Can You Deny Access to Workplace Investigation Documents?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Parties involved in a workplace investigation will often wish to gain access to documents that form part of the process. A difficult question for investigators is when - or if - it will be appropriate to release particular information. The reason for the request and the nature of the information will be key considerations, plus the investigator must find the best way to ensure that the access process is fair and transparent. As a recent case involving Australia Post reminds us, investigators need to carefully consider any decision to deny access to workplace investigation documents.

When to disclose information 

During the course of a workplace investigation it is entirely appropriate to keep parties informed of progress. In many cases, it will be quite simple to provide general information that keeps parties up-to-date, yet preserves any necessary privacy boundaries. One regular complaint from those under investigation is that they were 'kept in the dark' at every turn of the process. However, overt secrecy is often not necessary; disclosing information about delays, the nature of inquiries and the broad substance of allegations for example will generally not be problematic.

Another situation where information will need to be provided is when the investigator is required to do so by law. This could include as a response to a subpoena, summons or other court / police request, and should be responded to promptly.

Why should information be disclosed?

In many ways, it is simply professional best-practice to keep stakeholders informed of the progress of an investigation.

One specific advantage in providing regular updates and briefings is the effective management of expectations. Investigations can leave people feeling anxious, and the process can become impeded if individuals are forced to continually complain about non-disclosure. By regularly providing information about the scope, goals and process of the investigation, the 'temperature' in the workplace can be kept under control.

Providing information is also necessary to ensure transparency and accountability. The investigative process should, as far as possible, be able to withstand outside scrutiny both during and following completion. If it is later revealed that one party received greater assistance or exposure to materials than another, the chances of utilising the investigation outcomes will be greatly reduced.

A case in point

In the case of 'LC' and Australia Post (Freedom of information) [2017] AICmr 31, an employee made an FOI request for information relating to a workplace investigation.

Australia Post declined the request on the basis that the material was exempt according to the 'personal private information' exemption under s47F of the FOI Act. However, the commission found that the exemption does not apply to information that is likely to have a 'substantial adverse effect' on a person subject to investigation.

Investigators must ensure that the process remains transparent, and that any and all decisions to prevent disclosure are carefully considered in accordance with the legislation.

ensuring procedural fairness

One common mistake made by new workplace investigators is to see procedural fairness as a lightweight idea without much application in the real world. We know from experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Those under investigation deserve to know the nature of allegations made, to be given the opportunity to be properly heard, to have a support person if needed, to be questioned by an unbiased individual, and of course to have all relevant evidence considered in the decision. Disclosing information in an appropriate way, and at the right time, can certainly assist the overall fairness of the process - and prevent problems in the future.

When not to disclose

Although transparency and fairness are important elements of the workplace investigation, there are times where information should certainly not be disclosed. The right to privacy might require the investigator to protect information such as addresses, sensitive personal material or intellectual property matters as examples.

Further, it might be necessary to redact documents in order to protect anonymity or to withhold certain aspects of an allegation. However, overall investigators must ensure that a party is not substantially disadvantaged by the non-disclosure - a fine balancing act indeed.

The Australia Post case confirms our own experience in conducting fair workplace investigations. We certainly know that each situation will depend upon the particular facts when it comes to disclosing information to the parties involved.

If you need assistance on whether or not to disclose information during an investigation process, WISE provides supported investigation services and are here to help.


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. 

Conducting Workplace Investigations: What You Need to Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Part of running an effective organisation is ensuring that all staff are held accountable for their actions in the workplace, and are able to air grievances and raise complaints in a safe forum. This means that employers may need to undertake investigations into staff misconduct from time to time. 

Managing an unbiased and thorough workplace investigation can be a challenging and complicated process, particularly given the need to deal with sensitive topics and personal feelings. 

So, what are the most important things you need to be aware of when conducting a workplace investigation?

understanding why an investigation is necessary

All employers have a duty to provide a healthy and safe place of work. This includes obligations around workplace bullying, which can be enforced by the Fair Work Commission. 

Workers Compensation claims can arise from employees experiencing stress or other physical or mental harm because of issues with co-workers. If the alleged behaviour is serious enough (such as sexual harassment or assault for example) the employer could become civilly or even criminally liable. 

Employers must conduct fair investigations into all types of allegations made by complainants. Similarly, the accused worker has the right to have the complaint against them determined objectively and the sanction decided on by an unbiased decision-maker.

how can your human resources team support you?

