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.  

How to Deal with Bullying in Hospital Environments

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Hospitals - very few people like them, yet many of us will be a resident at one time or another. Even though hospitals can be sources of great joy, places where babies are born, miracles happen and lives are saved, they also represent sickness, injury, death, and some pretty ordinary food! 

The people who work in them - the doctors, surgeons, nurses, aides, assistants, administrators and catering staff - perform difficult work in an extremely stressful environment. Imagine the potential consequences when the added stressor of workplace bullying is added to the mix.

Factors which facilitate bullying in this environment 

Hospitals and the healthcare sector remain a particularly hierarchical environment - carers need to get sign-off from nurses before passing out certain medications, nurses confirm recommended treatments with doctors, doctors and surgeons rely on their own pecking order. 

This hierarchy, and the importance of culture and following rules, automatically puts certain workers in a subordinate position relative to others.

Lateral violence, verbal, physical and psychological bullying among peers, can also be an issue in the health services. 

Combined with the stress of having to deal with time-critical emergencies, becoming involved in physically and mentally straining situations and dealing with the trauma of patients suffering, hospitals are the perfect breeding ground for hostility, anger and frustration.

Prevalence of bullying

Bullying in the healthcare sector is an under-recognised but pervasive problem. Hospitals often have scant or limited resources and staff are under significant pressure, which may contribute to the prevalence of workplace bullying.

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine surveyed its members in 2017 and found 34% had experienced bullying, 16.1% had experienced harassment and just over six percent had been victims of sexual harassment. A landmark 2015 report commissioned by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons showed that almost half of all surgeons had experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. 

The Victorian Auditor General Office, in its 2016 report to the Victorian Parliament, 'Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector', stated 

"The Health Sector is unable to demonstrate that it has effective controls in place to prevent or reduce inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment. Key controls that would effectively reduce this risk to employee health and safety are either inadequately implemented, missing or poorly coordinated." 

However, by its very nature, bullying in this type of workplace can be particularly difficult to detect and manage. 

Consequences of bullying

The potential consequences of bullying are significant. In addition to litigation arising from the bullying and costs associated with worker's compensation or other payouts, a number of issues can arise. These include:

  • High turnover amongst dissatisfied staff
  • Presenteeism - where staff turn up at work, but are unhappy or stressed and perform inadequately, which is particularly dangerous in a hospital environment. 
  • Increased absenteeism
  • A poorly functioning team environment that can adversely affect staff and patients.      

are there solutions to bullying in high-stress environments?  

Key strategies to help solve the problem include:

  • A focus on workplace culture, including by conducting regular cultural audits. 
  • Encouraging a 'mentor' or 'buddy' system (in consultation with unions where appropriate), or otherwise provide a supportive environment whereby staff are encouraged to vent or ask for assistance with any matters they are struggling with. 
  • Facilitating easy access for staff to obtain confidential counselling, or advice services. 
  • Fostering an environment where staff feel comfortable raising concerns and complaints with their peers and management.
  • Having clear zero tolerance policies regarding workplace bullying and harassment, which are easily accessible to all staff
  • Ensure that this zero tolerance policy, is demonstrated by senior management, so there is a top down recognition of adherence to the policy from all staff. 
  • Staff need to be regularly reminded of the consequences of any poor behaviour in the workplace and this should be reinforced during staff meetings.  

Bullying or harassment - in any workplace - is simply unacceptable. Many incidents of bullying or harassment may be unreported for fear of reprisals. All staff should be encouraged to report any incident. 

If your organisation needs any assistance in this area please contact WISE to arrange a no-obligation appointment or otherwise contact us to discuss how we may assist you. Our services include investigation, training, provision of a whistleblower facility (which can be tailored to suit your reporting needs), and review of policies

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. 

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.  

Workplace Party Pitfalls and Perils (A Christmas Story)

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 15, 2017

At a time when workers increasingly work remotely, communicate online or use hot desks, the annual staff Christmas party is a valuable opportunity to get everyone interacting face to face. 

A Christmas party is also a good way of getting staff who rarely see one another during the working week to meet, to reward staff for hard work, to celebrate the success of the past year, and to motivate employees for the year ahead. 

