, or otherwise ensuring that the workplace is generally accommodating of the employee's needs. 

Further, ill-founded rumours or gossip may be avoided by an employee being open about the difficulties they are facing and could help de-stigmatise mental health issues in the workplace. 

Disadvantages include sharing very private information with colleagues, which may be disseminated to other people in the organisation and have the potential to result in harassment or discrimination. This may be particularly relevant in circumstances where the mental health condition is temporary or does not affect the ability of the employee to perform their duties adequately.

mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Employees can contribute to good mental health at work by:

  • Taking care of themselves
  • Avoiding known triggers
  • Participating in exercise
  • Taking regular breaks during the work day
  • Staying up to date with any medication 
  • Relying on a support network (both inside and outside work)
  • Avoiding external influences like excessive alcohol or drugs. 

If you would like more information on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE Workplace can also assist employers with drafting and implementing policies relating to mental health disclosure.  

Fighting Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 11, 2018


At any given time, there are multiple generations operating in the workforce: new starters, more established professionals and those heading towards retirement.

While this can create a diverse positive workplace, where a range of different experiences, attitudes and learnings can be shared, it also creates a possible environment for age discrimination.

Age discrimination can occur at all stages of employment, including recruitment, the general office experience, in workplace terms and conditions and at dismissal.

What is age discRimination? 

It is against the law to discriminate against anybody in the workplace because of their actual or assumed age.

There are two main categories of age discrimination:

  • Direct age discrimination. This applies if somebody facing a disadvantage or an advantage in the workplace exclusively because of their age. For example, if an older person is overlooked for promotion because it is assumed that they are not as comfortable with technology as a younger person, this would be direct age discrimination.
  • Indirect age discrimination. This is more difficult to identify and generally applies in circumstances where there is an ostensibly fair policy in place for all staff, which nonetheless is likely to affect staff of different ages in different ways. An example could be an employee being selected for redundancy simply because they are thought to be closer to retirement age and less likely to be affected by the redundancy.

Not Just a problem for older workerS

Although many people assume that only older workers are discriminated against, workers of all ages can become victims of age discrimination.

Examples include:

  • Young workers may be discriminated against due to:
      • Their relative inexperience in a role.
      • A perceived belief that they take their job less seriously, which may lead to them being overlooked for promotion.
      • A failure to receive increases in remuneration because co-workers who are older and have families are considered to be in greater "need" of increased pay.
  • Middle aged workers may experience discrimination arising from:
      • A perception that they lack the seniority and experience of older workers but don't have the "fresh ideas" of young staff.
      • Company events being held at times when staff with young families may struggle to attend.
  • Older workers may experience age discrimination due to:
      • A perception that they do not understand or cannot keep up with new technologies.
      • Their ideas being dismissed as being "outdated" or "old fashioned".

Legislation governing age discrimination

The applicable Australian legislation is the Age Discrimination Act 2004, which ensures discrimination is against the law, including in employment, accommodation, service provision or education.

However, it is important to remember that in certain circumstances it is lawful and may even be appropriate to treat people of different ages differently. These include:

  • When required to do so by state or Commonwealth law (for example, superannuation funds not being permitted to release money until members have reached a certain age).
  • Complying with certain health and employment programs.
  • Paying staff in accordance with youth agreements and awards.

Similarly, if somebody's age prevents them from performing the inherent requirements of the job they have applied for, it is not discrimination to refuse that employment. For example, if somebody under the age of 18 applies for a job in a bar then it is obviously not discrimination to refuse them employment.

What to do if you're experiencing age discrimination

As an employee, if you feel that you are experiencing age discrimination, you can either elect to take up any complaint internally (through the organisation's usual complaints procedures) or by making a written complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Once received, the complaint can be investigated, and attempts made to resolve it via conciliation.

Alternatively, a final option could be to pursue a complaint through the Federal Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court.

What can workplaces do to help prevent age discrimination

Having strong policies in place to ensure that all staff are treated equally regardless of their age is one of the key factors in preventing age discrimination.

Providing equal access to training opportunities for all employees and offering flexibility around hours regardless of life stage can also help fight discrimination.

If you need help with age discrimination workplace policies and procedures, or if you have a question about age discrimination that you'd like to discuss, contact WISE today for support and guidance.

Managing Complaints - How To Find The Positive

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When an employee complaint alleging workplace discrimination or harassment is lodged, it is usually seen as a negative moment in the life of the organisation.

However, it is possible for an employer to view this as a positive phenomenon, rather than a sign of complete failure. This is because well-handled complaints can illuminate hidden corporate weaknesses, as well as any lurking issues affecting staff morale or motivation. Such information can become a valuable catalyst for positive change across the broader business - a win-win for internal and external stakeholders alike.

