How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Engaging in a difficult workplace conversation is one of those tasks that most managers and business owners would prefer to avoid. Yet the reality is that from time to time, workplace behaviour or performance will be below par and will need to be addressed. 

The key to conducting a challenging conversation at work that is both professional and productive lies in thorough preparation - the three W's of when, where, and what.

WHen is the best time to have the conversation?

Timing is everything when preparing to discuss a difficult issue. Ask yourself a deceptively simple question - why am I instigating this particular conversation right now? If the answer is that you are annoyed, aggravated or otherwise emotionally charged by an employee's behaviour or performance, then this can often be a bad time to attempt a challenging conversation. 

Difficult conversations that are planned and delivered in a calm and considered manner have a much greater chance of producing desired outcomes. Conversely, conversations that are started impulsively, out of anger or frustration can often lead to later accusations of abuse and unfairness. This is particularly so where no warnings or offers of support are given. 

Putting difficult conversations off indefinitely is not productive either. This may create the impression that the conduct is tolerated or accepted. So, ask yourself - is now the right time?

where should i hold the difficult conversation? 

Much like timing, you should carefully prepare the venue for these challenging work conversations. One golden rule is - not in front of a worker's colleagues. Entering a work station and immediately delivering difficult words can be seen as disrespectful or even as an abuse of power. 

In some workplaces, it might be best to email the worker and request that they come to your office or a designated neutral space. Depending upon the gravity of the topic of discussion, it might also be suggested that the worker bring along a support person. 

When you are anxious about the need to have a difficult conversation, you might prefer to just go for it on the spot and begin, but take a deep breath and ensure that the venue is appropriate.

what is the topic of the difficult conversation?

This again might seem like a question that has a simple answer. It might seem obvious to you that the problem is bad performance, bad behaviour - or both. Such general labels however can appear to be an attack on the person, with no real way for them to reply in a meaningful way. And broad admonitions to 'shape up or ship out' are not only unproductive performance guidance - they can be seen as real threats to a worker's employment and do not meet the requirements of reasonable management action. 

Try to have a basic agenda prepared and distil the 'what' of the discussion into two or three clear and succinct points. 

For example, the conversation might cover a tangible issue such as the three late starts since last Thursday; the 30% dip in sales since June; the four separate reports of disrespectful behaviour in the workplace. Specificity assists in driving a conversation that is fair, transparent and likely to deliver a sustainable outcome. 

Choose words which are neutral and not emotionally laden. Avoid descriptive words such as appalling, dreadful, bad or shocking. Try to be rational, measured and neutral in your language and approach. If you are able to deliver a clear and rational statement of what the employee has failed to do or what they have done wrong and invited a response, you are well on your way to having an open discussion and finding a resolution. 

And lastly - listen! A conversation, by definition, involves two or more people. Don't be tainted by pre-judgement.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS AS PART OF THE PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT PROCESS 

Humans avoid conflict. We are community-based creatures and prefer to have things just tick along nicely. Yet these difficult conversations are important, having the overall goal of improving performance, getting to the bottom of troubling issues and smoothing the rougher edges of behaviour. 

Acting in anger is inadvisable, as are publicly-heard conversations and sweeping accusations. Clear guidelines for such communication should be set out in the organisation's policies and procedures, with training and resources available to assist. 

Should your difficult conversation form part of a performance management process, make sure that you are adhering to your organisations' relevant policies and procedures. This may include drafting a performance improvement plan if informal performance counselling is not effective. 

Without these structures, organisations are left open to complaints of unfairness or a failure to take reasonable management action. 

Expert help in getting it right

The reality is that difficult conversations are inevitable in the workplace, and it is important that they are conducted well. At WISE, we specialise in the management of workplace behaviour. We can investigate matters of misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and provide consultation services for effective people governance. Call us at any time to discuss your requirements.  

22 Types of Workplace Bullying Behaviour

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Bullying is the scourge of many workplaces. There are few things which destroy office morale, tear apart team cohesion or cause good staff to leave as quickly as victimisation and harassment in the workplace. Interestingly, research has identified 22 different types of bullying conduct which might be encountered in the average workplace. 

We outline these different types of bullying and provide tips on how to avoid situations that cause this type of conflict in the workplace. 

What is the legal definition of bullying?

According to Fair Work Australia, a person is bullied in the workplace if they are repeatedly subjected to unreasonable behaviour by another person or group of people, or if that behaviour creates a risk to the health and safety of the bullied employee. 

