When Workplace Relationships Go Wrong

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Given how much time employees spend at work every week, it is hardly surprising that romantic relationships develop in the workplace. 

But what happens when a romance is inappropriate, or attraction crosses the line into sexual harassment?

inappropriate vs unlawful

While there is nothing illegal about a workplace relationship between two consenting adults, in some circumstances it can be inappropriate, for example a romance between a manager and a subordinate. 

There is also a significant difference between mutual and enacted sexual attraction, and unlawful conduct such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or even abuse or assault. Sexual harassment is unlawful under both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Sexual abuse and/or assault is a criminal offence.

the issues and consequences

Workplace relationships can become problematic, particularly in situations where a relationship involves two employees, one of whom oversees the other's performance, management or appraisal. 

Other co-workers may feel aggrieved by a real or perceived bias involving any decisions made by the more senior worker involved in the relationship. Team morale can suffer if one member is seen to be treated more favourably than the rest when it comes to performance appraisals, the allocation of work and promotional opportunities. 

Partly for this reason, employers may be tempted to dismiss employees who have not disclosed the nature of their romantic relationships. The legality of any such dismissal is questionable - however, previous decisions of the Fair Work Commission have suggested that employees may be dismissed in cases where employees are untruthful when they are challenged about the existence of workplace relationships. 

Employees may also make unwanted advances to other employees, as a result of innocently misinterpreting signs of perceived sexual interest. While there's nothing wrong with a co-worker asking a colleague out on a date or making an advance, there is a problem if the 'advancer' fails to accept and move on from any rebuff. 

The potential for negative fallout when a relationship ends is also a key concern for most employers. This is particularly the case if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other party wants to move on - ongoing attention may tip over into sexual harassment. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is 'any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual'.

From an employer's perspective, if sexual misconduct occurs in the workplace (or at employer-sanctioned events such as Christmas parties or other functions) then the business may well be vicariously liable.

There is certainly potential for litigation or unwanted media attention and brand damage as a consequence of sexual misconduct or an inappropriate relationship.    

what can an employer do to minimise the fallout? 

From a risk mitigation perspective, employers should ensure that they have adequately drafted and communicated workplace policies.

At a minimum, these policies should include: 

  • Clear guidelines on the permissibility of relationships between co-workers and when such relationships should be disclosed; 
  • Procedures for what should happen when such a relationship is disclosed, for example when a change in reporting structure is required;
  • A clause addressing conflict of interest and perceived bias (especially when relationships occur between senior and junior staff);
  • A clause defining sexual misconduct, highlighting the definition of sexual harassment and what kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace. 
  • Workplace policies that promote awareness of all gender related issues, including sexual harassment. 

It is common for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. As an employer, it is important to ensure that these circumstances do not lead to incidents of sexual harassment or perceptions of conflict of interest. 

Employers should ensure that they address all complaints of sexual harassment with care. If you have had complaints regarding sexual harassment, or are concerned about potential bias, WISE provides full and supported investigation services

Managing Relationships in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anyone who has been following the news recently will be aware that scandalous sexual relationships in the workplace have become something of a common theme. 

The stories of Seven West Chief Executive, Tim Worner and his former executive assistant (a relationship which ended in legal action), the forced resignations of senior AFL executives over their relationships with younger staff, and the notorious pregnancy of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's staffer have all been highly publicised. 

The ironic fallout of Mr Joyce's relationship is the so-called "bonk ban", instituted by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That ban is intended to prevent all relationships between ministers and their staff, and presumably avoid another scenario such as Mr Joyce's extra-martial affair. 

But is this something which employers can actually impose? Particularly in circumstances where many romantic relationships are forged in the workplace?

can employer prohibit relationships in the workplace?

Although it is virtually unheard of for blanket bans on all relationships to be imposed in any workplace, it is not uncommon for disclosure policies to be introduced. 

The intention of such policies is to require staff members to disclose sexual relationships which could result in a conflict of interest, for example when the relationship is between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Such a code of conduct is designed to manage situations where the interests of the business may be in direct conflict with the romantic or personal interests of the employees. 

Actual conflicts of interest vs perceived conflict of interest

Arguably any relationship in the workplace - not necessarily even a romantic one - could lead to a conflict, particularly when the relationship falls apart or ends badly. This can result in staff feeling unable to work together or believing that they are being victimised by their former lover or friend. 