Best-practice in complaints handling is dependent upon a structured complaints process that includes two key ingredients: the quality of investigation process and the structure of the complaints process itself.

1. A thorough high-quality workplace investigation is an essential tool in the management of internal complaints, including allegations of discrimination and harassment.

2. The structural framework of internal complaints policies and procedures will necessarily be clear, accessible and well-publicised. A well-managed complaint can be a good news story not only for the people involved, but for the broader success of the business.

INVESTIGATING DISCRIMINATION AND HARASSMENT 

When an employee complains that they have been the subject of discrimination or harassment, it is highly likely that there will be differing opinions and perspectives as to whether or not this is actually the case.

As a result, best-practice workplace investigation requires fair, open and even-handed treatment of all who are involved in the investigative process. Further, it is important for investigators to move at a reasonable and logical pace, first making preliminary enquiries before deciding on any next steps.

But what does a good investigation mean on the ground? One key concept is procedural fairness. This means that parties involved are equally able to access the process, to be heard in a substantive way and to be given a fair opportunity to understand and respond adequately to any claims made against them. Under procedural fairness parties have the right to an impartial decision-maker and to having a support person present during their interview. Professional investigators must be seen to be unbiased in every phase of the workplace investigation.

Added to this, a high-quality workplace investigation will ensure that all relevant and reliable evidence has been carefully obtained, anaylsed and included appropriately in the final report. There can be no room for short cuts or preferential treatment in workplace investigations.       

Robust complaints policies and procedures

Employers, investigators, complainants and witnesses alike should ideally all have access to a durable set of internal policies and procedures covering common areas of complaint.

A strong policy document detailing how and to whom to make a complaint should be accessible, user-friendly and up-to-date. The policy should also direct the reader to one or more procedures that need to be followed in the event that an alleged instance of harassment or discrimination has occurred. This is often a time of great stress, and instructions to complainants should be clear and helpful.

Internal policies and procedures that are complicated, badly written or tucked away in a dusty filing cabinet are of little-to-no assistance to the individual seeking to make a complaint.

This is why good investigations and good complaints policies go hand-in-hand: even the best investigator will struggle to keep things fair if complaints policies are convoluted or absent, or if procedures leading up to the investigation are sub-optimal.

Perhaps most importantly, managers and employees should be trained in practically accessing and using these documents, at all stages being assured that complaints are taken seriously and are indeed welcomed by the organisation.

Step by step pathways

A sound complaints process begins with employees first being made aware of a useable and fair pathway for their grievance. A good internal complaints system will work step-by-step through a logical process. This means initially providing clear and succinct information on the nature of common complaints, some definitions where appropriate, the bigger picture of the complaints process and - perhaps most importantly - who to speak with in the first instance about the particular concern.

An internal complaint is a golden opportunity for employers to gain important information about people and workplaces. For this reason, the internal complaints system should be presented in a simple, cordial and helpful format.

Problems arise every day that require the existence of an effective complaints and investigations pathway. Thankfully many complaints can be quickly and easily resolved. However, if you need to undertake investigations or a review of your HR policies, and want to ensure you are conducting it with best practice, our training is developed by investigators for investigators. Contact WISE today to find out more.

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

How to Improve Workplace Harmony

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Maintaining workplace harmony should be a key focus of every organisation. Conflict in the workplace can lead to behaviours such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. Staff can lack motivation, fail to work as a team and be generally unhappy. 

So how can employers and staff deal with conflict, and encourage staff to work together to promote harmony in the workplace? 

Common causes of workplace conflict

Organisational or operational changes can cause employees stress and discomfort. These can include changes in management, procedures, duties or position descriptions, redundancies, staff changes and particularly a restructure. The increased stress and pressure on employees may be reflected by an increase in complaints received in the workplace.

The following factors also increase the likelihood of disharmony in the office environment.

  • A lack of communication, whether between co-workers or between management and staff;
  • A failure to share a vision, or a misunderstanding of what the business' goals or team's core focus is;
  • Mistrust or suspicion;
  • Insufficient leadership - or at the other extreme, micromanagement. 

how to prevent DISHARMONY turning the workplace toxic

It is important for employers to tackle any potential cultural issues straightaway - if tensions are left to fester, small, easily solved problems are likely to become much harder to deal with. 

