Legal Issues When Conducting Workplace Interviews

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 29, 2018

When a workplace investigation has to be conducted, the most valuable information will generally be obtained through interviewing the staff involved in the incident and any witnesses. This information will play a critical role in determining what has happened or who or what was responsible. 

In order to obtain relevant and reliable information from the parties involved, good communication skills, an eye for detail and the ability to think on your feet is required. However, it is equally important to remember your legal obligations when interviewing staff.

legal issues

In conducting an interview process, key legal issues include:

  • The creation of statements 
    When an interview is conducted, a statement recording the comments made during the interview must be prepared and provided to the interviewee for review and, if the contents of the statement are agreed upon, signature. 
  • Audio recordings
    The laws on the creation of audio recordings differ in each Australian state. Generally speaking, if a person is advised that they are being recorded and they do not explicitly object, it is acceptable to continue with an audio recording. It is best practice to seek their explicit approval once recording has commenced. It is important to bear in mind that a transcript of the recording must be made available to the interviewee upon request. 
  • Support person
    Anybody involved in a workplace investigation, but especially the person against whom allegations have been made, must have the opportunity to have a support person of their choice present during each step of the investigative process, particularly during the interview. Witnesses have to be informed of this right in advance, in order to provide them with the opportunity to find a suitable support person.   

Procedural fairness and privacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of any workplace interview is ensuring that the process is conducted in accordance with the rules of procedural fairness. This includes:

  • The complainant and the respondent have the opportunity to provide their entire version of events and to have a support person present. 
  • The respondent is advised of the particulars of the allegations against them, so that they can respond in detail. 
  • The respondent is advised of their rights in relation to the investigative process.
  • Proceedings are not delayed unnecessarily.
  • The respondent has sufficient time to prepare for the interview process. Best practice is to allow at least 48 hours' notice but preferably more, depending on the complexity of the particulars. 
  • All relevant witnesses are interviewed.
  • Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence is taken into account.
  • All evidence is considered in an unbiased and impartial manner. 
  • No finding of guilt or otherwise is made until after all parties have had the opportunity to participate in the interview process and had the opportunity to respond to the allegations against them. 

All parties involved in the investigation are entitled to privacy. Witnesses who have disclosed information in confidence, may be intimidated by the fear of victimisation or backlash. This means that information divulged during the interview process is to be kept strictly confidential, unless it is absolutely necessary for the resolution of the dispute that it be shared beyond the immediate investigative team.

tips for successfully conducting an interview

In addition to taking the above steps, inexperienced interviewers may wish to consider obtaining specific legal advice, depending on the situation and the allegations which have been made. 

The interview process should always be undertaken from the perspective that only information which is collected fairly and decisions which are made in an unbiased manner will support disciplinary or administrative action against any employee. 

If you dismiss an employee or take disciplinary action against them without affording procedural fairness and establishing the relevant facts, it is possible that Fair Work Australia or other relevant tribunals may find the action was harsh, unjust or unreasonable in the circumstances. 

An investigation may be costly and time consuming, however the consequences of not conducting one may be even greater. If you need assistance in conducting investigations and undertaking investigative interviewing, contact WISE Workplace today, or purchase our 'Investigative Interviewing Book'.   

Can You Deny Access to Workplace Investigation Documents?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Parties involved in a workplace investigation will often wish to gain access to documents that form part of the process. A difficult question for investigators is when - or if - it will be appropriate to release particular information. The reason for the request and the nature of the information will be key considerations, plus the investigator must find the best way to ensure that the access process is fair and transparent. As a recent case involving Australia Post reminds us, investigators need to carefully consider any decision to deny access to workplace investigation documents.

When to disclose information 

During the course of a workplace investigation it is entirely appropriate to keep parties informed of progress. In many cases, it will be quite simple to provide general information that keeps parties up-to-date, yet preserves any necessary privacy boundaries. One regular complaint from those under investigation is that they were 'kept in the dark' at every turn of the process. However, overt secrecy is often not necessary; disclosing information about delays, the nature of inquiries and the broad substance of allegations for example will generally not be problematic.

Another situation where information will need to be provided is when the investigator is required to do so by law. This could include as a response to a subpoena, summons or other court / police request, and should be responded to promptly.

Why should information be disclosed?

In many ways, it is simply professional best-practice to keep stakeholders informed of the progress of an investigation.