However, it is important to understand the difference between an actual conflict, and a perceived conflict. 

The Fair Work Commission's decision of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation [2015] FWC 2087 illustrates the difference. In this case, a Westpac bank manager was dismissed from his role due to his conduct arising out of his relationship with one of the bank's employees. 

According to Westpac, Mr Mihalopoulos was dismissed because he was dishonest about his relationship with the worker, breached an apprehended violence order imposed by the worker (after the relationship ended) and inappropriately discussed details of their relationship with his subordinates. 

During the course of the hearing, Mr Mihalopoulos admitted that he had put forward his lover for promotions while they were in a relationship, despite denying their relationship to superiors. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined that employers were entitled to expect that their workers were honest about the nature of relationships that had formed, so that any conflicts of interest arising from these relationships could be managed. 

Further, Mr Mihalopoulos' ongoing and repeated dishonesty about the circumstances of his relationship meant that the business was not in a position to appropriately manage conflicts and therefore manage its own risk. Accordingly, Mr Mihalopoulos' unfair termination application was ultimately dismissed. 

How can relationships be managed in the workplace?

In order to manage the minefield of personal relationships in the workplace, Human Resources departments should ensure that both conflict of interest and disclosure policies are in place, which employees should sign up to as part of their terms of employment. 

Once a disclosure has been made, the conflict of interest policy should provide steps to be taken to minimise ongoing risks to the business. For example, staff might be reassigned to different supervisors to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action can still be taken. 

It is critical not only that these policies exist but that they are clearly communicated to all staff, and that staff are made aware of the potential consequences of failing to adhere to these policies, including redeployment or dismissal. 

If you need assistance in managing workplace relationships at your organisation, contact us. Our team can help formulate policies around disclosure and conflict of interest, and can investigate allegations of misconduct. 

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. 

2017: The Year Sexual Harassment Claimed the Public Spotlight

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 03, 2018

It seems that as 2017 gathered steam, more and more brave survivors of sexual harassment in the workplace gained the courage to name their alleged harassers. 

From Hollywood bigwigs and actors to Australian TV personalities; it seems that a vast array of perpetrators and inappropriate actions within the entertainment industry have finally come to light. 

There is no doubt that any move to identify and eliminate sexual harassment at work is a good thing. However, what is important as we close the 'year of the Weinstein' is that we don't forget some of the less obvious - but no less damaging - manifestations of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The reach of Australian legislation protecting workers is impressive. Yet many workers and employers still fail to recognise that sexual harassment is occurring on a regular basis. For example - a workplace might tacitly support that 'touchy feely' manager, or the 'jokey' worker who pushes the line on blue humour. What is certainly not acceptable under law, can in some contexts become normalised. 

Developing broad-ranging understanding of what is and what is not sexual harassment, can be quite challenging. How to combat this lack of knowledge is the next frontier for employers and workers alike.

Key definitions of sexual harassment

The Federal Sex Discrimination Act contains the following definition of sexual harassment: 

28A - Meaning of Sexual Harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engaged in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed;

in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. 

Importantly, 28A(1)(b) provides for the broader "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature." 

Both workers and employers alike face some knowledge gaps in terms of the reach of the definition. And what could mistakenly be thought of as 'just mucking around' or 'a harmless Aussie joke' might in fact fall squarely within the meaning of sexual harassment. 

As seen in the legislation, it is not a matter of whether the person harassing might have anticipated an adverse reaction from the person harassed. The relevant threshold in gauging the reaction from the viewpoint of the ubiquitous 'reasonable person'. 

global reach - the #metoo campaign

We watched the tsunami of the '#metoo' campaign encouraging women across the globe to share their experiences of sexual harassment, by using the simple hashtag across social media. The campaign has shed valuable light upon the prevalence of sexual harassment in society. 

Both women and men have been subjected to unacceptable words and acts - often without support or a sufficient avenue for redress. We are beginning to understand that sexual harassment is blind to gender, with men becoming susceptible to this behaviour - as the matter of Kordas shows. 

Unique questions arise for employers when we consider the various social media platforms being used by women to spread this message. If a person hashtags #metoo from a workplace, the employer might well have an obligation to follow up on this informal notification. Certainly, if there are subtle or overt signs of a connection between the claim and work, an investigation of possible workplace sexual harassment might well be advisable.

