Another Dimension to the Standard Of Proof?

- Monday, August 31, 2015
Another Dimension to the Standard Of Proof?

It is not uncommon that following a workplace investigation, the former employee raises allegations that the process was procedurally flawed. In addition to considering the investigation process, we need to be aware that the standard of proof used to make any findings may be called into question. In other words, although the investigator may have followed all the appropriate steps, the findings themselves may not be sound.

The case law

The standard we are (hopefully) familiar with is found in Briginshaw v Briginshaw. In this matter, his Honour made it plain that before accepting the truth of evidence of a particular allegation, there is a need to consider the nature of the allegation and the likely consequences that will follow should an adverse finding be made.

The legislation

The standard of proof required is laid out in the Evidence Act 1995, where we are told that: 

  • In a civil proceeding, the court must find the case of a party proved if it is satisfied that the case has been proved on the balance of probabilities. 
  • Without limiting the matters that the court may take into account in deciding whether it is so satisfied, it is to take into account: 
a. the nature of the cause of action or defence; and
b. the nature of the subject-matter of the proceeding; and
c. the gravity of the matters alleged. 
What is the new dimension?
Bartlett v Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Limited [2014] NSW SC 1662 relates to the termination of a senior executive’s appointment without notice for serious misconduct. In brief, an email sent to a journalist was doctored with the addition of a number of false statements. 

The (now former) employee sued ANZ for damages for breach of contract alleging that he was not guilty of serious misconduct and therefore that ANZ was not entitled to terminate his employment without notice.   

ANZ argued that it was entitled to terminate the employee's employment without notice, since such conduct would amount to serious misconduct within the meaning of a clause of the contract. 

The clause that ANZ relied on was: 

  • b. ANZ may terminate your employment at any time, if, in the opinion of ANZ, you engage in serious misconduct, serious neglect of duty, or serious breach of any terms of this employment agreement… 

The words "in the opinion of ANZ" mean that the underlying fact is not the determining matter but whether, in the opinion of ANZ, the employee was guilty of serious misconduct. In this instance, it was found that ANZ was entitled to dismiss the employee.

What does this mean?

When conducting a workplace investigation, the employment contract and any relevant policy and procedure wording should be reviewed to identify any provisions which may bear upon the appropriate standard of proof to be applied. The ANZ case also enables the employer to draft employment contracts, policies and procedures to set their own standard of proof in respect of termination clauses and other procedural matters.


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Bridging the Gap

- Monday, August 24, 2015
Interview Challenges Across the Civil and Criminal Divide

There are special skills that come into play during any workplace investigative interview. Particular care is needed, however, when non-criminal elements of a child-related issue are under investigation. Criminal and civil investigative processes might both be required for the one workplace matter, and within each approach the challenges can be considerable.

Child-related complexities

At first it might seem unusual that a workplace investigator would need to get involved in an investigation concerning children. But if we think about it, the numbers of workplaces that either employ or interact with children are considerable; from schools and churches to fun parks and retail outlets. Care must be taken in such investigations to ensure that all criminal/ non-criminal aspects are well managed in the context of any vulnerable persons.

Special workplace issues

Criminal prosecution might seem like the only natural avenue to follow when a workplace issue relates to alleged child abuse. Yet often there will be non-criminal elements that come to the fore in such cases, related to misconduct, bullying, occupational health risks and the like. And very often these matters will need to be examined via a workplace investigation, regardless of the outcome of any criminal prosecution.

The criminal angle

In some cases, a criminal investigation will be carried out first where serious allegations are raised in the workplace. Understandably, police investigators employ interviewing techniques that are centred upon the criminal elements of the matter. Yet in many cases after a prosecution is dropped, workplace investigators are then left with investigative challenges such as:

  • Delays that can occur between the criminal matter and the workplace investigation.
  • Initial police focus in interviews upon criminality, which can bypass pertinent non-criminal issues.
  • Evidentiary issues flowing from differing standards of proof in criminal and civil matters.
Some cases in point

In a recent case involving a staff member and the client of a sheltered workshop, a police investigation was conducted into allegations of sexual assault by the employee. The police understandably focused upon the potential criminal elements. They did not proceed with prosecution, due to issues of legal competence and limited prospects of prosecutorial success. 