Tips to avoid conflict and disharmony include:

  • Clearly communicating a zero tolerance attitude towards bullying, victimisation, discrimination and other negative behaviours;
  • Introducing clear workplace policies setting out expected standards of behaviour from all employees, and ensuring that these are well-communicated, easily accessible and complied with by everybody in the organisation, including senior management;
  •  Applying change management principles to any necessary changes to operational, procedural or structural matters;
  • Encouraging 'buy-in' from employees by creating common goals for all staff in the organisation. This should motivate everybody to work together;
  • Making your organisation a great place to work and an employer of choice - in particular by encouraging staff to have a healthy work-life balance;
  • Holding employees accountable for their work and rewarding them appropriately for good performance;
  • Training managers in conflict resolution, so they can step in early and deal with issues;
  • Hiring new staff based on their cultural fit and their compatibility with organisational values. 

Employees also have a role to play in creating workplace harmony, by doing their jobs to the best of their ability, showing commitment to their work, raising issues when they arise and adhering to workplace policies and procedures.  

what is the role of mediation?

When conflicts do arise, mediation can be an extremely useful tool. It can facilitate a discussion between employees who are in disagreement and find common ground or a compromise to deal with ongoing issues. 

However, mediation should not be used as a band-aid measure to try and resolve ongoing conflicts or when an active grievance is afoot. In this case, prevention by creating a harmonious workplace culture is truly the best cure.

when is an investigation required?

In some cases, workplace conflict and disharmony cannot be dealt with by a mediation process and an investigation is required in the first instance. 

This is particularly appropriate in circumstances where one party has been accused of misconduct or inappropriate behaviour, and the accused is hoping to clear their name. Similarly, if a workplace policy has been breached and there are potential legal or industrial ramifications, an employer is obliged to conduct a thorough investigation. 

Conflict management and workplace mediation can help avoid the disruption and disharmony which workplace conflicts can produce. Should your workplace require assistance in managing workplace disharmony, WISE Workplace provides mediation services and investigation services. Contact us today for an obligation-free discussion and cost estimate.  

Navigating the Choppy Waters of Mental Illness at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Mental Illness is highly prevalent in our society - 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 20% will suffer from mental health issues during any given year. 

Given these statistics, employers will likely deal with at least a few employees who have mental health issues annually. 

So, what is expected of an employer in this situation? 

understanding mental illness

The first step is to understand that there are many types of mental illness. Depression and anxiety are very common, and fall into the category of mood disorders. Other types of mental illness include personality disorders or psychotic disorders, amongst others. 

Generally speaking, a person getting appropriate treatment for a mental illness can be an active contributor in the workforce and the community, and the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness do not pose any risk to others. 

A mental illness may develop separately from the workplace, for example due to issues stemming from the sufferer's personal life. However, the average employee loses 3.2 work days per year due to the impact of dealing with workplace stress - so it is clear that the workplace can be a significant contributing factor in mental health issues. 

managing the contributing factors at work

An employer has a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is safe and healthy for employees. Employers need to identify workplace practices or actions which could cause or contribute to mental illness, and eliminate or significantly reduce the risks associated with these. 

This includes preventing bullying or harassing behaviours, ensuring that managerial staff are trained in properly dealing with performance management and with staff who are experiencing mental health issues, and even limiting situations where excessive alcohol use may be encouraged.

supporting workers who disclose a mental illness

Employers should take steps to ensure that those workers who are suffering with their mental health have access to appropriate resources, including flexibility to attend medical appointments, ease in accessing days off when necessary, and perhaps in-house counselling sessions or a mentoring program. 

When dealing with an employee who has reported their mental illness, employers should be prepared to ask questions such as: 

  • How can we help?
  • How can we make you feel more supported?
  • What are your triggers and how can we manage these in the workplace?
  • Are you coping, and if not, what strategies can we implement to help you stay on top of things?

From a legal perspective, an employer is also required to ensure that workers are not discriminated against or subjected to any adverse action because of their mental health status.

what happens if a worker doesn't disclose? 

In developing a strategy for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, employers should consider how they can encourage workers to be comfortable in disclosing their status. This will require members of the HR team to be equipped with the skills to ask the right questions. 

Employers can also inform staff who they suspect may be struggling with their mental health about an option to seek confidential support for an Employer Assistance Program or external professional advisor.

In circumstances where an employer is concerned about a worker who is displaying symptoms of mental illness but has not disclosed any conditions, the supervisor should be appropriately trained and prepared to open a dialogue with the employee. 

Alternatively, an employer could monitor data such as employee workload, unexplained absences or lack of productivity, and seek the employee's consent to obtain medical information. Armed with this information, an employer can create a flexible environment within which each worker can be encouraged to perform at their best. 

protecting all employees

It is incumbent on employers to remember that they must balance the potential risks to all of their employees. 