One specific advantage in providing regular updates and briefings is the effective management of expectations. Investigations can leave people feeling anxious, and the process can become impeded if individuals are forced to continually complain about non-disclosure. By regularly providing information about the scope, goals and process of the investigation, the 'temperature' in the workplace can be kept under control.

Providing information is also necessary to ensure transparency and accountability. The investigative process should, as far as possible, be able to withstand outside scrutiny both during and following completion. If it is later revealed that one party received greater assistance or exposure to materials than another, the chances of utilising the investigation outcomes will be greatly reduced.

A case in point

In the case of 'LC' and Australia Post (Freedom of information) [2017] AICmr 31, an employee made an FOI request for information relating to a workplace investigation.

Australia Post declined the request on the basis that the material was exempt according to the 'personal private information' exemption under s47F of the FOI Act. However, the commission found that the exemption does not apply to information that is likely to have a 'substantial adverse effect' on a person subject to investigation.

Investigators must ensure that the process remains transparent, and that any and all decisions to prevent disclosure are carefully considered in accordance with the legislation.

ensuring procedural fairness

One common mistake made by new workplace investigators is to see procedural fairness as a lightweight idea without much application in the real world. We know from experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Those under investigation deserve to know the nature of allegations made, to be given the opportunity to be properly heard, to have a support person if needed, to be questioned by an unbiased individual, and of course to have all relevant evidence considered in the decision. Disclosing information in an appropriate way, and at the right time, can certainly assist the overall fairness of the process - and prevent problems in the future.

When not to disclose

Although transparency and fairness are important elements of the workplace investigation, there are times where information should certainly not be disclosed. The right to privacy might require the investigator to protect information such as addresses, sensitive personal material or intellectual property matters as examples.

Further, it might be necessary to redact documents in order to protect anonymity or to withhold certain aspects of an allegation. However, overall investigators must ensure that a party is not substantially disadvantaged by the non-disclosure - a fine balancing act indeed.

The Australia Post case confirms our own experience in conducting fair workplace investigations. We certainly know that each situation will depend upon the particular facts when it comes to disclosing information to the parties involved.

If you need assistance on whether or not to disclose information during an investigation process, WISE provides supported investigation services and are here to help.


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.

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.

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.

Inside the Fair Work Commission: How it Operates

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Most employers and employees are likely have at least some contact with the Fair Work Commission (FWC) during their working lives. 

This might be as simple as obtaining information about award conditions and employee rights, or as contentious as appearing before the FWC in a workplace dispute or unfair dismissal matter.

So how does the Fair Work Commission work?

The basics of the fwc

The FWC is the national workplace relations tribunal. Created by the Federal Government, it is an independent body that oversees a range of employment-related matters.

Its members are independent office holders who are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Federal Government. Members work in a panel system, which aims to ensure that matters are heard by members with specific expertise in the relevant area. 

The FWC is not to be confused with the Fair Work Ombudsman, whose role it is to enforce compliance with the Fair Work Act and associated legislation, as well as provide advice to employers and employees on industrial relations matters. Unlike the FWC, the Ombudsman cannot conduct investigations or hearings.

what matters does the fwc deal with?

The FWC has the right to make decisions on a wide range of employment issues, including:

  • Determining minimum wage and working conditions
  • Hearing disputes in relation to unfair dismissals or other disciplinary actions
  • Making decisions in relation to appropriate industrial action
  • Conducting and facilitating alternative resolution methods in relation to general workplace disputes and workplace protections  

When making decisions, the FWC is required to take into account factors such as:

  • The principles of equity and good conscience
  • An assessment of the merits of the case before it
  • Avoiding any type of discrimination in the workplace, whether that be sexual, religious, disability or age based, to name a few

how to get a matter heard before the fwc

In order for a matter to be heard by the FWC, an appropriate form needs to be submitted in accordance with the applicable Fair Work Commission Rules.

In certain circumstances, such as when conducting reviews into awards or wage reviews, the FWC is empowered to launch its own action. 

fairness a key focus of hearings

The FWC is obliged by legislation to facilitate reasonably swift actions, and operate informally - without resorting to complicated legal concepts which could make it difficult for the ordinary worker to participate in proceedings. 