Dilemmas of time and proof

The workplace investigator in this case was then faced with issues such as witnesses who were no longer available, permission to use statements being refused, plus continuing issues around witness competence. Interestingly however, the differing standard of proof in non-criminal matters – plus specific evidence gleaned about complaints processes – were sufficient for the workplace investigation to generate successful outcomes regarding certain staff.

Unsafe haven?

In another matter involving a member of the clergy, delay caused considerable issues for the workplace investigation and the manner in which interviews could be conducted. The case involved allegations being made against a priest in relation to his dealings with a young boy. After 12 months, including several delays between the prosecution’s evidence-gathering endeavours, a decision was finally made by the police not to proceed with the case. 

Taking up the non-criminal case

The challenges then faced by the workplace investigator regarding the allegations in their industrial context were considerable. Taking up the case from the non-criminal point of view, the workplace investigator dealt with a number of difficulties around both time delays and prosecution-focused interview techniques. Despite these challenges, nuanced investigative interviews and evidence collection led to decisive action being taken on the non-criminal workplace issues. The principle in Briginshaw was carefully incorporated into all evidentiary activities carried out by the investigator, enabling appropriate action to be taken.

Anticipate the challenges

Between criminal and non-criminal investigations there can be a number of differences that need to be managed with care. Workplace investigators must work out ways to effectively elicit information that is relevant to the workplace issues. And the emphasis in work-related interviews will necessarily differ from interviews carried out by police. Employers should ideally act swiftly following police investigations to ensure that evidence and witnesses remain available to a workplace investigator. The criminal/non-criminal divide in work-related investigations must be handled skilfully by all involved. It is certainly worth the effort to get the process right – particularly when children and other vulnerable persons come into the equation.

Can I Keep the Identity of the Complainant Confidential?

- Tuesday, December 23, 2014
confidentiality
Can I Keep the Identity of the Complainant Confidential?

When conducting an investigation into a workplace complaint, a number of variables need to be carefully managed. It is a given that once staff become aware of the investigation, reactions will vary widely. Be prepared for emotional responses to both the alleged incident, and the complaint itself. Further, bear in mind that alleged wrongdoers sometimes not only show hostility during investigations – they might in fact demand that you provide the identity of the complainant. In defence of their position, such participants see it as their right to know immediately who it was that complained. Yet what if the complainant has firmly requested that their identity remain confidential? In such awkward circumstances, you must of course maintain a professional detachment. Whether or not you can or should reveal the identity of the complainant is not a simple matter. We examine some of this complexity. 

Policies and promises

It is actually not unusual for a complainant to request that their identity be kept confidential. Before making any hasty promises to that effect, it is important to consider the legal background. Even if you and the employer make every effort to maintain confidentiality, it is quite possible that the complainant’s identity can still be revealed under Freedom of Information (sometimes Right to Information) legislation. It would be advisable to let the complainant know that this is a possibility regardless of your decision. 

Blowing the whistle
It’s important to note that in contrast to any FOI accessibility, state and federal whistleblower protection laws will safeguard the complainant’s identity in certain circumstances. This will most often be necessary where the complaint is connected with issues of far-reaching corruption, ethical breaches, or official misconduct. In fact, a failure to protect whistleblowers in such cases can be classed as an offence itself. In either case – FOI or whistleblower issues – the employer hopefully also has well-drafted policies explaining to staff the processes involved in complaint investigations, including the parameters around confidentiality. If this is not the case, you have a duty to carefully examine the complainant’s request for confidentiality before making a call one way or another. 

Gauging safety and sensitivity

In certain instances, it will not be fair or warranted to promise confidentiality regarding the complainant’s identity. And it might in fact lead to tainted findings if the accused party is not given a chance to fully defend themselves against the complaint made. If a court later determines that certain findings were made without sufficient attention to procedural fairness, then this evidence could be given minimal weight, or even dismissed. 

