Responding to Bad Behaviour at the Christmas Party

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's no secret that both the good and the bad can be on display at the annual work Christmas party. While smiles and good cheer can and should be the main features at an end-of-year bash, some unfortunate behaviour can also arise. 

Alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour are just some of the less savoury possibilities. But despite the instinct to punish personnel who wander astray, it is vital that employers respond to Christmas misbehaviour in a manner which is both reasonable and proportionate.

Alcohol abuse/intoxication

For many workers and business owners, the idea of a Christmas party with zero alcohol is a rather bleak one. Secret Santa, sausage rolls and a few cool beverages tend to be part of the workplace festive tradition. Yet the results of intoxication at the work Christmas party are the stuff of unfortunate legend. Raised voices, wild dancing, lewd comments, recriminations and unwanted advances are just some of the potential products of the wrong mix of drinks.

Moderation is everything when it comes to the supply of alcohol at the end-of-year event. Plenty of forewarning to staff about rules and refreshments will also help to keep proceedings on an even keel.

sexual harassment

The well-known reduction of inhibitions caused by alcohol consumption can lead to one of the more serious Christmas party side-effects: sexual harassment. The working year is over, the relief is palpable and perhaps a perceived flirtation is taken in an unacceptable direction. Behaviour that would certainly be shunned in the ordinary workplace can seem 'up for grabs' in the glittery glow of the Christmas party lights.

Alcohol can of course be part of the unacceptable sexual harassment situation: yet sometimes just the high spirits of the Christmas party itself can lead to an array of unacceptable approaches and behaviours.

Aggressive behaviour 

As with misconceived flirtation, the office Christmas party can bring out the worst forms of aggressive behaviour. Personal tensions can simmer during the year, with the relief of the office party creating an unleashing of built-up emotion. Add alcohol to the mix, and there is a strong possibility that arguments, fights and even assaults will emerge.

Case study - keeping things proportionate 

The case of Keenan v Leighton Boral NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156 reflects the need to act swiftly in response to Christmas party problems - yet to do so in a fair and measured way.

In this case, the Fair Work Commission was faced with the troubling situation of an employee becoming intoxicated and proceeding to swear, abuse and provide unwanted advances through the night. He was dismissed. However, the worker's excellent work record, combined with the employer's dubious provision of free-flowing alcohol, saw Keenan's dismissal overturned by the FWC.

In particular, it was noted that any disciplinary action needed to be reasonable and proportionate to the condemned behaviour. The limitless alcohol situation certainly did little to assist the employer's case. And while the employee's drunken behaviour was a nightmare of ill-conceived comments, actions and insults, the FWC noted that his long and notable record of service required the employer to be reasonable in response.

It is certainly a cautionary tale to employers supplying alcohol at Christmas parties. If no limits are placed upon the type and volume of alcohol consumed by workers across time, then a large part of the fault in such cases will no doubt be seen to rest with employers.

managing the christmas party risks 

When it comes to organising the annual Christmas party, it pays for employers to plan the event well in advance. All employees should be aware of the order of proceedings, times and expectations at the party. Employers should plan food and alcohol extremely well, working out how the judicious service of alcohol will be managed through the night.

Providing security staff on the night can also be an excellent way to keep emotions and good cheer under some sort of control!

The Keenan case certainly demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action against an employee. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to find in favour of the applicant where the employer failed to apply proportionate disciplinary action. If you would like to ensure your investigation process is considered and enforceable, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as investigation training for your staff. 

When a Pre-Determined View Leads to an Unfair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 31, 2019

Procedural fairness must be top of mind, for all organisations when conducting a workplace investigation. Failing to allow an employee sufficient time to respond to an allegation or taking a pre-determined view of the outcome of an investigation, for example, proceeding with terminating employment, can leave an employer open to an unfair dismissal claim. 

The importance of observing all elements of procedural fairness when conducting a workplace investigation is highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Mark Andrawos v MyBudget Pty Ltd (U2018/2379). 

the facts of the matter 

The applicant, Mr Andrawos, commenced employment at MyBudget in July 2016. He came to his role, ultimately as a personal budget specialist, with a significant financial industry background, and was supported by tertiary qualifications. During his employment, he received numerous compliments, but was also informally and formally counselled for behaviour including "corner cutting", lateness and a failure to follow procedures correctly.

Mr Andrawos received a total of twelve informal warnings and eventually three written warnings for a variety of misdemeanours, including inappropriate comments made to a female client, resulting in a final written warning being issued. Despite having received the final warning, Mr Andrawos was subsequently involved in two further disciplinary processes. The first regarding his punctuality and the second related to inappropriate conduct with a female colleague.