THE extreme and the ugly...

As noted, 2017 could certainly be considered the year in which the issue of sexual harassment hit the headlines in a major way. In the United States, the verbal and physical exploits of Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein became part of a horrifying litany of sexual harassment occurrences in the workplace. Similarly in Australia, media personality Don Burke has faced extensive allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, stemming across many years in his work as the nation's 'gardening guru'. 

Yet it is arguable that such extreme cases do little to assist the public's understanding of the more fine-grained aspects of workplace sexual harassment. Across Australian workplaces, only a small percentage of workers who have been sexually harassed will report the behaviour. In general, this is due to the fact that sexual harassment is only understood to be the kinds of egregious, physical acts that have made media headlines in 2017. 

The subtler acts of sexually-based joking, leering, cornering, propositioning and unwanted affection are less likely understood by workers (and even some employers) as being what they are - sexual harassment. How to keep such harassment at the forefront of employer thinking into 2018 and beyond, is the challenge. 

risk of ignorance 

When whispers and talk arise about an incident of sexual harassment, employers need to pay close attention. If an employee approaches management with a concern, it is important to understand that verbal notification of sexual harassment is generally all that is needed. 

Those subject to harassment are not required to make a formal, written complaint. The risks of not acting on an informal, verbal notification of unacceptable behaviour can be high, as demonstrated by the cases of Trolan and Matthews. Employers in this situation have faced mounting costs associated with statutory and common law claims - not to mention the operational costs of allowing sexual harassment to occur in the workplace initially.

workplace vulnerabilities 

Workplaces where rank and hierarchy exist - such as emergency services and the armed forces - can be particularly susceptible to occurrences of sexual harassment. In the recent NSW case of Torres v Commissioner of Police [2017] NSWIRC 1001, the Commission noted that part of the problem with the senior constable's lewd behaviour stemmed from these displays being forced upon more junior colleagues. His dismissal was found to be warranted in light of the gravity of his sexual harassment at work. Those in lower positions can feel that they have no option but to accept the behaviour. 

Taking advantage of junior and/or more vulnerable workers can also be evident in low-paid and transient industries. Recent unsavoury cases of sexual harassment have been found to have occurred in farming and horticultural industries where transient workers are open to abuses by employers and permanent staff. Similarly, in hospitality workplaces, junior staff are particularly prone to sexual harassment. Age, time in the role, and financial necessity are just some of the vulnerabilities that can lead to harassment.

workplace sexual harassment policies crucial

The importance of having meaningful and accessible workplace sexual harassment policies cannot be overstated. It is not enough to simply email staff about a generic policy on sexual harassment in the workplace. And it is also not satisfactory to do the bulk of education activities at the point of recruitment. 

Like any workplace risk, sexual harassment needs to be monitored across time and in the context of each individual work site. Policies should remain living documents that provide robust responses to any unacceptable workplace behaviours. 

The costs of failing in this area include not only money and time, but also that most valuable of corporate commodities - reputation.

strong but subtle RESPONSES

2017 brought sexual harassment in the workplace front-and-centre for the global viewing public. Tales of power gone astray and a culture of staying quiet have all led to the situations that have dominated the headlines in recent months. There is no denying the importance of bringing such stories to light. However appropriate workplace responses will not simply engage with the worst types of sexual harassment, such as we have heard about recently in the media. Active employers will necessarily source the best and most responsive policies, addressing all issues that might allow sexual harassment to fester and grow in the workplace. 

Hopefully, 2018 will be the year in which all employers develop responsive workplace systems designed to detect the earliest threat of sexual harassment across every site. If you need assistance, WISE Workplace can help with sexual harassment policies, training and investigations.

Crossing the Line: Flirting vs Sexual Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The recent media attention on sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a turning point; what may have been considered 'innocent flirting' in the 70s and 80s is increasingly being called what it is - unwanted harassment. The public condemnation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein's conduct has emboldened people to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against other celebrities, in what some have described as the 'Weinstein ripple effect'. 

There has been a significant shift in recent years in the way the criminal justice system conceptualises consent, and this has likewise affected the perception of harassment. 