As the principle in Briginshaw sets out, in more serious cases, the balance of probabilities can only be met utilising high-quality, untainted evidence. For this reason, confidentiality undertakings should be given only after careful consideration. Yet sometimes the need to maintain confidentiality regarding the complainant’s identity will be entirely obvious and necessary. Where threats, safety and/or mental health issues form part of the equation for example, confidentiality might well be non-negotiable. By involving the employer in your preliminary information gathering, you will be able to gauge any particular sensitivity within the workplace.   

A question of motivations 

There is always the possibility that a complainant has brought the complaint simply on vexatious or false grounds. Workplaces can of course be hotbeds of dislike and grudges, where comments and actions can be misconstrued, distorted through rumour, or even entirely fabricated. Carefully assess if the complainant’s request for anonymity could in any way be impacted by these factors. Your professional judgement will then be required to assess the merit of the request, taking account of all the circumstances.

Tread with care
If a complainant requests that their identity remain confidential, ask yourself – what do the employer’s policies indicate? Have you explained potential FOI issues? Are there particular issues around safety and/or sensitivity? And could a vexatious complaint form part of this investigative equation? With good background information from the employer and an overall strategy of investigative transparency – you can face the anonymity request with a clear plan in place.

Should You PUKE? Deep Listening in Workplace Interviews

- Tuesday, December 02, 2014
Deep Listening
Should You PUKE? Deep Listening in Workplace Interviews

To the untrained, the skills needed to carry out effective interviews in a workplace investigation are simple – find a room, ask questions, then get the answers. Yet as any professional workplace investigator knows, the quantity and quality of information that you glean in any investigative interview can vary significantly depending upon the techniques that are used. The field of interview techniques is vast, and the excellent ‘free recall’ approach is just one of the methods that can be particularly useful to workplace investigators. Forensic psychologist Dr Becky Milne from the University of Portsmouth coined the term PUKE – Pure Unadulterated Knowledge Extraction – to highlight the essence of the free recall approach. As the terminology infers, this is a method of investigative interviewing which in many ways requires little or no questioning from the workplace investigator. Sound odd? Read on to learn more about the benefits of silence in the interview room. 

Setting the stage
An effective interview based upon PUKE – or free recall – requires an incredible amount of preparation beforehand. Milne herself states that the end goal of such a technique is essentially the no-question interview, where a witness simply tells their story. To set the scene for such hands-off elicitation of evidence, first ensure that the witness is comfortable and unlikely to be distracted. It’s amazing how thirst, no tissues, nerves or nature’s call can break the flow of a free recall interview setting! Adopt a demeanour that is professional but not overly formal, and explain the purpose for the interview. The information that you provide at this point can be crucial to the extraction of high-quality data and evidence throughout the substance of the interview. For example, summarise your knowledge to date, such as: “From what I understand, there seems to have been some sort of altercation in the lunchroom on Friday.” Then try to convey that there is no rush, and that you are looking forward to hearing their version of events. 

Total recall 
Humans like to talk. And professionals like to talk a lot! So the art of free recall or PUKE interviewing involves the workplace investigator actively redirecting that normal talkative energy into deep listening. Having set the scene, you can now take a couple of tacks. One is to keep your body language open and simply ask: “Can you tell me what you recall about the event?” A prequel to this is to first take the witness through a relaxation task, along the lines of “Close your eyes… picture the lunchroom in your mind. See all the details of the room. Recall last Friday, when you went in there. Now let me know what you experienced next” or similar. Once your witness is talking, there are a few excellent PUKE techniques to keep the flow going. Make sure that you maintain open body language as far as possible. You may be taking notes if a recording is not underway  – but do try to maintain non-confrontational eye contact. Interestingly, adult humans can feel uncomfortable simply talking without any prompting questions. Yet the more you can keep the witnesses narrative going without interruption, the better. Remember you want ‘Pure Unadulterated Knowledge Extraction’. Too many inquisitive questions can be just the adulteration that you don’t need! Try some encouraging gestures and nodding if the witness seems to have stalled. A simple “Yes?” or “And then…?” can help to move things along. 

