Putting the 'Reasonable Person' to the Test

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

When determining what led to a certain set of events or making an important decision, it is essential for investigators and decision makers to have regard to an objective standard. 

In trying to get to the bottom of a situation or establishing an appropriate course of action, relying on the 'reasonable person' ensures that a broader perspective is taken. 

We look at exactly what this involves and how it can assist in achieving a fair and balanced outcome.  

What is the reasonable person test?

In Australian law, the reasonable person has been characterised as "the man on the Bondi tram" - an average member of society, who has various generalised attributes including risk aversion, sound judgment and a sense of self-preservation, which prevents them from walking blindly into danger. 

This reasonable person standard can be used to put a situation in context and to ensure that the decision maker does not rely on his own, perhaps limited or skewed, perspective. 

In a workplace investigation, taking the reasonable person test into account will assist an investigator in determining whether a respondent's conduct is reasonable or appropriate in the specific circumstances, and whether the complainant is being reasonable in their response or in feeling affronted or aggrieved.

a practical application of the test

One circumstance in which the reasonable person test was applied was in the Fair Work Commission's judgment in CFMEU v MSS Strategic Medical Pty Ltd; MSS Security Pty Ltd. In that case, the worker objected to the discipline imposed on her in relation to a number of performance issues, including: 

  • Breaching safety procedures by climbing on top of a water tank.
  • Slamming a refrigerator door.
  • Unsafely removing a splinter.
  • Not going home when she was unwell at work.
  • Acting inappropriately during an emergency response debrief.
  • Proving an incorrect response in relation to an eye treatment test.
  • Removing statistical information without authority and lying about it.
  • Being disrespectful to a colleague.  

Applying the reasonable person test, Commissioner Gregory found that the issues complained of were trivial, not worthy of discipline, and most importantly a reasonable person would not have responded with the same level of discipline in the same circumstances.

WHAT can we learn from this?

The reasonable person test has significant utility in the workplace context and it is important to remember that its application differs depending on the circumstances. 

For example, the response of a 'reasonable person' in a Chief Surgeon's position to any given situation is likely to differ substantially to that of an Assistant in Nursing. The question is: What would a reasonable Chief Surgeon in those circumstances have done? 

Similarly, higher standards of reasonable behaviour must necessarily be applied to those in more senior roles or with greater levels of responsibility. 

obtaining assistance with investigations 

When allegations of misconduct arise, the possibilities for distress to workers are extensive. 

If you are conducting an investigation, are unsure of what standard to apply, and are hoping to avoid a costly mistake, contact WISE today. We can conduct a full investigation or alternatively support your organisation in the investigation process.    

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.  

Analysing Evidence: The Key Step of Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 15, 2018

One of the most challenging and important tasks undertaken by a workplace investigator is the analysis of the evidence that has been gathered during the course of the investigation. 

Key questions to consider include: What evidence should be contained in the investigation report? How do I analyse what I have gathered? How does this connect with the findings I make in the investigation report? 

Here's how to effectively and transparently analyse the evidence.

WHAT evidence should be included? 

There is a simple answer to this question: ALL relevant evidence collected in the course of the workplace investigation will need to form part of the analysis, the findings and the final report. The act of leaving evidence out without explanation can - intentionally or otherwise - indicate a lack of thoroughness or even worse a prejudgement about a fact in issue. A piece of evidence might ultimately prove to be of little consequence, but this should be at least acknowledged and noted. So if in doubt don't leave it out. 

Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence

One way to begin marshalling material is to consider if the evidence is exculpatory or inculpatory. If we think of the allegation in question - let's say sexual harassment in the workplace - we can begin to analyse the evidence in terms of those items that most likely indicate that the conduct occurred, and those that point to the opposite conclusion. 

Evidence that indicates or tends to indicate that something occurred is known as inculpatory evidence. Conversely if evidence vindicates or tends to clear the alleged harasser of the wrongdoing, then this is known as exculpatory evidence. 

It is unlikely that you will have two neat piles from the start! However, this formal approach to organising the evidence can assist in creating a logical report that withstands future scrutiny. 

Analysis of the evidence

For each piece of evidence examined, investigators need to determine how strong or weak it is in the overall context of the investigation. Strong evidence will be consistent, reliable and in terms of witness statements, believable, probable and credible. 

