To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what must employers do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pros and cons of disclosure

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

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

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

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

mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Employees can contribute to good mental health at work by:

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

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

What To Do When Faced With Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In the event of an allegation of child sexual abuse in the workplace, it is essential that immediate steps are taken to ensure the safety of any child allegedly involved. 

Following from this crucial first response, mandatory reports need to be made to the relevant statutory child protection authorities and subject to any police investigation, the allegations must be objectively investigated. The investigation report must be provided to the appropriate authority. 

As a society, we are beginning to understand the true nature and extent of child sexual abuse, including the insidious manner in which this crime can take place. Employers must be swift to report where required, providing all necessary support to various parties throughout the course of the investigative process. 

If in doubt, reporting child abuse allegations to the Police is preferable to inaction.

preying on vulnerability

Child sexual abuse by its very nature is a violation of trust, relying as it does upon the vulnerability of minors. As well as involving criminal physical and sexual acts, emotional abuse 'grooming' and 'crossing boundaries' are now recognised as being part of the matrix of child sexual abuse. 

For example, in an educational setting or community group, crossing boundaries and grooming can involve subtle favouritism from the employee towards one or more children. This can develop into a falsely 'special' connection that can ultimately lead to more tangible forms of abuse. 

For employers, protection against child sexual abuse by employers will require knowing the warning signs of inappropriate relationships and acting swiftly where needed.

Employers' responsibility to report

If an allegation of child sexual abuse arises in the workplace, the first priority for the employer is to secure the safety and welfare of the child/ren allegedly involved. This holds true even if the allegation is speculative or based upon unverified reports. 

Some employers will have mandatory reporting requirements dictated by legislation, which will require the reporting of any activity causing or likely to cause harm to a child as soon as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. 

Above all, employers who become aware of possible child sexual abuse in the workplace must not delay reporting until a finding has been made. A report needs to be made as soon as the employer becomes aware of the allegation. 

Further, while strong policies around the reporting of child sexual abuse will guide timely and appropriate action, a failure to act cannot be blamed upon the lack of such resources.

Across australia - reporting child sexual abuse

As a nation - and particularly since Australians have become more aware of our institutional failures - we have learned to better protect and support children who are subject to child sexual abuse. 

If an allegation of child sexual abuse arises in connection with employment, there will be subtle differences between the Australian States and Territories regarding the form that a report should take. 

A summary report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) demonstrates that while there are some differences in the size and quantity of State and Territory legislation protecting children, the overall structure is similar - a Child Protection (or similarly named) Act, plus in many cases statutory reporting requirements to a statutory child protection department and/or Ombudsman, or similar body. 

Regardless of which jurisdiction an employer operates in, it is important to remember that procedural fairness must be provided throughout the entire process from allegation through to investigation and reporting. 

internal or external investigation? 

An allegation of child sexual abuse in the workplace will ordinarily be followed by practical steps to ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the child involved. 

Following this, the person or persons alleged to have carried out the abuse need to be informed of the allegation and advised of the next steps to be taken. 

Depending upon the severity of the alleged conduct, a period of immediate leave might be provided. It is vital to ensure that the person accused is given all necessary information about the process. This will include giving an initial outline of the allegation, the nature of reporting requirements and the type of investigation to be undertaken. 

Whether an investigation should be carried out internally or externally is a vital question for employers to consider. In such sensitive cases as child sexual abuse allegations, an internal investigator would need to be knowledgeable and experienced in all facets of objective and fair workplace investigations, be familiar with Child Protection Legislation and be experienced at interviewing children. If a workplace exhibits turmoil and division regarding the allegation, or expertise is simply not available in-house, then it might be best to source external assistance in conducting the investigation. 

When allegations of abuse arise the primary focus must be the safety, welfare and wellbeing of any child who may have been involved in the alleged conduct - or who may be at risk of harm due to contact with that employee. 

If you work with children and want to ensure your practices are current, WISE provides training services, including investigating abuse in care. Alternatively, if you have an allegation of abuse, and are unsure what to do, 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.

