What Should You Include in a Whistleblower Policy?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Whistleblower protections have been top of mind for many Australian organisations recently, following a number of changes to the law. 

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistle-Blower Protections) Bill 2017 is due to come into effect from July 2019.

This will result in significant changes to the way whistleblowers are to be treated under a raft of existing legislation, including the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), the Banking Act 1959 (Cth) and the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (Cth).

One of the key changes is the need for organisations to have policies in place around whistleblower procedures and protections. 

So what are some of the key changes to the law, and what should your whistleblower policy include? 

the key changes to the law

A number of changes will take effect under the new legislation, including: 

  • The expansion of the definition of 'whistleblowers' to include relatives, dependants, their spouses, former employees and former associates.
  • Excluding personal work-related grievances from conduct that is otherwise deemed to be reportable.
  • Enhancing protections for whistleblowers. This includes increased anonymity, more significant penalties for revealing identities of whistleblowers and facilitating the ability for whistleblowers to seek compensation or redress in situations where they have been victimised. 
  • Limiting the persons in a business who are entitled to receive disclosures, but permitting externalisation of whistleblowing to the media and/or parliamentarians in circumstances where the disclosure may be a matter of public interest or emergency. 
  • Requiring public and large proprietary companies (defined as companies with consolidated revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees) to have a detailed and compliant whistleblower policy in place. 

defining conduct to be reported

The intention of the legislation is to protect people who: 

  • Report misconduct or 'an improper state of affairs or circumstances' in situations where the whistleblower has reasonable grounds to suspect that the misconduct has occurred. This is generally expected to cover 'unethical' conduct. 
  • Believe an offence has been committed under legislation whose supervision comes under the purview of the watchdogs APRA or ASIC.
  • Report behaviours which 'represent a danger to the public or financial system' or otherwise relate to a civil or criminal offence which could result in imprisonment for a period of at least one year. 

explaining the process

In the event that a staff member wishes to make a disclosure, it is essential that it is only made to the appropriate category of person. Internally, this includes officers of the company, a person authorised by the company to receive 'protected disclosures' (such as an HR representative) or a senior manager of the whistleblower, who is an employee of the company. Companies can facilitate disclosure by implementing a mechanism for staff members to report online or over the phone. 

External disclosures can be made to ASIC/APRA, auditors or actuaries reviewing the company, lawyers or journalists or parliamentarians where public interest would be met by making the disclosure.

Whistleblowers are entitled to retain anonymity. However, the information does not need to remain confidential, as long as it can be demonstrated that:

  • The information requires investigation.
  • Reasonable steps have been taken to maintain the anonymity of the whistleblower in conducting such an investigation. 

protections for whistleblowers

The new legislation sets out a number of strengthened protections for whistleblowers.

  • Immunity against civil, criminal, administrative or disciplinary action.
  • An inability to enforce contractual remedies against a party making the disclosure.
  • An inability to admit information provided by a whistleblower into evidence in proceedings against them (unless those proceedings are pursued because of the falsity of the information). 
  • Protection against victimising conduct (such as dismissal, demotion, discrimination or similar).
  • Increased anonymity protection through strict liability criminal offences for revealing identities of whistleblowers
  • Significant monetary penalties applicable to person(s) who reveal the identities. 

What to include in a whistleblower policy?

Organisations who are required to have a whistleblower policy must ensure that it covers off key points, including: 

  • What protections the employee can expect to receive.
  • Details on how those protections will work in practice.
  • Specific information on how a disclosure can be made.
  • Details on how disclosures will be investigated.
  • How the policy will be transparently implemented. 

The policy should be communicated to all staff, from the CEO down. It should be made available where all staff members can easily access it, for example posted on an intranet. 

It is clear that the content and nature of a whistleblower policy are key to appropriately implementing the legislation. To assist our clients in understanding the looming changes and preparing, we have published a white paper, which is available on our website for free download.

We also provide our industry-leading Grapevine Confidential Whistleblower Hotline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Grapevine provides employees with the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to trusted and experienced operators.

Substantiating Claims of Reportable Conduct

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 01, 2019

It is one of society's great shames that our most vulnerable individuals are often open to abuse by those entrusted with their care. However, it is somewhat edifying to know that stringent legal and regulatory measures are in place in Australia to ensure that employers and others act quickly when allegations arise of abuse in care. 

In the case of issues involving children, organisations such as the Ombudsman mandate that 'reportable conduct' must be swiftly acted on by employers. In particular, a thorough investigation must be made into the situation to determine whether allegations of abuse in care have been substantiated. 

It is also important to note that organisations involved in regular contact with children are required to have proactive and preventative measures in place. After all, there is no more important issue in society than the protection of vulnerable individuals.

what is reportable conduct

Across Australian states and territories there is general uniformity in the way in which 'reportable conduct' is defined and applied. Section 25A(1) of the Ombudsman Act NSW defines reportable conduct as:

  • Any sexual offence or sexual misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child - including a child pornography offence.
  • Any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child.
  • Any behaviour that causes psychological harm to a child - even if the child consented to the behaviour. 