One of the central tenets of the FWC requires that hearings be conducted impartially and fairly. During hearings, the members are required to determine the facts and make decisions based on the information put before them. Ultimately, the main purpose of a hearing is to facilitate dispute resolution between the parties. 

Can the FWC dismiss an application? 

An application may be dismissed outright by the FWC in circumstances where it is:

  • Frivolous or vexatious
  • Contrary to the applicable legislation
  • Doomed to fail
  • Clear that one of the parties has unreasonably failed to attend hearings or comply with orders or directions of the FWC. 

What the FWC can't do

Despite being a quasi-legal body, the FWC is not entitled to provide legal advice, or assistance.

It is also not permitted to act in a partisan fashion by representing any particular political party. It must focus on impartial and objective decision making.

Do you need assistance in dealing with the FWC?

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct across government, education, not-for-profit and private sectors. 

We are proud that none of our decisions have been challenged by the FWC. If you are looking for assistance to navigate the challenging issues of workplace misconduct, we provide investigation services and training - Contact WISE today.  

Evolving and Moving on from a Workplace Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Most employers are aware of the importance of conducting workplace investigations to deal with complaints or allegations. But what happens after the investigation is over?

There may be a sense of disconnectedness, embarrassment, awkwardness or even anger amongst staff, particularly if disciplinary action has been taken or an employee has left the organisation. 

Although it is no doubt tempting to close the report on a workplace investigation and just move on, there remains a lot of outstanding work to be done before the job is truly over.

The report is finalised, but now what?

There are a number of steps employers can take to ease the way post-investigation. 

These include:

  • Touching base with all parties

The person who was the subject of the investigation would have been notified of any findings and consequences. But it is equally important for employers to touch base with any complainants, whether they are internal, external or on leave, and explain that the process has been finalised. Although exact outcomes may not be disclosed due to privacy or confidentiality reasons, it is important for employers to demonstrate that complaints have been taken seriously and duly investigated. 

  • Requesting constructive feedback

Although it is unlikely to be appropriate to ask the complainant or the respondent to comment on how they thought the investigation was handled, witnesses and other parties engaged in the process can be approached for feedback. This might include whether they felt the investigation process was transparent and fair, whether there is anything else they want to report about the company, and whether they felt there was sufficient communication throughout the process. 

  • Reviewing the actions of key decision-makers

This is a fantastic opportunity to consider the way your key decision-makers have behaved. This includes the quality of their decision-making, the steps taken by them to control the situation, and perhaps their involvement in the initial complaint. It can also provide an opportunity to observe how those in senior management interact with each other, and perhaps encourage changes to the chain of reporting and command.

  • Identifying any systemic or endemic problems

Perhaps this is not the first time a complaint of a similar nature has been made, or the same person's name keeps popping up. Maybe the investigation has identified a shortcoming in procedures or policies in the business. Employers need to identify any systemic issues and implement strategies to deal with them as soon as possible. 

Rebuilding the team post-investigation

Dealing with any uncertainty or disharmony and rebuilding your team is of primary importance. In the aftermath of an investigation, employers need to:

  • Consider whether the complainant and respondent can keep working together. Even if the allegations are not substantiated, it should be assumed that any future working relationship is likely to be strained, if not impossible. Careful consideration should be given to shifting work arrangements, ideally without either party feeling aggrieved by the change. If the parties must continue working together, mediation can help by enabling both parties to air concerns and come up with ground rules. 
  • Offer counselling to all affected parties, whether internal or external
  • Instigate a training program or a refresher course for all staff focusing on the behaviours reviewed in the investigation
  • Facilitate team-building exercises. Team-building exercises can help staff resolve any conflict they may feel, give them an opportunity to get to know each other better and to forge new connections in the wake of an investigation. This can be particularly important if a co-worker has been terminated. 
  • Seek feedback from your employees as to what steps could be taken to improve the workplace culture in general. 

Don't limit the investigative process to a band-aid solution. Once the immediate issue has been addressed, utilise the learnings to strengthen your team going forward. 

If you need effective resolution of workplace disputes after an investigation, WISE Workplace has a number of qualified and experienced mediators who can help your workers to resolve any issues post-investigation. 

Conducting Workplace Investigations: What You Need to Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Part of running an effective organisation is ensuring that all staff are held accountable for their actions in the workplace, and are able to air grievances and raise complaints in a safe forum. This means that employers may need to undertake investigations into staff misconduct from time to time. 