Considering that a workplace investigation often reflects strong emotions and internal allegiances within the organisation, it is important to make an objective assessment of the reliability of statements made and items presented. Investigators will be on the lookout for statements that might be self-serving, or made a long time after the event in questions, for example.

Other factors to consider will be internal anomalies in statements or possible collusion between witnesses. An element of triangulation of the data will be required - the investigator is looking to detect where dubious connections indicate a weakness in evidence, or conversely where consistent evidence is noticeable across a number of different sources, including documentary evidence. 

It is important to compare and contrast evidence from different sources: Which parts of the evidence consistently support the view that the events in question occurred and which indicate that it did not occur. Once this is done, the weight or value of each part of the evidence can be assessed.    

writing up the analysis

Those new to workplace investigations can sometimes become daunted by the task of reporting on findings made. It is important to be clear about the methodology, about the manner in which the evidence was handled and how you have arrived at your findings. 

Take a methodical approach, which will assist your own thinking as well as allow any reader a logical progression through the document. Some organisations will require the report to be set out in a particular manner and it is important to ascertain if this is the case. 

Above all - make your findings clear. If your finding is that an event occurred, then state this clearly. It will be necessary to explain why you consider certain claims to be substantiated or where there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion on a contended point. This document could well be used in a number of forums including court and tribunal proceedings. It should be a reflection of the fact that the workplace investigation was fair, that all relevant evidence was considered and included, and that findings are based upon well-balanced evidentiary analysis. 

A workplace investigation is a systematic process for establishing facts and circumstances surrounding a complaint or allegation. If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, or would like support in analysing your evidence gathered, WISE provides both supported and full investigation services.

Why Employers Can't Afford to Ignore Procedural Fairness

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 01, 2018

It is important for employers to keep procedural fairness top of mind when conducting workplace investigations or taking disciplinary action.

Failing to do so can result in terminations being deemed unfair, as the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Nicholas Jarmain v Linfox Armaguard Pty Ltd [2018] FWC 3255 (14 June 2018) shows. 

background of the case 

Linfox Armaguard dismissed casual employee Nicholas Jarmain in October 2017 for serious misconduct. While the Fair Work Commission found the termination was justified, it determined that Mr Jarmain had been unfairly dismissed due to insufficient procedural fairness.

Mr Jarmain was dismissed after a client complained that he was "overly engaged in interaction and discussion" and generally inappropriate with staff members and customers of the client.

In response to the allegations, Mr Jarmain was asked to undergo an interview with a security officer and a union support person present. Explanations for his behaviour were sought (and his answers recorded) during the interview, and Mr Jarmain was then suspended from duty.

At a meeting three weeks later, Mr Jarmain was given further opportunity to explain the circumstances giving rise to the complaints against him. However, as his preferred union delegate was injured and unable to attend, the employer substituted their own preferred union official for that meeting.

The employer terminated Mr Jarmain's casual employment the next day, citing wilful and deliberate breaches of safety and security procedures. 

Breaches of procedural fairness

In the interest of procedural fairness, Mr Jarmain's employer should have advised him what claims were being investigated before asking him to participate in a recorded interview.

This was considered to be particularly egregious given that the employer is a big company with sufficient access to HR professionals. HR could (and indeed should) have been relied upon to ensure that Mr Jarmain was afforded procedural fairness when facing disciplinary action.

While the employer's reasons for dismissing Mr Jarmain were "sound, defensible and well-founded", especially given the job involves loaded weapons, the Commission concluded that the flaws in procedure, such as failing to provide any formal warnings or reprimands, were significant. 

The Commission determined that Mr Jarmain had not been given sufficient notification of the circumstances surrounding the complaints against him, or indeed the events giving rise to the complaints - and that he had effectively been ambushed, without sufficient information to defend himself against the claims. 

This meant that both Mr Jarmain's interview and ultimate dismissal were contrary to the requirements of procedural fairness.

Additional failures included the employer selecting the support person assisting Mr Jarmain in the second interview (as opposed to permitting the employee to pick his support person). By making such a decision it was akin to removing Mr Jarmain's right to have a support person present at all.

Further, the employer should not have suspended Mr Jarmain without pay.

the final decision

Ultimately, given the nature of the industry in which Mr Jarmain was employed, Commissioner Cambridge declined to order reinstatement of the employment but ordered compensation payments to the tune of $8,592.

This case demonstrates that having a valid reason to dismiss is only one factor that is considered in unfair dismissal claims. The Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as training.  

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.