At the same time, it is essential that reasonable steps are taken to manage the risk to the organisation's reputation, to provide an environment free from discrimination and to protect the health and safety of all involved in the Christmas party. 

Small wonder then that there is a fine line between potentially permitting a situation to get out of hand, and being so risk averse that you kill the fun of the party altogether. 

Here's a quick guide for employees and employers on how to avoid the potential perils of the work Christmas party.

when is a party classed as a workplace event?

First, in order for a business to be legally liable for events that occur at a Christmas party, it must be considered a 'workplace event'. However, this can extend beyond something which is specifically labelled an 'end of year function' or 'Christmas party', and can include something as informal as a picnic or a sporting activity - or even an unplanned and spontaneous event like an after party. 

The factors that determine whether something is defined as a workplace event include:

  • Whether the employer sponsored or funded the event.
  • If the employer was involved in organising the event or issued invitations.
  • Whether attendance was voluntary or whether the employer expected attendance - for example, by requiring employees who did not attend to take annual leave or work instead. 
  • If employees consider it a 'perk' of employment to attend the event.
  • Whether the employer benefitted from the event, for example by having the opportunity to present awards or network with clients.  

SO HOW CAN THINGS GO WRONG?

Some notable mishaps from past Christmas parties include: 

  • The dismissal of an employee for haranguing and then pushing a fully clothed co-worker into a swimming pool. That decision was upheld by the Fair Work Commission, despite noting that the employer should not have provided virtually unlimited alcohol. Another factor was that the employee was asked to leave by the general manager, but refused to do so, engaging in a physical altercation with him. 
  • An employee urinating off a balcony on Darling Harbour onto dining patrons below was sacked for misconduct. 
  • A formal warning was given to a police officer who used a genital piercing to open beer bottles during a party. 
  • Another employee lost his job after faking his wife's illness to miss his own Christmas party - only to attend that of a competitor.   

how employees can have fun and stay out of trouble

There are a few important things employees should be aware of: 

  • What happens at the party will almost certainly not stay at the party. Quite apart from water-cooler gossip and the potential repercussions of people remembering what you said or did after that fifth glass of wine, there's also potential for humiliating photographs or embarrassing posts to be shared on social media. 
  • Employees should set and stick to limits. Good working relationships can be quickly destroyed, and respect lost, through foolish or careless behaviour by those who have over-imbibed. 
  • Once your reputation has been damaged, it can be incredibly difficult to repair it. Remember that you will need to see your colleagues and any other guests again - if not on Monday, certainly after the Christmas break. 

Instead of overdoing the alcohol, use the party as an opportunity to network with other people in your organisation whom you may not know as well. The Christmas party should be an opportunity to have fun and form more personal connections, with a view to improving your overall work life.

WHAT EMPLOYERS MUST DO

In order to minimise any potential pitfalls from the Christmas party, employers need to know a few key things:

  • If a function is deemed to be a workplace event, then the employer owes a duty of care to employees. This includes being held vicariously responsible for any injuries, discrimination, harassment, or potentially for anything the employees do wrong, such as breakages. 
  • Service of alcohol is the responsibility of the employer. Although employees should feel free to have a good time without undue restrictions, it is up to the employer to ensure that nobody is excessively intoxicated. Some employers may also wish to provide alternative transport home, such as Cabcharge vouchers. 
  • Employers should make it clear exactly when the function starts and finishes. Setting a specific end time for the festivities assists with limiting the employer's duty of care to a finite window, after which point anything that happens at a different venue could be considered to be 'off the clock'. 
  • Employees should be reminded that, even though the event may not be held at the workplace, the usual rules of conduct apply. This includes reminding employees of the company's sexual harassment, bullying and anti-discrimination policies. 
  • Remind employees to be culturally sensitive, especially noting that not all people celebrate Christmas, and ensure that any gifts sanctioned at the workplace event, such as Secret Santa, are not inappropriate or offensive. 

How to deal with any misconduct 

If something does go wrong at the Christmas party, it is important for employers to deal with potential misconduct swiftly and fairly in order to minimise any fallout. WISE Workplace can assist with a professional and unbiased workplace investigation. 