Managing an unbiased and thorough workplace investigation can be a challenging and complicated process, particularly given the need to deal with sensitive topics and personal feelings. 

So, what are the most important things you need to be aware of when conducting a workplace investigation?

understanding why an investigation is necessary

All employers have a duty to provide a healthy and safe place of work. This includes obligations around workplace bullying, which can be enforced by the Fair Work Commission. 

Workers Compensation claims can arise from employees experiencing stress or other physical or mental harm because of issues with co-workers. If the alleged behaviour is serious enough (such as sexual harassment or assault for example) the employer could become civilly or even criminally liable. 

Employers must conduct fair investigations into all types of allegations made by complainants. Similarly, the accused worker has the right to have the complaint against them determined objectively and the sanction decided on by an unbiased decision-maker.

how can your human resources team support you?

If your organisation is large enough to have a dedicated Human Resources officer or even an HR team, it can be extremely helpful to have them involved in an investigation. 

Your HR team can facilitate a successful investigation by:

  • Keeping open channels of communication with both the complainant and the respondent (as long as confidential information is kept private);
  • Providing a clear timeline and outline of processes;
  • Ensuring that staff are aware of their rights to have support persons involved;
  • At all times maintaining respectful contact and a clear demonstration of objectivity when dealing with witnesses or parties involved.  

fact finding vs formal investigation

Any workplace complaint requires a process of fact-finding or initial enquiry, whereby a third party interviews both the complainant and the accused party for information about what happened. The objective of this process is to determine whether the matter is serious enough to warrant a formal investigation or whether the conduct complained of can for instance be deemed trivial or minor in nature and can be dealt with on that basis. 

A formal investigation process goes much further. It requires the collection of information and evidence, interviewing of witnesses and the drafting of formal statements, the preparation of a detailed investigation report, analysis of the evidence and subsequent detailed consideration by key decision-makers as to the appropriate consequences.

The need for procedural fairness 

A key element of any workplace investigation is to ensure that all parties are afforded procedural fairness - a failure to do this could result in criticism of any decision taken by the employer after the investigation and could expose the organisation to legal liability.

The key elements of procedural fairness include:

  • Providing adequate information about the allegations, generally in written form, and the potential consequences if the employee is found to have engaged in the alleged behaviour;
  • Permitting a reasonable amount of time for the employee to respond to the allegations;
  • Allowing a support person to be present during interviews and providing adequate notice to the interviewee to arrange a support person of their choice;
  • Ensuring that the investigator as well as the ultimate decision-maker is unbiased and objective;
  • Ensuring that decisions effecting the employee are based on evidence. 

So what is involved in conducting a workplace investigation?

The key elements of an effective investigation include:

1. Planning the Investigation

  • Adequate planning before the investigation starts, including considering any potential conflicts of interest;
  • The investigator familiarising himself/herself with the potential consequences which could flow from the investigation, and ensuring that all relevant parties will be interviewed;
  • Preparing a list of interview questions for each witness;
  • Gather and review relevant documents such as the complaint, employment contracts, performance reviews, relevant policies and procedures, incident reports, and any other relevant emails, notices, memos, other documents and information;
  • Notify all parties of there involvement, rights and obligations. 

2. Interviewing

  • Provide sufficient notice and make appropriate arrangements with all witnesses
  • Conducting formal interviews objectively and sensitively, having regard to the circumstances;
  • Checking that representation or support has been offered and outlining the investigation process and timeline;
  • Obtaining as much detailed evidence as possible

3. Analysing and Weighing the Evidence

  • Assessing the evidence with regard to reliability, consistency and credibility;
  • Preparing an investigation report setting out your findings, including the behaviour that has or has not occurred and consider whether it is unlawful, unreasonable, or a breach of policy;
  • Coming to a conclusion and making a finding, based on the evidence gathered. 

4. Facilitating a Resolution

  • This could include making amendments to business policies, training improvements, broad disciplinary action, mediation and counselling. 

When to ask for help

The consequences of a flawed investigation can be serious: decisions can be challenged in the courts, reputations can suffer and employee morale can take a nose-dive. 

In some situations, it may not be appropriate to conduct an investigation internally, and an external investigator is required to help ensure a fair and unbiased process. 