Although they cannot discuss an employee's mental health status, if the employer is genuinely concerned about the potential impact on colleagues or the business itself, appropriate steps can be taken to performance manage or otherwise discipline the employee. 

However, in taking such action, it is crucial for an employer to ensure that it is poor performance or risky behaviour which is managed or disciplined, and that the worker concerned is not discriminated against on the grounds of their mental health status. 

Employers should also consider developing a mental health policy. This document can be used to demonstrate that all staff are entitled to confidential support free from discrimination, harassment or bullying, regardless of their mental health status. 

It can also be used to demonstrate that staff who are acting inappropriately in the workplace cannot simply rely on their mental illness as an excuse to endanger themselves or others on an ongoing basis. 

Key issues which should be address in the policy include: 

  • Access to confidential support and consultation for all staff
  •  Anti-harassment and bullying protocols
  • Policies and procedures relating to reasonable adjustments which may be required to assist staff with a mental illness
  • Identification of risks in the workplace and strategies for minimising the potential impact on staff if they are exposed to those risks (such as a death, or trauma in the workplace)

How can we help

Navigating your way to a mentally healthy workplace isn't easy. If you'd like assistance in encouraging a supportive work environment in your organisation, including drafting mental health and anti-bullying policies and creating appropriate performance management programs, contact us

Crossing the Line: Flirting vs Sexual Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The recent media attention on sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a turning point; what may have been considered 'innocent flirting' in the 70s and 80s is increasingly being called what it is - unwanted harassment. The public condemnation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein's conduct has emboldened people to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against other celebrities, in what some have described as the 'Weinstein ripple effect'. 

There has been a significant shift in recent years in the way the criminal justice system conceptualises consent, and this has likewise affected the perception of harassment. 

Although the Hollywood allegations are of a serious nature, with some amounting to sexual assault and rape, they have also cast the spotlight on work relationships in journalism, entertainment, politics and the everyday workplace -'the office'. The question arises: what constitutes sexual harassment in 2017?

legal definition of sexual harassment in australia

Although many assume that sexual harassment must occur between a man and a woman, in Australia this is not the case - it can take place between persons identifying with any sex or any gender. 

According to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), 'sexual harassment' includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other conduct of a sexual nature - the key element being that the behaviour is not welcomed by the recipient. 

The conduct needs to be assessed from the viewpoint of a reasonable person and whether the reasonable person would consider, in all the circumstances, that the recipient might be 'offended, humiliated or intimidated' by it. 

Even more seriously, sexual assault includes a person being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will and without their consent. If the victim is a child, it's sexual assault regardless of any apparent consent. 

In cases where sexual assault is alleged in the workplace, the complainant needs to be advised that they can make a complaint to the Police. 

Should the conduct involve a minor, it may constitute 'reportable conduct' - which is required to be reported in accordance with the relevant state legislation, as well as to the Police. 

SO, is it flirting - or harassment?

Many interpersonal interactions between employees are, particularly in their early stages, subtler and more ambiguous than clear examples of harassment. Smiles, winks, compliments, sexual innuendo and humour, suggestive glances, or even a touch on the arm or shoulder could be seen by some as innocent flirting - but perceived by others as harassment. Recipients of such behaviour may wonder whether these comments and behaviours are friendly or sinister in nature, intentional or accidental, a one-time event or likely to persist. 

When determining whether behaviour might be sexual harassment, it can be made clearer by answering some important questions, such as: 

  • Does the recipient seem uncomfortable or fail to respond to comments or discussions?
  • Is one person involved in the conversation in a position of authority?
  • Could the person making the overtures impose real professional consequences on the recipient if they were turned down?

the role of touching in sexual harassment

It is clear that engaging in unwanted touching is an even more serious offence than making offensive or inappropriate comments or suggestions. For this reason, many employers consider it prudent to ban physical contact in the workplace beyond simple handshakes. Of course, this can also have an impact on how friendly the workplace is perceived as being, so depending on your workplace, it may be more appropriate to closely monitor physical interaction rather than ban it outright. Generally speaking, however, those in positions of power such as managers or supervisors should avoid physical contact where possible. 

the role of power and status

Interestingly, studies have revealed that some men in positions of power find their roles inextricably linked to sex - meaning that they struggle to differentiate between women (or other men, if that lines up with their sexual orientation) who are sexually responsive, or who are simply being friendly. For many reasons, not least to protect a business against potential claims of harassment, employers must do their best to minimise the potential for any inappropriate conduct to occur between managers and supervisors and staff. 