If your organisation is large enough to have a dedicated Human Resources officer or even an HR team, it can be extremely helpful to have them involved in an investigation. 

Your HR team can facilitate a successful investigation by:

  • Keeping open channels of communication with both the complainant and the respondent (as long as confidential information is kept private);
  • Providing a clear timeline and outline of processes;
  • Ensuring that staff are aware of their rights to have support persons involved;
  • At all times maintaining respectful contact and a clear demonstration of objectivity when dealing with witnesses or parties involved.  

fact finding vs formal investigation

Any workplace complaint requires a process of fact-finding or initial enquiry, whereby a third party interviews both the complainant and the accused party for information about what happened. The objective of this process is to determine whether the matter is serious enough to warrant a formal investigation or whether the conduct complained of can for instance be deemed trivial or minor in nature and can be dealt with on that basis. 

A formal investigation process goes much further. It requires the collection of information and evidence, interviewing of witnesses and the drafting of formal statements, the preparation of a detailed investigation report, analysis of the evidence and subsequent detailed consideration by key decision-makers as to the appropriate consequences.

The need for procedural fairness 

A key element of any workplace investigation is to ensure that all parties are afforded procedural fairness - a failure to do this could result in criticism of any decision taken by the employer after the investigation and could expose the organisation to legal liability.

The key elements of procedural fairness include:

  • Providing adequate information about the allegations, generally in written form, and the potential consequences if the employee is found to have engaged in the alleged behaviour;
  • Permitting a reasonable amount of time for the employee to respond to the allegations;
  • Allowing a support person to be present during interviews and providing adequate notice to the interviewee to arrange a support person of their choice;
  • Ensuring that the investigator as well as the ultimate decision-maker is unbiased and objective;
  • Ensuring that decisions effecting the employee are based on evidence. 

So what is involved in conducting a workplace investigation?

The key elements of an effective investigation include:

1. Planning the Investigation

  • Adequate planning before the investigation starts, including considering any potential conflicts of interest;
  • The investigator familiarising himself/herself with the potential consequences which could flow from the investigation, and ensuring that all relevant parties will be interviewed;
  • Preparing a list of interview questions for each witness;
  • Gather and review relevant documents such as the complaint, employment contracts, performance reviews, relevant policies and procedures, incident reports, and any other relevant emails, notices, memos, other documents and information;
  • Notify all parties of there involvement, rights and obligations. 

2. Interviewing

  • Provide sufficient notice and make appropriate arrangements with all witnesses
  • Conducting formal interviews objectively and sensitively, having regard to the circumstances;
  • Checking that representation or support has been offered and outlining the investigation process and timeline;
  • Obtaining as much detailed evidence as possible

3. Analysing and Weighing the Evidence

  • Assessing the evidence with regard to reliability, consistency and credibility;
  • Preparing an investigation report setting out your findings, including the behaviour that has or has not occurred and consider whether it is unlawful, unreasonable, or a breach of policy;
  • Coming to a conclusion and making a finding, based on the evidence gathered. 

4. Facilitating a Resolution

  • This could include making amendments to business policies, training improvements, broad disciplinary action, mediation and counselling. 

When to ask for help

The consequences of a flawed investigation can be serious: decisions can be challenged in the courts, reputations can suffer and employee morale can take a nose-dive. 

In some situations, it may not be appropriate to conduct an investigation internally, and an external investigator is required to help ensure a fair and unbiased process. 

This could include situations where: 

  • Serious allegations are made and there is a potential risk of criminal or civil litigation;
  • Complaints are made against senior employees;
  • A real or perceived conflict of interest exists, meaning complaints cannot be investigated objectively internally; 
  • There is a need for legal privilege to cover the circumstances;
  • There are insufficient internal resources, where your organisation is simply not able to investigate a complaint thoroughly, due to a lack of expertise, particularly if it involves multiple parties or complex issues that require specialist knowledge. 

If you require assistance with investigating allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace. We offer full investigation services, supported investigations and staff training on how to conduct workplace investigations. 

'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.

Document Examiners: When to Make Use of Them

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Should the outcome of a workplace investigation be taken on review, the integrity of the evidence, amongst other aspects, will come under scrutiny. 

In cases where documentary evidence is relevant, it can be valuable to present expert evidence or obtain an opinion from a document examiner. 