It is apparent that the legislation targets all manner of abuse, including sexual, physical and psychological. The net is wide and for good reason: any employee or other associate of an organisation who crosses the bounds of propriety and trust with a child should and will be held accountable for their actions. The legislation also covers situations of alleged consent by the child to the behaviour. There can be no doubt that the imbalance of power inherent in these situations is taken into account under the legalisation.

substantiating reportable conduct

While it is essential that inappropriate conduct be reported, facts must first be verified. Upon being notified of allegations related to child abuse, employers must ensure that a professional and objective investigation takes place. If there is insufficient expertise to carry out this serious task, expert advice and investigative services should be sourced externally.

Once the workplace investigation has concluded, the employer will be provided with a report which indicates whether reportable conduct has in fact been established.

Report to which body?

For employers it can be a little confusing to know which conduct to report - as well as who exactly to report issues to. This is in part because Australia has clear distinctions between states, territories and the Commonwealth, and in the field of reportable conduct there are subtle changes to be aware of. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has compiled a Resource Sheet that explains the different reporting requirements across jurisdictions, including the right body to approach in the context of an employer's place of business. 

Discipline and internal procedures 

Once there is a finding that reportable conduct has in fact occurred, attention then turns to the questions of what disciplinary measures might be appropriate in a given context. These will vary in strength and reach. For example, conduct that is substantiated but is of a lower gravity - such as slapping a child's hand for example - might be met with a requirement for training and/or a reprimand by the employer. More serious abuse of a child could lead to the dismissal of the employee and/or criminal charges being founded.

It is crucial that employers within child-related areas train their staff on the nature and consequences of reportable conduct, in addition to having robust procedures in place for dealing with such unfortunate situations. Some larger organisations such as the Department of Education will have quite extensive material and processes in this area. Yet for smaller businesses and organisations, it is vital to understand reportable conduct and to educate staff around this pressing issue. There are serious legal consequences for an organisation and its staff concerning the failure to identify and report child reportable conduct. 

WISE provides Investigating Abuse In Care training, which is specifically developed for organisations dealing with vulnerable clients. Alternatively, we are highly experienced at investigating reportable conduct matters, through our investigation services.       

The Privacy Act: Implications for Workplace Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There can be many questions, fears and insecurities that arise in the course of a workplace investigation. Experienced investigators are often asked by witnesses and other staff to divulge what has been said and by whom. This is unsurprising; after all, for one or more people their reputation and/or job could be on the line as a result of accusations made. 

Workplace investigators must take care when dealing with the information gleaned from their enquiries. The Privacy Act 1988 creates a legal structure that controls how personal information can be obtained and used. From initial enquiries through to the final report, workplace investigators must carefully weigh the privacy implications of their work.

privacy and workplace investigations

The Privacy Act 1988 places firm legal boundaries around how businesses and government agencies are to deal with the personal information of individuals, including employees. Most employers will have the capacity under the Act to deal with employee information as they see fit - providing it is for a lawful purpose. 

Workplace investigators are bound by the privacy legislation, just as any person or organisation who deals with private information is. This can lead to considerable challenges within the course of the investigation, such as having private information that might or might not be of interest to another party or witness within the investigation. It is only in very unusual circumstances that such disclosures could be lawfully made. Overall, consent will not have been given for release to another party; consent is crucial in all such situations.

personal information and the final report

The client is of course the employer in workplace investigations, and it is to the employer that briefings and reports must be directed. It is not unusual for investigators to be bombarded by employees with requests for the release of information, statements, witness accounts and the like, that have been elicited during the investigation.

The reason for the requests is certainly understandable - people will be anxious to know what has been said, by whom and how this could potentially affect their employment. Yet legally this is not information that the workplace investigator is at liberty to provide, unless express consent has been given. 

Personal information at the disposal of the workplace investigator must be returned to the employer, generally in the form of the investigator's final report. Complainants, respondents and witnesses are certainly afforded a summary of the report and findings. Yet actual statements and transcripts involving personal information are certainly protected under the Act from most curious stakeholders.   

Privacy and future proceedings

It makes sense to keep a tight hold on information released during the investigation. Considering that investigative reports are often later scrutinised for their evidentiary worth, it is important for workplace investigators to keep in mind the ramifications of privacy principles upon their work. 

For example, statements that are tainted by knowledge of what another witness has said could certainly be inadmissible or weighted lightly in later proceedings. A loose investigative structure can also see one party privy to more information than another, raising inevitable questions of procedural fairness. 

Navigating a workplace investigation is certainly a matter of juggling many moving parts. Keeping a firm reign on the use of personal information during the investigation is one task that must remain at the forefront of all activities and decisions. For assistance on ways to ensure compliance with the Privacy Act 1988 during an investigation, get in touch with WISE.

Legal Professional Privilege and Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When a workplace investigation is required, there may occasionally be good reason to seek legal professional privilege regarding the findings. This is particularly the case in matters that may require criminal investigation, such as fraud, theft or sexual harassment. 

So, is it sufficient to engage a law firm when undertaking workplace investigation if you wish to attract legal professional privilege? We take a look at the what privilege means, and its role in investigations.

what exactly is legal professional privilege? 