Although the Hollywood allegations are of a serious nature, with some amounting to sexual assault and rape, they have also cast the spotlight on work relationships in journalism, entertainment, politics and the everyday workplace -'the office'. The question arises: what constitutes sexual harassment in 2017?

legal definition of sexual harassment in australia

Although many assume that sexual harassment must occur between a man and a woman, in Australia this is not the case - it can take place between persons identifying with any sex or any gender. 

According to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), 'sexual harassment' includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other conduct of a sexual nature - the key element being that the behaviour is not welcomed by the recipient. 

The conduct needs to be assessed from the viewpoint of a reasonable person and whether the reasonable person would consider, in all the circumstances, that the recipient might be 'offended, humiliated or intimidated' by it. 

Even more seriously, sexual assault includes a person being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will and without their consent. If the victim is a child, it's sexual assault regardless of any apparent consent. 

In cases where sexual assault is alleged in the workplace, the complainant needs to be advised that they can make a complaint to the Police. 

Should the conduct involve a minor, it may constitute 'reportable conduct' - which is required to be reported in accordance with the relevant state legislation, as well as to the Police. 

SO, is it flirting - or harassment?

Many interpersonal interactions between employees are, particularly in their early stages, subtler and more ambiguous than clear examples of harassment. Smiles, winks, compliments, sexual innuendo and humour, suggestive glances, or even a touch on the arm or shoulder could be seen by some as innocent flirting - but perceived by others as harassment. Recipients of such behaviour may wonder whether these comments and behaviours are friendly or sinister in nature, intentional or accidental, a one-time event or likely to persist. 

When determining whether behaviour might be sexual harassment, it can be made clearer by answering some important questions, such as: 

  • Does the recipient seem uncomfortable or fail to respond to comments or discussions?
  • Is one person involved in the conversation in a position of authority?
  • Could the person making the overtures impose real professional consequences on the recipient if they were turned down?

the role of touching in sexual harassment

It is clear that engaging in unwanted touching is an even more serious offence than making offensive or inappropriate comments or suggestions. For this reason, many employers consider it prudent to ban physical contact in the workplace beyond simple handshakes. Of course, this can also have an impact on how friendly the workplace is perceived as being, so depending on your workplace, it may be more appropriate to closely monitor physical interaction rather than ban it outright. Generally speaking, however, those in positions of power such as managers or supervisors should avoid physical contact where possible. 

the role of power and status

Interestingly, studies have revealed that some men in positions of power find their roles inextricably linked to sex - meaning that they struggle to differentiate between women (or other men, if that lines up with their sexual orientation) who are sexually responsive, or who are simply being friendly. For many reasons, not least to protect a business against potential claims of harassment, employers must do their best to minimise the potential for any inappropriate conduct to occur between managers and supervisors and staff. 

So what should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure that they are safe and protected while at work. Employers must have clear policies in place on what types of behaviour are considered to be sexual harassment, and how complaints can be made. Policies should be well communicated to all staff, and staff should be educated on what is expected of them regarding behaviour in the workplace. 

In order to protect your business and staff against flirting going too far and turning into sexual harassment, contact WISE Workplace today for expert assistance with workplace investigations, anti-sexual harassment training and assistance with reviewing or drafting your policies.  

Grooming, or an Error in Judgment?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 18, 2017

No employer likes to think that one of their staff members might deal inappropriately with a client, or even could possibly commit a criminal act. But all employers need to be aware of the potential for professional boundaries to be crossed in these ways. This is particularly important for organisations that work directly with vulnerable members of society, including children, the elderly, and the disabled 

We take a look at when certain behaviours might be deemed to be significant errors of judgment, or in the worst-case scenario, grooming.

The definitions 

In NSW, the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 sets out the requirements for people who work with children. It defines misconduct involving children to include the action of 'grooming'. 

Similarly, Section 25A (1) of the Ombudsman Act 1974 (NSW) considers 'reportable conduct' to include: 

  • Any sexual offence or misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child, including child pornography. Grooming, sexually explicit comments and other overtly sexual behaviour, as well as crossing professional boundaries are included in the definition of sexual misconduct. 
  • Any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child.
  • Any behaviour, which causes psychological harm to a child, even if the child agreed to that behaviour. 