But as a recent NSW case involving document examination demonstrates, it is also essential that the workplace investigation has been conducted and evidence gathered with procedural fairness top of mind. 

What is document examination?  

A document examiner is a qualified professional who conducts forensic investigations of documents. This might include the handwriting, the origin of a document (including whether it is an original, a facsimile or a photocopy), and whether entries on a document have been changed or deleted. 

Although there are many ways in which document examiners can be helpful, they are generally called upon to provide expert evidence in relation to the authenticity and origin of important documents. This can include:

  • Examination of documents to establish whether they are forgeries
  • Comparison of signatures and identifying markers to establish authorship
  • Examination of printing processes (such as determining whether a series of documents originated from one printer or the same type of machine)
  • Reconstructing altered or destroyed documents
  • Determining whether different incidents of graffiti originate from the same writer.  

How is it done and what are its limitations? 

Document examination is considered a forensic science, meaning that it is conducted according to verifiable and objective scientific principles. 

In this regard, a document examiner can be relatively certain when assessing types of ink or paper with a view to determining the origin of a document and whether it is an original or a copied version. This becomes much more difficult in the area of handwriting analysis, which is ultimately an inexact science. Handwriting analysis relies upon the document examiner's individual interpretation of whether two handwriting samples match each other.

USE IN CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS 

Although there is substantial use for document examination in the workplace disputes and civil contexts, the science is also extremely important in criminal proceedings. 

In particular, document examiners might be called upon to determine whether a document is authentic or a forgery, or whether a document has been altered to change its original meaning - for example the alteration of a figure on a cheque, or a fraudulent annexure to a will. 

Case study

Bartlett v Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd [2016] NSWCA 30 demonstrates the importance of document examination as well as its limitations. Prephaps even more importantly, the case demonstrates why it is of paramount importance that any workplace investigation process proceeds in accordance with the principles of natural justice. 

In Bartlett, a former ANZ State Director was awarded an unfair dismissal payout in excess of $100,000. He had been summarily dismissed for alleged serious misconduct, against the background of an allegation that he had altered a confidential, internal email and then forwarded that document to an external party, a journalist. 

The NSW Court of Appeal determined that it was not relevant whether the bank believed that the director had altered and sent on the document, but the essential ingredient in the dismissal was whether the director had in fact committed the misconduct of which he had been accused. 

As the employer, the bank carried the onus of proof to demonstrate that the misconduct had occurred and could be proven, however, the handwritten evidence on which the bank relied to prove the misconduct ultimately did not support any such conclusion. 

Although the bank had utilised the services of a document examiner to assess whether the director's handwriting matched that on the envelope addressed to the journalist, the bank was found to have denied the director natural justice in failing to provide him a copy of the handwriting sample used and therefore effectively denying him the ability to obtain a responding opinion. 

There were also various other factors, including incorrectly comparing cursive and print writing, which caused the court to determine that the handwriting expert's evidence should not be accepted in any event. 

The Bartlett case study confirms how essential procedural fairness is in all internal and external workplace investigations. 

Contact WISE Workplace to undertake investigator skills training, or to arrange to have one of our highly qualified investigators assist you with all aspects of your workplace investigation, including providing advice on whether the services of a document examiner might be helpful. 

What Evidence Should Be in a Workplace Investigation Report?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In every workplace, there will eventually be a situation where an investigation needs to be carried out into an employee's compliant or conduct. One of the most crucial aspects of conducting workplace investigations includes preparing an investigation report which can be relied upon for any future purpose, including carrying out and implementing disciplinary action against an employee.

WHAT IS the purpose of an investigation report?

An investigation report is intended to provide a 'snapshot' for external entities, such as auditors, judges or tribunal members, or the police; of the allegations made, the likely accuracy of the claims, the background circumstances surrounding the alleged behaviour or occurrence, and the likely consequences imposed once any findings have been made. 

Broadly, the investigation report is created in order to: 

  • Form the basis of any future action, such as disciplinary proceedings or strategic direction. 
  • Record the conduct of the investigation objectively (in particular to avoid allegations of bias or a lack of procedural fairness)
  • If necessary, be produced in legal investigations, or proceedings. 
  • Record observations and other data surrounding employee attitudes and experiences. 