Bullying includes teasing, exclusion and unreasonable work demands, but does not include reasonable disciplinary action or control of workflow. 

types of bullying behaviour

Research conducted by the University of Wollongong into 500 Australian employees over a 12-month period identifies the following different types of bullying behaviour: 

  • Withholding information (relevant to a person's employment or role)
  • Humiliation and ridicule
  • Tasking a person with work that is below their level of competence
  • Removing responsibility from a person who has earned it
  • Spreading gossip or rumours 
  • Ignoring or excluding a worker
  • Making personal insults
  • Shouting at or otherwise berating a person
  • Intimidating behaviour
  • Providing hints or signals that a person should resign or abandon their job
  • Reminding a worker constantly of errors or mistakes they have previously made
  • Persistently criticising an employee
  • Ignoring a worker hostile behaviour towards a worker
  • Ignoring a worker's opinion
  • Playing practical jokes or pranks
  • Imposing unreasonable deadlines
  • Making unfounded allegations
  • Excessively monitoring an employee's work
  • Putting pressure on an employee not to claim entitlements such as annual leave, personal leave or carer's leave
  • Teasing an employee
  • Imposing unreasonable workloads
  • Making threats of violence or engaging in actual abuse

These types of conduct, if repeated, generally present themselves in categories of limited indirect bullying, task-related bullying, or occasional bullying, or frequent bullying. Regardless of the cause, bullying results in increased absenteeism as a result of physical and mental health consequences on the worker who is affected. 

The risks of bullying

Apart from the obvious risks of employees resigning or taking extended periods of leave due to bullying, employers should also be aware of the potential for presenteeism - where staff turn up but are too affected by the bullying to effectively perform their work. 

Should employers fail to deal with bullying behaviour, they may be in non-compliance with their duty of care and their obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

What can employers do? 

It is essential for employers to set clear boundaries on what sort of behaviour is and is not acceptable in the workplace. The most effective way to do this is to create clear and direct policies which are well publicised to all staff, ensuring awareness. 

Staff should also be trained in dealing with subtle acts of bullying, which could over time escalate into more serious types of bullying. 

Employers can best combat bullying by fostering a positive workplace culture as a whole, and encouraging strong leadership and communication. This includes giving staff sufficient resources to do their jobs effectively, providing positive feedback and resisting the urge to micromanage. 

WISE Workplace is against workplace bullying and provides training for employers on how to investigate allegations of bullying in the workplace. If your organisation wants to create a workplace environment that is free from discrimination, harassment and misconduct, contact us today! 

Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What can employers do to support and effectively manage employees who may be struggling with their mental health?

With an estimated one in five Australian adults suffering from a mental illness in any given year, this is becoming an increasingly important question for organisations to answer. 

From talking to an employee with a mental illness to addressing performance concerns, here's how employers can help support workers with mental health issues. 

how to talk about mental illness with a worker? 

Employers can't be expected to be experts, but when speaking with an employee about a mental health issue, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the condition in question. This might include any symptoms, specific terms that relate to the condition and types of medications the employee is likely to be prescribed. 

How conversations are framed is crucial - employers should refer to employees as 'having' mental health conditions, as opposed to 'being' schizophrenic or depressed. Employers should also understand the difference between episodic and chronic mental health issues. 

Prior to conversations with employees about their mental health, employers need to ensure that they are prepared, have planned what they wish to discuss and offered the employee the opportunity to bring a support person with them. Employers may also make use of the assistance of a qualified mental health professional when approaching these meetings. 

concerns regarding an employee's mental health

While a physical injury might be obvious, it can be much more difficult to determine if an employee is struggling with their mental health. It is important for employers to remember that there isn't always an obligation for employees to disclose their mental health status. 

In these circumstances, an employer concerned about an employee's mental health can speak confidentially with them and advise them that they may be able to access support from a formal Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The employer may also wish to ask whether there is anything that they can do to modify or improve the workplace to assist the staff member. 

what to say to other employees

If an affected employee has volunteered details of their mental illness, and has agreed to disclosure, employers may wish to sensitively and respectfully disseminate information about the specific condition, or even arrange for mental health specialists to attend the workplace and provide information. 

Employers must not breach an affected worker's privacy and disclose matters that are personal to them. On some occasions, however, an employee's mental health condition may potentially impact other colleagues, or health and safety and must be disclosed. 