In NSW, the offence of grooming is set out in Section 66EB of the Crimes Act 1900. It is defined as behaviour by an adult who exposes a child to indecent material or provides a child with an intoxicating substance with the intention of making it easier to procure the child for unlawful sexual activity. 

A child is defined as being under the age of 16, however the maximum penalty for the offence of grooming is higher (up to 12 years), if the child is under 14. This is very similar to the definition contained in the Commonwealth Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Act 2010

By contrast, in Victoria the Crimes Amendment (Grooming) Act 2014 defines grooming as 'predatory conduct' engaged in to prepare a child for participation in sexual activity at a later time. What is relevant in Victoria is the intention in the interaction. 

For example, even if nothing sexual is ever explicitly discussed or implied, shown or raised, the conduct can still be considered 'grooming' if the person befriends a child or their parent with the intended, hidden purpose of later pursuing sexual activity. 

grooming children - examples of common behaviours

Specific instances of grooming are likely to differ depending on the circumstances, but examples could include:

  • Creating a belief in a child or group of children that they are in a special relationship with the 'groomer', whether by participating in particularly adult conversation or providing 'special' gifts or activities. 
  • Permitting testing of boundaries, such as engaging in adult or inappropriate behaviours, including jokes, sexual displays or nudity in front of a child. 
  • Establishing an inappropriate relationship outside of work, including inappropriate or excessive text, email or social media contact, or developing unnecessary and close friendships with family members. 
  • Targeting children who are particularly vulnerable due to disability, history of trauma or previous emotional, physical or sexual abuse.  

a case in point

A recent decision of the Victorian County Court highlights some of the difficulties in determining whether behaviour constitutes grooming, or simply a person creating a bond because they want to help out a vulnerable child. 

In this case, reported by The Age, a troubled student was mentored by a teacher in his mid-20's There was never any sexual contact between them, but the teacher provided numerous gifts and engaged in regular excursions with the pre-teen boy, eventually turning into 'sleepovers'.

The accounts of the boy suggest that the sleepovers included physical contact and sexual discussion, which was completely denied by the teacher. Although the teacher was ultimately acquitted of charges, his life and livelihood were destroyed.  

gROOMING THE ELDERLY - FINANCIAL ABUSE

Another, less well-known example of grooming involves a specific type of behaviour, by carers or medical staff, towards elderly patients. These actions are designed to foster unnaturally close relationships between the caregiver and the client, with the intention of obtaining financial gain. This could occur through:

  • Traditional theft, such as taking money or items from a client's room.
  • Misusing financial information, such as PIN numbers or cheque books, to take out unauthorised funds. 
  • In extreme cases, procuring powers of attorney, or ensuring inclusion into wills in order to obtain a significant portion or the entirety of a financial estate. 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GROOMING AND AN ERROR IN JUDGMENT

A finding that behaviour constitutes grooming, as opposed to a simple error of judgment, is likely to depend on the intention and the degree of the wrongdoing. Circumstances, which could contribute towards a finding of grooming include:

  • Whether an action is a 'once off' or a repeated pattern. For example, one ill-considered movie outing between a teacher and a student, or a series of meetings outside school hours. 
  • Whether there is any ulterior motive, particularly a sexual one, or if a decision was simply made rashly.
  • Whether the person in a position of authority intentionally pursued or sought out a relationship with the vulnerable person. 
  • Whether there may be a reasonable alternative explanation for the behaviour.
  • Whether there was a request/coercion for the vulnerable person to keep any aspect of the relationship secret.
  • Whether there was repeated conduct despite previous warnings from supervisors/managers. 

why codes of conduct are important

If your organisation works with vulnerable persons such as children, specific Codes of Conduct, which set out the professional boundaries expected between staff and clients, and the consequences for any breach of these, can be very useful. 

If you require assistance drafting a Code of Conduct, which meets all of your organisation's needs, or have received a complaint that professional boundaries may have been crossed in your workplace and need to undertake a workplace investigation, contact WISE Workplace. We offer full or supported investigation services and can also assist with investigation training, awareness training.

Professional Distance and Social Media

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Maintaining professional distance in the workplace can be challenging at the best of times. There is a very fine line between managing interpersonal relationships, ensuring that colleagues and co-workers get along with each other, and developing such close relationships that potential conflicts of interest or social problems arise. 

This juggle has become even more difficult with the advent of social media, which can blur that fine line, and complicate relationships in a whole new range of ways.