So what should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure that they are safe and protected while at work. Employers must have clear policies in place on what types of behaviour are considered to be sexual harassment, and how complaints can be made. Policies should be well communicated to all staff, and staff should be educated on what is expected of them regarding behaviour in the workplace. 

In order to protect your business and staff against flirting going too far and turning into sexual harassment, contact WISE Workplace today for expert assistance with workplace investigations, anti-sexual harassment training and assistance with reviewing or drafting your policies.  

Bullying in High Stress Workplaces: Can an Investigation Help?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A disproportionately high number of allegations of bullying in emergency services and other high stress environments have led to a referral to the NSW parliament for an inquiry in May 2017, looking at the policy response to bullying, harassment, and discrimination in certain emergency services. A review is also being conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission of allegations of bullying and harassment into the MFB and CFA. 

The very nature of the tasks undertaken in these workplaces understandably provokes a variety of extreme responses in both senior and lower-level staff. A combination of observed trauma, time-critical demands and associated spikes in adrenaline for individual professionals can lead to tense communication and decision-making.

It is essential that Human Resource (HR) managers take an objective approach towards all issues raised by the parties when allegations of bullying in emergency services arise. 

In many cases, a well-planned workplace investigation will mark the difference between costly repercussions and an efficient resolution of issues within these high stress environments. 

Alarming workplace reports

Incidents of workplace bullying are on rise across Australian emergency contexts. A 2017 report on emergency departments highlighted the deplorable extent of workplace bullying reported amongst emergency doctors. Shaming, verbal abuse and sexual harassment were just some of the parlous behaviours reported by 1/3 of survey participants.

Similarly, NSW has announced that the extent of workplace bullying within emergency services now requires a dedicated investigation. There are indications that the hierarchical nature of these services leads to the depersonalised treatment of personnel involved. 

Submissions for the NSW Parliament inquiry closed in July, with hearings scheduled for September - October 2017. During the inquiry, police, ambulance and fire services will each be scrutinised in relation to allegations of bullying and the troubling aftershocks that can accompany such incidents. 

Workplace bullying and hr responses

The importance of HR departments in recognising and dealing promptly with allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services cannot be overstated. 

As part of this focus, it is essential that any workplace investigation into alleged bullying be carried out in a professional and objective manner. Moreover, important decisions need to be made about an organisation's capacity to conduct an investigation that complies with the demands of procedural fairness. 

In some matters that are likely to prove particularly complex or sensitive it might be preferable to source the expertise of a trained workplace investigator. 

If HR managers can find prompt and accurate answers to these questions, any future costs of workplace disputes are likely to be mitigated. 

THE good and the bad of workplace investigations

Unfortunately, even a workplace investigation, if carried out without careful preparation and execution can be entirely unproductive - or even a costly blow to the organisation. At times, employers can underestimate their own lack of objectivity during investigations of workplace bullying. Unlike many workplace procedures, knowing the people involved can actually prove a hindrance to workplace investigations. The ability to see things in a truly fresh and clear manner is crucial to investigations; and sometimes hard to muster if preconceptions exist. 

Some employers are fortunate enough to have within their ranks staff that are fully trained in the nuances of workplace bullying allegations and the right way to conduct workplace investigations. When carried out correctly, an in-house investigation can do all that is necessary to produce a fair and accurate investigation report. 

Yet if any doubt remains about the potential bias, pre-judgement or lack of resources within the organisation, then an external workplace investigation will pay dividends. If an investigation has fatal flaws that are later picked up in official proceedings, then employers will find themselves in an unenviable position.  

investigation woes: a case in point

In a recent Federal Court matter, Justice North made a piercing analysis of the deficiencies in one organisation's methods of investigation. Victoria's Royal Women's Hospital conducted a workplace investigation into the alleged contribution made by a neonatologist to the deaths of two infants. His Honour explained that the deficiencies within the investigation report were significant. Vague allegations against the worker and the lack of specifics concerning event, time and place led to a report that was devilled by 'apparent holes' as well as 'pollution' from fraught relationships. 

The case highlights the importance of gaining true objectivity from the situation whenever a workplace investigation is undertaken.

Care at every turn

Employers understand that when allegations of workplace bullying arise it becomes essential to keep the elements of procedural fairness front-and-centre. HR and senior management must make fast and accurate decisions about how and when to activate a workplace investigation. 

Considering the disproportionately high number of allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services, it is hoped that good decisions are made around the best way to investigate these troubling situations. 

Should you or your organisation be seeking clarity on the best way to conduct a workplace investigation, please get in touch with us.