This could include situations where: 

  • Serious allegations are made and there is a potential risk of criminal or civil litigation;
  • Complaints are made against senior employees;
  • A real or perceived conflict of interest exists, meaning complaints cannot be investigated objectively internally; 
  • There is a need for legal privilege to cover the circumstances;
  • There are insufficient internal resources, where your organisation is simply not able to investigate a complaint thoroughly, due to a lack of expertise, particularly if it involves multiple parties or complex issues that require specialist knowledge. 

If you require assistance with investigating allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace. We offer full investigation services, supported investigations and staff training on how to conduct workplace investigations. 

The Cost of Aggressive Leaders

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

There are many different skills which are required for an effective leader - such as excellent communication skills, perseverance, the ability to inspire and motivate staff, clarity of thought, and efficiency. But one detrimental trait that many leaders may possess is aggression.

Although it is often accepted that a domineering personality seems to go hand in hand with successful leadership, in many situations it can actually get in the way of optimal and effective management.

a bad habit or a behavioural strength? 

There are different levels on the scale of aggression - and indeed, for some jobs a level of combativeness is almost an essential quality. From a CEO accustomed to facilitating hostile takeovers, to a litigator who must take charge of a courtroom, to a police officer, in these careers, behavioural traits which are more closely aligned with aggression can be helpful. 

Contrast this with "softer" jobs, such as a primary school teacher, a nurse, a psychologist or a social worker, and it becomes apparent that certain personality traits are much better suited to some industries than others. 

Hiring managers and HR managers responsible for recruitment and selection of managers need to be aware of the difference between simple assertiveness and unbridled aggression or even narcissism.

the difference between assertive and aggressive

A "positive" and assertive boss might:

  • Engage in competition against external competitors, but support a whole team ethos;
  • Be forthright and open, including potentially critical - but be equally willing to accept criticism of their own methods;
  • Seek facts;
  • Respect the rights of staff to their own opinions. 

In comparison, a "negative" aggressive or narcissistic boss may:

  • Constantly compete with their own staff;
  • Belittle or punish those who disagree with the leader;
  • Base decisions on their emotions or feelings rather than rational or logical conclusions;
  • Mock or otherwise put down staff; 
  • Yell, gesture, stride around or otherwise engage in physically intimidating behaviours.

the downsides of aggressive behaviour in the workforce

In its most basic form, employees who work for aggressive leaders can be uninspired and unhappy, often not wishing to come to work. A leader who storms around like a bear with a sore head, as the expression goes, is likely to cause, or at the very least contribute to, a toxic workplace. 

This, in turn, can lead to significant losses in productivity, high rates of absenteeism or presenteeism (where staff physically turn up but do not properly fulfil their duties) and excessive staff turnover. 

changing leadership behaviour 

It can be difficult to modify leadership behaviour, particularly when it comes to leaders with type-A personalities, which will likely mean that they are reluctant to accept criticism or receive feedback well. 

Strategies for changing leadership behaviour, or at least improving the ability of staff to deal with aggressive leaders, include:

  • Building a strong relationship between the leader and the rest of their team, including by encouraging open communication and fostering the ability for human resources staff as well as team members to provide feedback on decisions made by the leader. 
  • Appeal to the leader's sense of logic and highlight the potential impact of their actions on the business.
  • In the case of narcissistic leaders, it can be helpful to frame feedback on their behaviour in terms of how it might negatively affect their goals, rather than as a direct personal criticism.
  • Stop supporting this type of behaviour by refusing to promote or reward leaders who are aggressive, and who refuse help to modify their behaviour. 

Taking a few simple steps towards correcting the ongoing behaviour of an aggressive leader, while still highlighting the importance of strength in decision-making, can help to significantly improve the satisfaction, productivity and quality of your workers. If you believe you have an aggressive leader or a toxic workplace where an investigation or cultural review would help, contact WISE today for an obligation free quote. 

A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

the nutS and bolts of it

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

what is the extent of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

the need for an anti-bullying culture

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHen employers are accused of bullying 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

how did the fair work COMMISSION view bullying in 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

Case Study 1: The email is mightier than the sword

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

Case Study 2: Lawful adversaries - bullying in law school

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

Case Study 3: A failure to properly investigate

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

Case Study 4: Getting it both right and wrong

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

Case Study 5: Lessons in discourse

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

The take home message

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.