Types of social media platforms   

Social media has evolved from the early networks, like MySpace or MSN to a whole range of different platforms. There are now professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, image-sharing sites such as Instagram or Snapchat (where images self-destruct after a certain time) and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Whatsapp etc. for social interaction. 

positive use of social media in the workplace

As with any other tool, there are some positive uses for social media in the workplace. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, can be a helpful way to connect with likeminded professionals, or introduce co-workers to other people whose interests may be professionally aligned. 

Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook allow businesses to share news or promote themselves, or permit staff members in different geographical locations to stay in touch. Indeed, many large companies use personalised social media tools such as Yammer to enable staff throughout the organisation to communicate internally. 

when is social media use inappropriate?

Unfortunately, social media can also be misused in the workplace context. In many situations, it is not colleagues being 'friends' on social media that is the main issue, but rather the dissemination of too much information, inappropriate content or the sharing of information with an inappropriate audience. 

It is easy to over-share on social media, forget who the information is potentially accessible to, and the fact that it is often permanent once it is shared. 

Types of inappropriate social media use may include:

  • Posting negative or offensive comments about co-workers, employers, or the workplace (especially if the person posting the comments does not consider who their contacts and potential readers include)
  • Sharing excessively personal information, either about themselves, or other people, which removes professionalism or an ability to maintain a professional distance from co-workers. 
  • Posting comments which could potentially negatively affect the reputation of the employer or co-workers
  • Sharing confidential information concerning clients, co-workers and pending or current contracts/agreements
  • Creating circumstances whereby colleagues may start to dislike each other. For example, it is likely to be completely irrelevant to a working relationship whether a colleague supports the current Prime Minister, or has a particular religious affiliation, but sharing polarising views on social media could cause work relationships to fracture. 

Walking the line

The most significant misuse of social media in the workplace arises from the potential for the professional lines to be blurred - including where inappropriately close, possibly sexual or romantic relationships form. This is especially important in situations where there is a power imbalance - for example, between a manager and a staff member, a teacher and a student, or a treating doctor or psychologist and their patient. 

In these circumstances, it is likely best to avoid a social media 'friendship' completely, in order to ensure that the appropriate professional distance is maintained.

why workplaces need social media guidelines

Employers should have clear policies in place which set out the rules and obligations for employees interacting with colleagues or mentioning the workplace on social media, and the consequences for a breach of the policy. 

A coherent and well-communicated policy can prevent or limit the fallout from many of the issues associated with a failure to maintain professional distance. 

If you are seeking advice on implementing a social media policy, or you require a workplace investigation into a potential conflict of interest or inappropriate relationship or misuse of social media, we can help. WISE Workplace offers both full and supported investigations. You can also find out more about the issues involved in maintaining professional distance here.  

Codes of Conduct and Different Professions

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A Code of Conduct sets out the 'golden rules' or guidelines in which employers and industry bodies codify acceptable standards of behaviour in the workplace. 

Individual businesses can develop their own Codes of Conduct applicable to their specific interests. Many professional bodies also implement standardised Codes of Conduct covering behaviour which is perceived as being a particular risk within that type of industry. 

Why is a code of conduct important?   

A Code of Conduct provides employees with clear parameters for what is appropriate and inappropriate at work. 

The precise content of a Code of Conduct depends on the nature of the industry or business to which it applies. For example, the legal industry imposes strict requirements on confidentiality and integrity, which may be unnecessary in other industries. 

One important aspect of a Code of Conduct is ensuring specific guidelines are in place regarding professional distance and potential conflicts of interest that may arise, whether actual or perceived. 

Acceptable behaviour under these guidelines is likely to differ significantly depending on what is appropriate within a certain profession. For example, while a general practitioner or a physical therapist needs to have physical contact with their clients and patients in order to perform their duties, there is a completely different expectation on teachers, where specific types of physical contact can be inappropriate, in breach of the Code of Conduct or can even constitute reportable conduct. 

The Code of Conduct should also address complaints handling and the specific disciplinary response for conflicts of interest and other breaches of the Code.

dealing with vulnerable persons and a 'special class' of clients

In addition to avoiding the more obviously inappropriate behaviours such as perceived sexual or excessive physical contact, professional Codes of Conduct have regard to the type of clients or customers their adherents are likely to encounter. 