'I Was Sent to Coventry' and Other Social Bullying Techniques

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

When we think of bullying, the clichés of schoolyard taunts might spring to mind. Yet as we learn more about the wide-ranging techniques of bullying, it is clear that this deeply complex phenomenon can be hard to pin down. 

For example, being ignored, or made an outcast in any situation - 'sent to Coventry' - can be highly distressing. This insidious brand of social bullying unfortunately arises in many workplaces, causing pain and anxiety for victims.

what is bullying? 

Bullying can be physical (including hitting or even destroying property), verbal, cyber (such as bullying on social media), and social. 

A person being 'Sent to Coventry' is a form of social bullying. 

So what do we mean by a person being 'Sent to Coventry'? Historically the phrase appears during the English Civil War when prisoners would be sent to the eponymous North-Western City for punishment, and experienced isolating treatment by locals. But how does this tend to manifest as workplace bullying? 

Picture this: on the surface, the workplace looks pleasant. There is occasional chatter and people seem content. But look closer - on Friday lunch excursions, one person appears to be ignored by the others as they leave. In meetings this person's colleagues seem to ignore their ideas, or quietly mock them when they have the courage to speak. They have also mysteriously been kept off the roster except for a few skeleton shifts... and so on. 

These are classic moves of ostracism as a weapon for workplace bullying. Left unmonitored, such behaviour can lead to severe stress and mental health problems for the outcast employee. 

The worker might originally have committed a 'sin' in the eyes of co-workers - perhaps told management about colleagues misconduct, or appears to be given special treatment. On some level, one or more workers have judged this as being unforgivable, leading to a long and toxic period of unrelenting silence, mockery and isolation.

bullying women, bullying men

What are the gender differences when it comes to social bullying? Unfortunately, this more covert behaviour seems to be a particular feature of female-to-female bullying

The phrase 'deafening silence' sums up the effect of this form of workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately placed on the outside of a work group dynamic by one or more of their colleagues. 

The mechanisms are often subtle, and certainly challenging for management and workplace investigators to detect or prove. Yet by their very nature, stealthy and outwardly ambiguous bullying tactics in the form of ostracism and freezing-out can be painful and injurious for the victims of such attacks.

Men can also engage in subtle forms of social bullying, but are more likely to add overt actions as they bully a fellow worker. Particularly where rank or divisions enable such bullying, male offenders might sabotage the atmosphere and opportunities for targeted colleagues, later escalating to overt physical and verbal abuse. 

pulling rank - the hierarchical workplace

In the armed forces, emergency services and police, there is an opportunity for those in particular positions to 'close ranks' as a form of workplace bullying. For the victims of such behaviour, equipment can mysteriously go missing and vital operational information can 'somehow' bypass the bullied person. Aggressive taunts are also more likely in rank-based organisations.

questioning what is true

Most 'quiet' forms of workplace bullying seem to evaporate when management or a workplace investigator shows up. Also, consummate 'Coventry' bullies will sometimes alternate their attacks with neutral or even pleasant exchanges with the bullied worker. 

The victim is left on the back foot, unsure of what is real or imagined and often quickly becoming susceptible to both functional and mental decline as a result. Such 'gas lighting' attacks often cause the most long-term harm to a worker. 

Investigators must be vigilant in exploring alleged workplace bullying of this type. Common mistakes in the field can be when those investigating warm to often-extroverted perpetrators; bullies are masters of manipulation and can at times seem charming.

Conversely, the worker claiming bullying might appear nervy and unclear in their communication - perhaps even a little 'odd' compared to other workers. Rather than using this as a basis for dismissing the allegations, the history and behaviours behind all interviews must be carefully collated and compared with utmost objectivity. Indeed, the unusual presentation of a worker might in fact indicate a reaction to the effects of a covert system of workplace bullying.

Gathering evidence from multiple witnesses will often assist in identifying if there have been any patterns of behaviour from the perpetrators. 

When it comes to claims that a worker has been 'Sent to Coventry' and subjected to social workplace bullying, it is important to approach the ensuing workplace investigation with care. 

WISE Workplace is happy to assist you with any queries you might have regarding the right way to investigate any alleged workplace bullying incident. We offer unbiased, professional investigation services, carried out by a qualified and experienced team.

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.

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.