Mr Andrawos then formed a friendship with a young man, Mr McBryde-Martin, which ultimately led to him providing financial recommendations as to what Mr McBryde-Martin should do with a sizeable inheritance he had received. Eventually, Mr Andrawos suggested that his friend come to MyBudget as a client, on a "friends and family" discount. Mr McBryde-Martin subsequently received financial advice and recommendations.

At one point, Mr Andrawos suggested that Mr McBryde-Martin transfer some $90,000 into a MyBudget account and offered to act as co-signatory. This upset Mr McBryde-Martin's mother (against a background where there was, although ultimately unfounded, some suggestion that Mr Andrawos had been drinking and gambling with Mr McBryde-Martin). His mother complained to MyBudget and Mr Andrawos was immediately escorted from the building and suspended. After some investigation, Mr Andrawos was dismissed from his employment. 

THE need for procedural fairness

The Fair Work Commission considered that Mr Andrawos' suspension and ultimately termination had occurred without sufficient procedural fairness.

Specifically, it was concluded, that he had not been afforded the opportunity to provide the necessary response and context to his employer.

Evidence supporting this conclusion included the fact that Mr Andrawos was initially given less than 24 hours to prepare a response to the allegation letter he had been issued.

Further, despite requesting statements provided by his colleagues, Mr Andrawos was denied access to this information and to the telephone call recordings with Mr McBryde-Martin, and the screenshots of text messages, which were being relied on by MyBudget as evidence in the disciplinary proceedings.

Taking a pre-determined view 

The Fair Work Commission was critical of the fact that there was evidence supporting the finding that a pre-determination had been made by the employer, before the investigative process has occurred. It was particularly noted that the employer appeared to be prepared to only undertake an investigation in form and not in substance - that is, that the employer had already decided to terminate Mr Andrawos. It was also held that Mr Andrawos was also prevented from putting forward his "defence" to his managers at an early stage, which reinforced the conclusion of the existence of a pre-determined outcome.

The evidence put forward to the Fair Work Commission suggested that a key decision-maker at MyBudget, had not been briefed with all relevant information prior to conducting a fact-finding interview, again critical in supporting a conclusion that a pre-determination had already been made. Moreover, no additional enquiries were made after the conclusion of the fact-finding process, most notably that no attempts were made by the employer to speak with Mr McBryde-Martin, regarding the nature of his mother's allegations. 

THE need for separation between investigator and decision-maker

The fact that the investigation was conducted internally at MyBudget by two people who ultimately were also the key decision-makers in the termination process, was criticised by the Fair Work Commission. This perceived conflict of interest tainted the investigation process and the termination decision and was directly related to the conclusion that, while Mr Andrawos' dismissal was neither unreasonable or unjust, it was deemed to be harsh. This highlights the importance of an investigative team, whether internal or external, collecting information and material on an objective basis, before providing it to the ultimate decision-makers for a determination.

This case demonstrates the importance of observing the elements of procedural fairness when investigating workplace matters. A former employee will likely be successful in an unfair dismissal claim, where an employer has entered the investigation process with a pre-determined view of the outcome. To assist your organisation with following a fair and reliable investigation process, WISE offers both training services and external investigation services

Bringing an Employee Back from Suspension

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 27, 2019

It can seem as though the difficult part of a workplace investigation is dealt with by undergoing the investigative process, and making a decision as to how to deal with the employee. But the aftermath of an investigation, for example bringing an employee back into the workplace fold after a suspension, can be equally difficult. 

We examine what an employer should know, and do, in such a situation.

what is a suspension?  

Employers have the power to suspend staff from their usual workplace duties while an investigation is being conducted into their alleged behaviour or actions. 

Employers need to be certain that they are acting in accordance with the terms of the employee's contract, and any internal policies setting guidelines for performance management via suspension. The same suspension criteria must apply for all staff, and the decision to suspend made only after a thorough risk assessment.

how long can a suspension last?

Workers should only be suspended for as long as is required to undertake the investigation, which should be undertaken as expeditiously as the circumstances allow. 

For this reason, employees may often be suspended with pay, unless the alleged behaviour is sufficiently serious that it would warrant summary dismissal. Even in those cases where an employee is stood down, an employee must be given the opportunity to make submissions as to whether they would be caused undue financial hardship by being suspended without pay. 

Depending on the nature of the alleged conduct, staff may be asked not to contact the suspended employee. This is particularly the case where there have been allegations of violence or threats to harm co-workers. 

how employers can ease the employee's return to work

When a suspension period has ended and an employee has been cleared of wrongdoing or an appropriate penalty has been determined, there are several things both employer and employee can do to ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace. 