ELEMENTS OF A GOOD INVESTIGATION REPORT

It is essential that every investigation report: 

  • Is set out in an organised fashion. This includes, for example, ensuring the inclusion of page numbers and an index so that information can be readily sought. 
  • Is internally consistent and can stand-alone, meaning that the report itself makes sense and is complete without having to refer to extraneous documents of information
  • Objectively documents findings and recommended actions, without any bias or undue influence. 
  • Identifies whether allegations were ultimately grounded in fact or were simply unfounded. 
  • Alternatively it may also identify if there is insufficient evidence to make a finding. 

In areas legislation, regulations or specific policy and procedures particularly with some government departments, the investigation and reporting requirements can be more onerous and prescriptive where there may be higher level oversight.

In general today, it is increasingly critical to ensure that an investigation report is properly completed - certainly this is to demonstrate that the instructing entities use best practice in all investigation reports created in consultation with employees. 

The role of briginshaw

In matters where there could potentially be criminal implications, other serious outcomes, or adverse findings, it is crucial that an investigation report have regard to a legal concept known as the rule of Briginshaw v Briginshaw

This means that the decision maker must be satisfied that the seriousness of allegations is weighed up against the potential consequences of adverse actions or findings. This highlights the importance of putting only relevant matters into an investigation report. 

how should an investigation report be set out?

From a practical perspective, it makes sense to stick to a fairly rigid structure in drafting every investigation report - particularly because this regime will enhance the objectivity of any finished report. 

This structure should include:  

  • An executive summary - so that the key findings and recommendations are immediately clear and identifiable. In many cases this is the only part read by outsiders, so it is essentially that the key information is contained in the summary in the 'punchiest' way possible.
  • A methodology - in order for the reader to understand what process the author went through to complete the report. 
  • An identification of the standard of proof against which the report has been drafted and the allegations have been assessed. Outside of the criminal world, the civil standard is assessed according to the balance of probabilities: that is, whether it is more likely than not that a certain behaviour or alleged fact took place as claimed. 
  • Key evidence being relied upon in relation to each allegation/particular. 
  • An analysis of the evidence that supports any findings made. 
  • Other issues which may be relevant to the investigation itself or the ultimate determination. 
  • If appropriate, recommendations for future conduct.

What is the role of evidence in investigation reports?

Items of evidence which should be contained in an investigation report include:

  • Witness statements and/or transcripts of interviews
  • Physical evidence such as photographs of injuries or the debris of a broken item.
  • Documentary evidence such as incident reports or contemporaneous file notes.
  • Electronic evidence including emails, text messages and CCTV footage.
  • Expert reports such as medical reports
  • Other documentary support evidence such as rosters, timesheets, fuel cards, behaviour support plans, client profiles etc. 

Crucially, the evidence should be relevant and sufficient to support any findings.

Relevance may be determined by employing the following assessment, as set out in the decision of Robinson v Goodman [2013] FAC 893

a) What facts are disputed, and what the collated evidence tends to prove or disprove.

b) Whether the evidence provided might be indicative of the fact that person will tend to behave in a certain way. When relying on so-called tendency evidence, it is essential that the potential consequences of claiming that somebody has a tendency to behave a certain way are weighed up against the potentially damaging suggestion that a person's past behaviour should dictate whether they have acted in that way again.

Although workplaces are entitled to maintain confidentiality over investigation reports, in most cases, there are certainly circumstances where the reports may be ordered to be handed over to the complainant or the other party. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services (July 2014), where the Federal Circuit Court ordered the waiver of legal professional privilege over investigation reports completed by external lawyers. 

The court's decision to produce the reports was due to the fact that an employee had been dismissed on the basis of information set out in the investigation reports. It was therefore clearly incontestable that the report was not relevant to the outcome complained of by the former worker.  

potential consequences of a poorly drafted investigation report

Given that an employee's life can be significantly affected by the conclusions drawn in investigation reports, there is high potential for outcomes to be referred for legal proceedings. 

As this is a likely possible outcome, it is important to make sure that any workplace investigations are determined according to the minimum standard on which the court will rely. That is, satisfying the court on the balance of probabilities that a reasonable person would consider it more likely than not that events occurred as described by the complainant or the worker. 

Properly prepared investigation reports are very similar to briefs of evidence prepared by counsel during court proceedings, and can be complicated and challenging documents to create. WISE Workplace provides training designed to assist you with the conduct of workplace investigations and drafting reliable reports. Our team can also conduct investigations for you. Contact us today.