When a disclosure has been made, employers need to ensure co-workers:

  • Are supported in relation to any increased workload arising from their colleague's absence;
  • Have their concerns addressed and discussed in an appropriate forum;
  • Are offered access to internal or external counselling services;
  • Are protected from possible harm. 

Making reasonable adjustments

Workers who are struggling with mental health issues may find that they are able to contribute in a much more substantial way if their employer is prepared to make reasonable adjustments. These could include:

  • Flexible working hours or working from home arrangements
  • Moving an employee's physical location (i.e. into a quieter area, closer to a window, away from a co-worker who is triggering their condition)
  • Permitting employees to record meetings or take electronic notes if they are concerned about their memory. 

Addressing performance concerns

When an employer has concerns about an employee's capacity or capability to perform their duties, it is appropriate to apply the organisation's standard performance management system, and provide support to assist the employee. This support should be offered regardless of whether or not the employee has disclosed a mental health condition. 

Employers should consider:

  • Personal circumstances that may contribute to a worker's performance issue, as would be the case for all workers; 
  • Whether a mental illness may be contributing to the poor performance;
  • The seriousness of the performance concern (as for more serious matters, such as violence, there may be no option but to take strong disciplinary action regardless of whether there is a reason, such as a mental illness); 
  • Whether the performance concern relates to a key part of the job or whether reasonable adjustments can be made;
  • Encourage and enable the worker to discuss the performance concerns and whether there are any health issues that may have impacted on their performance. 

If the concern doesn't resolve and the adjustments don't work, employers may need to revisit the issue at a later date. 

If you'd like more information, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE can also assist with drafting and implementing policies and guidelines around disclosure, reasonable adjustments and speaking to colleagues about mental health.

How to Improve Workplace Harmony

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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

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

Common causes of workplace conflict

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

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

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

how to prevent DISHARMONY turning the workplace toxic

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

Tips to avoid conflict and disharmony include:

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

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

what is the role of mediation?

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

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

when is an investigation required?

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

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

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

Stand By Me: The Role of the Support Person

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For an employee who is on the receiving end of disciplinary action, performance management or a workplace investigation, it is an upsetting, and even a potentially traumatic experience. 

Every employee involved in such a process is entitled to have a support person present during any meetings or interviews. 

A failure to afford an employee a support person can result in the process being deemed a breach of procedural fairness, and the outcome may be declared invalid upon review.

what is the role of a support person?

The role of the support person in any interview or meeting is to provide moral and emotional support, ensure that the process is fair, and to assist with communication - they are not required, or permitted, to act as an advocate, put forward a version of events or make an argument on behalf of the employee.

While support persons are entitled to ask some questions about the process, it is crucial that they don't respond or answer questions in terms of the substance of the matter, on behalf of the employee. 

A person engaged as a translator cannot generally act as a support person at the same time.

CAN AN EMPLOYER DENY A REQUEST FOR A SPECIFIC SUPPORT PERSON?

Only in certain exceptional circumstances the employer can refuse to have a specific person sit in as a support person. 

These circumstances include where the requested support person:

  • Holds a more senior role in the organisation than the person who is conducting the interview - thereby creating a risk of undue influence or pressure by the support person on the interviewer;
  • Could be disruptive to the process or has their own agenda (such as a former employee or somebody who is known to be on bad terms with management or the executive);
  • Is involved with the subject matter of the investigation or may be witness to some of the events. A person who is involved in the investigation in some way cannot be seen to be neutral and it is not desirable for a potential witness to have access to the respondent's evidence. 

Although employers may be able to object to a specific support person who has been requested, they are required to advise employees of their right to select a different person.

tHE ATTITUDE OF THE FAIR WORK COMMISSION

When determining cases of unfair dismissal, one of the factors the Fair Work Commission considers is whether the employee was unreasonably denied the right to have a support person present during any interviews. 

Best practice for employers

To ensure best practice in disciplinary or investigative processes, the following steps should be undertaken:

  • Employees must be advised of their right to select a support person for any relevant meeting
  • Employees must have the opportunity for the meeting to be organised, within reason, at a time when the support person is available
  • The support person must receive a clear explanation of their role - that is, to provide moral support only. 
  • The employer must take into account any additional considerations that could apply, such as those involved in an Enterprise Agreement or similar negotiated agreement with the employee. 

Offering employees a support person to attend any meetings and interviews related to disciplinary action, performance management, or workplace investigation with them, is crucial to the fair outcome of these processes. 