In the spheres of nursing, teaching, social work and psychology, practitioners will almost inevitably deal with vulnerable people. Indeed, the nature of the work and the clients' vulnerabilities may mean that they form inappropriate attachments or relationships with professional staff. Guidelines for dealing with these types of situations, including appropriate reporting requirements and the potential for independent observers to be used, are necessary parts of the Code of Conduct for these professions. 

In a similar vein, aged care, legal or financial service providers must ensure that there cannot be any misconception of inappropriate behaviour constituting potential financial abuse or conflict of interest, such as putting undue and improper pressure on a client to make a financial bequest or confer a financial advantage.

Abuse of power

Explicit Codes of Conduct governing conflicts of interest and biased behaviour are vital in professions that are open to abuse of power. For example, there is considerable potential for corruption, fraud and conflicts of interest to arise in the case of staff employed in Local Government or in procurement, public servants and police officers. 

a case in point

David Luke Cottrell and NSW Police [2017] NSWIRComm1030 is a recent example of a breach of a Code of Conduct by a police officer, which ultimately resulted in his dismissal. Constable Cottrell was dismissed from his position after he received payments for tipping off a local tow truck driver about the location of motor vehicle accidents. In essence, Constable Cottrell was passing on confidential information and in doing so, directly created a conflict of interest for himself, and also provided an unfair commercial advantage to the tow truck operator. 

Given that by the very nature of their work, police officers ought to be paragons of moral behaviour, this arrangement clearly breached appropriate professional ethics. This was notwithstanding the police officer's argument in response to his dismissal that he was trying to be 'effective' by clearing accident sites and did not realise that the leaked information was controversial. 

Ultimately, it was held that he had breached the appropriate Code of Conduct by failing to meet the expected high standards of behaviour of a police officer, and did not appreciate the gravity of his misconduct, failed to protect the confidentiality of information and did not carry out his duties impartially.

Determining whether a breach has occurred

Conflicts of interest and inappropriate behaviour can occur inadvertently, and are not always a result of intentional wrongdoing. For this reason, it's important that Codes of Conduct are effectively communicated to staff, and that the penalties for breaches of the code are clearly defined. 

If you suspect that one of your employees may have breached an applicable Code of Conduct, it will become necessary for you to conduct a workplace investigation. WISE Workplace can provide full or supported investigation services to assist you in determining whether any breaches have occurred. 

To find out more about professional distance and conflicts of interest, check out our series on this topic. 

Professional Distance and Conflict of Interest at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

During the seventies and eighties, organisations started to realise that the improper use of power and authority and undeclared and/or ineffectively managed conflicts of interest, posed a significant risk to their integrity and public trust. 

The requirement for ethical business dealings focuses the spotlight on conflicts of interests and the factors involved in creating the perception of conflicts of interest in the workplace. 

It can be difficult to maintain a suitable professional distance with colleagues, subordinates and suppliers, particularly if a significant friendships have been formed outside the workplace. There is an increased risk when managers, employees and co-workers communicate on social media. Employers must also be vigilant about the risks of inappropriate levels of professional distance with clients or colleagues, especially in circumstances where such behaviour may lead to, or can be perceived as, grooming of vulnerable persons. 

When it comes to conflicts of interest, it is best to completely avoid any behaviour, which may result in the creation of a real or perceived conflict of interest. For this reason, many professions address this specifically in their Codes of Conduct or may draft specific conflict of interest policies, which set out expected and appropriate standards of behaviour. 

In our planned six-part series we'll unpack the key elements of professional distance and conflict of interest, from maintaining professional boundaries to determining the difference between a lapse of judgement and grooming. 

breaching professional boundaries   

According to Dr. Anna Corbo Crehan, from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, questions of professional distance occur when two or more people involved in a professional relationship also have an additional relationship, such as one based on love, attraction, friendship or family. "So then, professional distance is the space a professional must keep between their professional relationship with another, and any other relationship they have with that person. By keeping this space, a professional can fulfil their professional and personal obligations, and be seen to do so, in a way that is impartial and/or non-exploitative in regard to the other in the relationship", she says. 

Breaching professional boundaries can also refer to the failure to manage conflicts of interest. A particularly close relationship between co-workers, especially those involving persons in a position of authority, may create the perception (whether real or imagined) of inappropriate work-related benefits or advantages being bestowed on a close associate because of the friendship. 