Issues with Intoxicated or Hungover Staff? What to do

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Most adults like to indulge in the use of alcohol from time to time. Some even like to partake a little more frequently - which is generally not problematic, in the privacy of one's own home and social sphere.

But occasionally problems with alcohol or even drug consumption can creep into the workplace, with staff under the influence while at work or under performing because of the after-effects. 

Employers have an OHS duty of care to all employees so they need to ensure that alcohol in the workplace does not give rise to safety risks. Employees also have a duty of care to themselves. Let's take a look at how employers can manage alcohol and drug-related issues in the workplace.

underlying factors and potential consequences

Alcohol and drug-related problems can occur in any workplace, across different industries. They can arise due to any number of factors, including personal issues experienced by the employee, stress, ongoing addiction, or poor workplace culture, to name a few. 

The potential consequences of alcohol or drug consumption - whether recreational or prescription - include the risk of injuries sustained by other staff and customers, absenteeism, lost production or general lack of competence, and a reliance on rehabilitation or workers compensation. 

The cost of these problems to business varies, however 1 in 10 workers say they have experienced the negative effects of a co-worker's misuse of alcohol.   

identifying alcohol or drug-related risks

One of the best ways to avoid difficulties with drugs and alcohol in the workplace is to identify potential risks and develop workplace policies that address these. 

These are some of the factors to consider when determining the level of risk facing your business:

  • Are your workers engaged in a high-stress environment? 
  • Is the operation of heavy machinery, vehicles or other equipment a requirement of your business?
  • Are there legislative or safety requirements to ensure that anybody operating this equipment is free from the influence of substances? 
  • Do staff potentially have access to illegal or significant amounts of pharmaceutical drugs, whether for their own consumption or for resale?

implementing a workplace drug and alcohol policy

At a minimum, your workplace policies should spell out:

  • Whether your company has a zero-tolerance policy for any types of drug or alcohol consumption;
  • Whether staff are required to declare reliance on specific pharmaceutical medications;
  • If random drug or alcohol testing is undertaken in the workplace; 
  • What expectations are placed on drug and alcohol consumption at work-related functions;
  • What the potential consequences of intoxication in the workplace could be

It is important to note that Section 12 of the Fair Work Act defines "serious misconduct" to include an employee being intoxicated at work. It would therefore be reasonable to dismiss an employee under those circumstances. 

It is also worthwhile ensuring that HR and other executive employees have undergone training in identifying staff who are intoxicated in the workplace or have perhaps formed habits of dependence. 

how to approach a worker who is under the influence 

When staff members suspect that a colleague may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is important to be extremely sensitive in approaching that person. The specific approach will, of necessity, be dictated by various factors, including:

  • The relevant industry;
  • The workplace culture and structure;
  • The employee's role and seniority; 
  • The personal circumstances of the employee;
  • Whether the occurrence is 'once off' of suggests a pattern of behaviour; 
  • The legal environment;
  • The duties and responsibilities of the employee.

An employee is likely to be more responsive if they are approached from the perspective of a safety concern rather than an accusation. This is particularly the case where the behaviour or intoxication may arise from physical injuries, acute distress or prescribed medication which the patient is reacting badly to. 

During the process of drafting a workplace policy relating to drug and alcohol consumption, management should consider appointing and training specific staff members whose role it is to approach employees who are suspected to be under the influence of substances. 

These staff members could include managers, counsellors, health and safety representatives or HR representatives. A chain of command should also be instituted so that staff who have been tasked with making initial contact have somebody else to turn to for assistance if their initial approach fails.

If an employer dismisses an employee for drug/alcohol abuse and ends up with a claim for unfair dismissal, then a good employer defence would include that they had a workplace policy and approach that not only included clear consequences but also emphasised that the employer views abuse as a health issue and therefore seeks to help the employee overcome their abuse (this would be in cases where abuse outside of work is affecting performance as opposed to being intoxicated or high at work). 