For more detailed information on conducting interviews, you can purchase a copy of our book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators. If you're conducting a workplace investigation and need assistance, contact WISE Workplace 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. 

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.  

Navigating the Choppy Waters of Mental Illness at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 06, 2017

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

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

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

understanding mental illness

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

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

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

managing the contributing factors at work

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

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

supporting workers who disclose a mental illness

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

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

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

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

what happens if a worker doesn't disclose? 

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

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

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

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

protecting all employees

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

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

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

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

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

Key issues which should be address in the policy include: 

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

How can we help

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

Considering Suspending an Employee? What Should You Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

When faced with an allegation of serious misconduct made against a worker, an organisation may seek to suspend the respondent. 

But in what situations is it appropriate to take this kind of action?

tHE LEGALITY OF SUSPENSION 

When taking the significant step of temporarily suspending an employee, an organisation must be able to demonstrate an objectively good reason for doing so. 

Once preliminary enquiries have indicated that there is prima facie evidence to support an allegation of serious misconduct, a risk assessment needs to be carried out, to determine what the risks are associated with suspending or not suspending the respondent. 

The risk assessment should include: 

  • Risks to the complainant and other workers should the respondent remain in the workplace and the potential psychological impact this may have, especially in cases of sexual harassment
  • Risks of the respondent interfering with witnesses or tampering with evidence
  • Potential impact of suspending or not suspending the respondent on the morale of the workforce and the reputation of the organisation
  • Potential impact of suspension on the respondent
  • Whether the suspension or non-suspension is in accordance with the relevant disciplinary policy. 

Generally, it is appropriate to suspend a worker if an investigation into their serious misconduct is being carried out, and their continued presence in the workplace may jeopardise the process. This could include concerns about the misconduct continuing undue influence on or harassment of witnesses, or safety and security issues.

It is important to bear in mind the distinction between 'standing down' and 'suspending' an employee.

In a 'stand down' situation, the employee has not necessarily done anything wrong but the employer cannot usefully employ them for reasons that are outside the employer's control - for example, a fruit picker who cannot continue working during a significant weather event. In those situations, the employee is not paid during the stand down period. 

However, during a suspension period, the employee remains entitled to all rights of their employment contract, except the right to attend work to undertake work duties. 

An alternative to suspension could include redeploying the employee into another area, if the conduct is not of the most serious kind and or if the employer has an alternative site or role available. 

Circumstances leading to suspension 

Suspension should only be utilised in the most serious situations, where the only appropriate next step would likely be termination of employment. 

As such, appropriate circumstances leading to a suspension of an employee generally include accusations of serious misconduct such as defined in Regulation 1.07(2) of the Fair Work Regulations 2009 (Cth)

  • Willful or deliberate behaviour by an employee that is inconsistent with the continuation of the contract of employment;
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the health or safety of a person; or
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the employer's business;
  • The employee, in the course of the employee's employment, engaging in:
            • theft;
            • fraud; or
            • assault;
  •  The employee being intoxicated at work; and
  • The employee refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable instruction that is consistent with the employee's contract of employment. 

Generally, it is appropriate for an employee to be suspended at the beginning of a workplace investigation, although the employee can be suspended during the course of the investigation if it becomes apparent that their presence is or could be interfering with the investigation.

Appropriate conduct by an employer during a suspension

During a period of suspension, an employee is generally asked to keep away from the workplace, colleagues and clients of the business. If they are on full pay then they are generally not entitled to conduct any outside of work employment without the employers consent. 

Although a suspension may be the precursor of a final dismissal once the investigation has been finalised, employees who have been suspended remain entitled to a number of rights, including:

  • Full pay during the period of the suspension
  • Regular review of the suspension period
  • An endeavour to keep the suspension as short as possible
  • A clear explanation of the reasons for the suspension and the anticipated length of the suspension
  • An explanation of the employer's expectations of the employee during the suspension period, such as requiring the employee to be available by telephone during normal business hours. 
  • An assigned contact within the human resources or management team with whom the suspended employee can liaise. 

Avoiding further legal issues

Suspending an employee from the workplace is a serious intrusion on their employment and personal rights. It is essential that employers ensure that all criteria of appropriate conduct are met, in order to avoid a situation where it may be argued that the suspension amounted to a constructive dismissal. Ensuring procedural fairness, transparency and clarity in the process will assist with this objective. 

If you require assistance with a workplace investigation where an employee has been suspended, contact us. We provide full independent and transparent investigation services, or supported investigations where we offer advice and guidance as you compete the process.