The most common types of conflict of interest are financial, such as where a monetary advantage is bestowed or a financial saving made, and personal, where a clear benefit is provided to the recipient such as a promotion or an opportunity for advancement or training and development. 

The best way to avoid perceived conflicts of interest is by maintaining clear professional boundaries, especially by those in a position of power, such as employers, supervisors, managers, or instructors. In extreme circumstances it may be prudent to completely avoid forming any relationships with colleagues outside of work.

codes of conduct and different professions 

Many professions abide by specific Codes of Conduct, which set out and govern acceptable standards of behaviour in their specific industry and provide comprehensive guidelines as to what is considered appropriately maintained levels of professional distance in that industry. 

For example, an inappropriate level of closeness may mean one thing in the context of a school teacher, and another thing in the context of a physical therapist. Professions such as nursing, teaching and social work need to have an additional emphasis on protecting vulnerable persons (such as children, the elderly, the disabled, of the mentally ill) from unscrupulous persons of the effects of inappropriately close relationships. 

In other professions, such as aged care or legal services, it is vital that professional distance is maintained to avoid any perception (whether actual or imagined) of financial abuse and conflicts of interest, when a client confers excessive financial benefits on the service provider. 

One recent example of a breach of an industry specific Code of Conduct involved a police officer who sold confidential information and provided accident locations to a tow truck driver, who gained a financial advantage from arriving on the scene ahead of competitors. 

On many occasions, a failure to maintain an appropriate professional distance occurs inadvertently or without any intentional wrongdoing. While it is beneficial for colleagues to develop good relationships with their co-workers, it is important for all employees to be able to maintain a perception of professional distance so that it does not appear as though they are incapable of making impartial business related decisions. 

professional distance and social media 

In the modern workplace, social media has become a virtually omnipresent phenomenon. With the advent of many different types of social media platforms, including LinkedIn and Facebook, there are many opportunities for workers to remain connected. 

Most employers recognise that social media is a platform that is both complimentary to, and additional to, other methods of communication and engagement used by them. Most employers also understand the beneficial networking functions of social media, particularly in the case of LinkedIn, however there is a far greater risk of boundaries being crossed or lines being blurred when communicating through social media. 

There can be particular difficulties in utilising social media when dealing with vulnerable people such as students, the disabled or persons with mental health issues. As a general rule, it is inappropriate for work colleagues or employers to share overly personal information or material on social media. Most workplaces have a clearly set-out social media policy. It is important that employees are made aware of its contents and application and are encouraged to use social media in a responsible, reasonable and ethical manner, in accordance with the employer's Code of Conduct. 

Broadly, if content is critical of a colleague, affects his/her reputation, is personal, hurtful, potentially embarrassing to a co-worker, or otherwise inappropriate, it could easily breach the requirements of professional distance.   

determining grooming, or an error of judgement. 

An important aspect of maintaining professional distance involves taking steps to avoid situations where it could be perceived that 'grooming' is taking place. This is essential not just in the context of children, but other people who are deemed to be vulnerable, including the elderly, those with disabilities, or those involved in situations where there is a power imbalance. 

The act of grooming is a criminal offence in many Australian states. It is a term which generally refers to deliberate and sustained contact with a vulnerable person in order to obtain their trust and prepare them to participate in the groomer's intended purpose, which may be sexually, financially or otherwise motivated. 

As a responsible employer, if somebody reports concerns about potential grooming, or you observe the possibility of such behaviour occurring, it is important that a workplace investigation is conducted to determine whether the contact is in fact grooming, or merely represents a lapse in judgement.

Dealing with a breach of boundaries 

The best litmus test when assessing appropriate levels of professional distance between managers and employees, between co-workers or between employees and clients, is whether there could, in the view of a reasonable person, be a perception of inappropriate behaviour, conflict of interest, favouritism, nepotism, or even grooming. 

If there is any possibility that such assumptions could be made, then it is likely that professional boundaries are being crossed. 

If you have doubts regarding a potential conflict of interest or breach of professional distance, then it is best to get an impartial third party to investigate. Our services include full and supported workplace investigations and training. Contact WISE Workplace today to find out how we can best be of assistance.