From the employer's perspective, in addition to ensuring that there has been clear and documented communication at each step of the process, it is important that the employee feels that they have been genuinely welcomed back to work. This could include arranging a return-to-work meeting on the first day back, or as early as possible, to provide an opportunity to discuss and resolve any concerns. 

At the same time, employers may wish to use the opportunity to obtain more information about the behaviour that led to the initial suspension, for example by conducting workplace culture surveys and participating in regular open dialogue with the returned employee.

In particular, the employee should be offered support on an ongoing basis. This might include a referral to an employee assistance program, the option to participate in a mentoring process with a third party, or other invitations to access support.

the role of the employee

Employees also have a role to play in easing the transition, by: 

  • Having ongoing and clear communication with the employer, both throughout the suspension process and immediately before returning to work. This will assist in clarifying the employer's expectations for the employee. 
  • Avoiding future allegations - the employee should take all steps possible to avoid being alone or in any difficult situation with the person who made the original allegation.
  • Showing remorse where appropriate and complying with restrictions or other terms imposed by the employer (even if the employee doesn't necessarily agree). 

Managing grievances in the workplace can be tricky. If you are unsure of your obligations as an employer, contact WISE Workplace for specialist advice

When to Suspend an Employee During an Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 20, 2019

One of the most difficult aspects of a workplace investigation is the moment when the investigator or employer realises the immediate suspension of an employee is required. 

We examine the warning signs that a suspension might be necessary, as well as the best way to handle this complex eventuality.

The what and why of suspension

Most investigations will follow a relatively regular pattern. The workplace investigator gathers information, a report is submitted and disciplinary action may or may not be taken by the employer. However, occasionally events can arise, requiring that an employee be suspended immediately before or during the investigation. Two questions arise - when and how should suspensions occur?

Suspension involves a compulsory period of absence from the workplace for the employee in question. Suspension will include full pay and any other entitlements accruing to the employee. This is in contrast to an employee being 'stood down' - where the employer has no further work available and payment is not required.

gauging the necessity of suspension 

So when is it warranted to suspend an employee during the course of a workplace investigation? Of course employers must do their best to prevent a workplace difficultly from snowballing in the first place. Preventative measures and policies will hopefully reduce the likelihood of misconduct occurring. 

Yet at times, a suspension becomes necessary before or during the course of an investigation. The types of serious misconduct that can require suspension include suspected fraud, assault or theft. A suspension will also be necessary if there is a serious possibility that the employee might tamper with evidence, or disrupt the investigative process. 

A 'suspicion' of misconduct cannot be a mere whispered rumour or gut feel. In essence, a prima facie case (a reasonable assumption on available evidence) should exist to demonstrate that the employee in question has in all likelihood engaged in a serious act of misconduct. 

The rules of procedural fairness dictate that the investigation be even-handed and impartial throughout - with no recommendations of any kind being made by an investigator until the compilation and presentation of the investigative report. 

However, sometimes allegations are particularly serious and time is of the essence. A risk assessment is required, as well as communication between the investigator and the employer regarding their immediately concerns.

is a suspension a 'legal and reasonable' direction?

In the case of Avenia v Railway Transport and Health Fund [2017], the Federal Court held that employers can issue 'legal and reasonable directions' to staff, with such directions including suspensions. Dr Avenia was the subject of an investigation into allegations of misconduct and was suspended on full pay, pending the investigation. 

The court found that this action by the employer was legal and reasonable due to the nature of the allegations and did not constitute, as Dr Avenia claimed, a case of unlawful termination.

balancing considerations

Suspension during a workplace investigation can certainly create unique challenges. The suspended party might become quite uncooperative and other staff might make assumptions about this person while providing evidence. A clear description of the suspension process must be provided within the investigative report, and a communication strategy put in place by the employer. 

Procedural fairness is the centrepiece of workplace investigations. However, employee welfare, health and safety are also essential considerations. Thorough documentation should be kept of any suspensions, with workplace investigators taking detailed evidence from the employer and others regarding this complex situation.

If an employee engages in misconduct and the employer suspends them before the disciplinary investigation, a fair procedure must be followed. If you need assistance on how to investigate and/or how to respond to inappropriate workplace behaviour, contact WISE today!

Considering Suspending an Employee? What Should You Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

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

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

tHE LEGALITY OF SUSPENSION 

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

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

The risk assessment should include: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circumstances leading to suspension 

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

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

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

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

Appropriate conduct by an employer during a suspension

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

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

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

Avoiding further legal issues

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

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