The concept of legal professional privilege means that communications between an employer and their engaged lawyers are confidential and need not be disclosed, for example to another party or in a court, if the communications have been created for the 'dominant' purpose of providing legal advice or in anticipation of legal proceedings.  

What is the significance of legal professional privilege? 

In many circumstances, an employer's inner workings and thought processes may be something that is best kept private. Ultimately, the key purpose of legal professional privilege is to permit employers and other parties, such as external investigations, to freely discuss information with their solicitors in order to obtain legal advice, without being concerned that the material will form evidence in legal proceedings. 

Employers may wish to maintain privilege and keep parts of certain documents confidential if, for example, there are issues with disclosing identities of complainants or witnesses, or permitting potentially inflammatory or commercially sensitive information being disseminated through the workplace and beyond. 

how can workplace investigations attract legal professional privilege? 

If an organisation wishes to obtain privilege over communications, it is not sufficient simply to engage a law firm to undertake or oversee the workplace investigation. The law firm's engagement must be able to be demonstrated as being for the dominant purpose of preparing for imminent legal proceedings, or providing advice in relation to those proceedings.

This was demonstrated in the decision of Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006, in which Commissioner Wilson determined that the engagement of law firm Minter Ellison to conduct an investigation, under the auspices of providing legal advice, was really an investigation into workplace conduct within the employer council's policies and procedures. Accordingly, it was determined that legal professional privilege did not exist in those circumstances.      

loss of privilege

Legal professional privilege can be easily lost or waived. This can occur if a party explicitly states that they waive privilege, or if they provide a document to another party which would ordinarily attract privilege. It is important to note that it is generally irrelevant if the information was intentionally or accidentally provided - once that has occurred, it is hard to argue that the privilege should be maintained. Further, if a party attempts to rely on the contents of a document, it is rare that privilege will be successfully kept over the document. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services Ltd [2014] FCCA 1517, in which the employer attempted to rely on the contents of an investigation report but did not wish to disclose it. It was held that relying on a document without providing access to Mr Bartolo was unfair, and the document had to be produced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced across all steps of the investigation process, including legal professional privilege implications. If you are seeking a robust, defendable investigation, contact us today!      

The Legality of Recording Conversations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How many times have you wished you had a record of a conversation? Perhaps you would have liked evidence of what was said, or you would have appreciated being able to play a conversation back for training purposes. 

Whatever the reason, we examine the legality of recording conversations in Australia. 

when can you record a conversation?

The legality of recording a conversation in Australia depends entirely on the jurisdiction. Each state and territory has separate legislation which sets out the law on surveillance and listening devices. 

Residents of Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory may be concerned to learn that there is no legislation prohibiting the recording of a private conversation (as long as the person recording is involved in that conversation). By contrast, recording conversations without permission of all parties is prohibited in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. 

Regardless of the jurisdiction, there is a prohibition on persons who are not party to a conversation, secretly recording or using a device to listen in on a conversation (with the exception of law enforcement). The obvious example here would be listening or recording devices being covertly installed in hotel rooms. 

what about recordings in the workplace? 

Conversations in the workplace come under the same legislation, which means whether or not it is legal to make a recording depends on jurisdiction. Covert recordings are against the law in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. But employers in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory are permitted to record termination conversations, for example, without advising the employee that they are doing so. This recording can then be used to demonstrate that the employee was afforded due process prior to their termination. 

It is also legal for an employee in these states to record a conversation they are having with a colleague. However, it is important to note that, even though the recording of such a conversation may not necessarily be a criminal act, it is certainly frowned upon in the workplace. 

This was highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Tawanda Gadzikwa v Australian Government Department of Human Services [2018] FWC 4878

In that decision, Mr Gadzikwa took a period of unpaid sick leave arising from a mental health condition. After a certain time, that leave was deemed to be unauthorised, and he was ultimately dismissed for non-performance of duties. 

During the course of the hearings, Mr Gadzikwa (who worked in Victoria) admitted that he had developed a practice of secretly recording conversations with his colleagues. While it is relevant that this practice did not form part of the employer's motivation in terminating Mr Gadzikwa's employment, the employer did submit that this was an inappropriate practice, regardless of Mr Gadzikwa's contention that he recorded conversations 'to protect himself'. 

Deputy President Colman criticised Mr Gadzikwa for his actions in doing so, noting that secret recordings are 'unfair to those who are being secretly recorded'. Ultimately, in the absence of any decent justification for recording the conversations, Deputy President Colman determined that Mr Gadzikwa's actions in doing so effectively diluted points in his favour which would have suggested that he had been inappropriately terminated.

covert recordings inadvisable at work

The warning contained in this decision is clear: everybody in the workplace, whether employer or employee, should be aware that even if it is not illegal to secretly record colleagues, bosses, or staff members, it is considered inappropriate, and may have negative ramifications in any dismissal or similar proceedings. If an individual has formed the view that a recording of a conversation is appropriate and necessary, the other participants should be advised in advance that the conversation is to be recorded, so that any objections can be voiced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct and the surrounding legal issues. If you are looking for assistance to help navigate the challenging and complex issues of workplace misconduct, contact WISE today.