This can be done by having an Employee Assistance Program (provided by an external provider); having a mental health and wellbeing policy; and an 'RUOK' approach - whereby managers encourage a culture of everyone looking out for each other and literally asking, are you ok? After all, such welfare approaches are exhausted over a reasonable period of time an employer would be safe to move to disciplinary approaches. 

Employers may also need to assess whether the issue is widespread, ie. a workplace culture of abuse. If this is the case, then there maybe engrained cultural issues that need to be investigated and remedied.   

What can employers do?

Workplaces are encouraged to establish a workplace drug and alcohol policy and procedure that can be followed in the event of a drug or alcohol-related incident in the organisation. 

WISE can assist you in drafting these policies, or assessing your current policy, and training staff. Alternatively, we can provide investigative services for any incidents that have occurred in the workplace. 

How to Implement and Promote Workplace Policies

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 04, 2018

A suite of robust policies and procedures is an essential element of good governance in any organisation. Often employers discover that their policies and procedures are inadequate, only once their actions are reviewed by a tribunal or court. 

Adequate workplace policies are key mechanisms for outlining exactly what the standards of conduct are in your organisation. Workplace policies should clearly and succinctly explain the topic covered and provide the procedures that need to be followed in a given area. 

Let's take a look at the features of a well-written policy, plus the best ways to implement, promote and review these important business documents.

the benefit of a well-written policy

The benefits of a well-written policy cannot be overstated. Sometimes policies are mistakenly seen as 'stating the obvious' in the workplace. Yet, without workplace policies that set out clear requirements and processes, confusion and mismanagement can spread across the organisation. 

A good place to start when developing a policy or procedure is to seek the ideas and input from the key people involved. This can improve staff commitment to the policy if they observe in the final document that their voice has been heard. 

In terms of style, a well-written policy must demonstrate clarity and specificity. While it is in order to outline at the beginning of a policy where it 'fits' into organisational objectives, generalisations should be avoided. 

For example, rather than requesting that 'staff should make sure that they respect client privacy when it comes to using files', a well written policy is likely to include specific directives such as 'Hardcopy client files must be stored in the section F compactus within 30 minutes of use'.

developing policies to suit your workplace

There is an art to developing and introducing workplace policies that will be read, understood, accepted and actually used. 

Firstly, all stakeholders in the organisation - staff, suppliers, clients, contractors - need to see that management is fully in support of the policy's content. Policies without perceived support and commitment from management are unlikely to gain traction with staff. 

Similarly, policy developers must consult effectively with staff about the proposed policies and welcome their comments; after all, they are the ones likely to be dealing with the contents on a day-to-day basis. 

A well-written workplace policy needs to clearly define key terms within the policy. New employees will need to familiarise themselves with expectations of their role and responsibilities as quickly as possible, without the confusing jargon. Defining 'the obvious' terms can save frustration and costs down the track. 

introducing policies and procedures

Once the scope and substance are ascertained, the policy must be documented and distributed effectively. 

Make sure that the initial publicity effort is multi-media and ensure that during induction of new employees, in team meetings, on the intranet, at training, in the staff bulletin and on the kitchen cork board (plus anywhere else that works), you give clear information about the policy and where to find it. 

Following up on your publicity about the policy and refresher training is essential and should be carried out regularly across the organisation.

Evaluation and review

No matter how well written, a good policy or procedure will still need to be evaluated and reviewed. 

A logical starting point can be to check effectiveness against key objectives. For example, injury rates or client complaint numbers might be used to gauge the success or otherwise of a particular policy. 

Another good source of information to help you assess the policy will be the people actually impacted by its wording. 

Policy developers need to be truly open to ideas when it comes to reviewing existing policies. Good governance and strong organisational achievement will often depend upon robust, realistic and clearly-worded policy documents. 

WISE Workplace can review your current policies, advise you on their appropriateness and update your suite of policies and procedures. Contact us today!