Should you try PUKE-ing? 
Absolutely. In fact, adopting a well-constructed free recall interview can be the difference between a useful and a flawed workplace investigation report. Should the matter later go to court, the standard in Briginshaw comes fully into play. That is, the existence of enough low-quality evidence can mean that the balance of probabilities will not be met in some cases. Free recall interviewing reduces the chances of procedural fairness being hampered, in that the PUKEd information flows freely from the witness. It is so easy to have the appearance of bias and pre-judgement enter unwittingly into questioning, particularly if the witness has clammed up, or you have allowed your frustration to show. This might just be via a leading question: “At what time did you hit David in the lunch room?” Or, it might be through an inadvertent show of bias: “Well, three other workers seem to think that’s a bit silly – you?” There certainly is an art to conducting an investigative interview in the workplace context. By applying skills such as the free recall PUKE approach, the quality and consistency of workplace investigation interviews and reports can be vastly elevated.

Obtain cognitive interview strategies and learn how to PUKE by booking a place on one of our short courses. 2015 dates for our Conducting Workplace Investigations – Advanced and Investigative Interviewing courses are available now. 

Considering Cognitive Interviewing or Conversation Management?

- Tuesday, November 25, 2014
interview techniques
Considering Cognitive Interviewing or Conversation Management?

In carrying out workplace investigations, even the most seasoned investigators can grapple with selecting the right questioning techniques to use in particular circumstances. Choices can depend upon such variables as the nature of the alleged workplace problem, the character and cognitive make-up of each witness, and the amount of background information available to the investigator. In this article, we take a look at two valuable interviewing techniques: cognitive interviewing and conversation management. It can be demonstrated that proper use of these techniques will markedly heighten the quality and accuracy of the information collected. And such an outcome of course has significant repercussions for the standard of evidence that can be effectively incorporated into future actions.  

Cognitive interviewing – a massage for the memory 

In the early 1990s, psychologists Fisher and Giselman began to assist law enforcement officers to more effectively interview witnesses. Prior to this, the standard interview technique in police work was producing mixed results. It seemed that a fairly rigid investigation plan with conversation killers such as closed-ended queries and leading questions tended to taint the information gleaned. Utilising a number of techniques from psychological practice, the cognitive interviewing technique began to be introduced during witness questioning. Central to this was the desire to spark the memory in a way that would generate the most detailed and accurate data. 

Reinstating the context and enabling visualisation techniques can assist witnesses to recall past events. Simple strategies such as allowing the witness to close their eyes, draw a sketch, or think about their emotional state at the time the events occurred all aid memory recall. “Tell me everything that happened” may seem basic, but unless we explain the conversational rules at the start of an interview, we can’t expect a witness to automatically give us this information. Asking for the witness to go backwards in time also has the proven ability to jog the memory. Consciously going through key events in reverse order can have a sharpening effect on the memory, as the witness must set aside any rote story and concentrate more closely upon the details. Cognitive interviewing is all about finding open and creative ways to generate better recall. 

Conversation management – the careful testing of doubts 

One challenge for any workplace investigator is when open-ended techniques such as cognitive interviewing don’t appear to be working on a witness. Sometimes, despite utilising all available resources to heighten recall, hardly any useful information will be obtained. In such instances, conversation management can prove an effective way to reduce blocks and gaps that might occur in the interview. The existence of these frustrations – known as resistance – can tempt the workplace investigator to simply presume guilt. Surely, if a witness keeps resisting certain questions or appears to have gaps and inconsistencies during the interview, then they have something to hide? Or must be somehow dodgy? 

The danger in jumping to such conclusions is that the quality of the evidence drawn from the investigation might be irrevocably tainted by presumptive questioning. And the Briginshaw principle reminds us that evidentiary quality will be a key determinant of whether the balance of probabilities has been met. The beauty of the conversation management method is that it can assist in shedding light upon any doubts, in a way that is fair and respectful of the witness. The model combines open-ended questions with a framework for probing detail, enabling thorough examination of the account. It is important to bear in mind that gaps, oddities and behaviour changes might in fact be related to something other than deception, such as cultural differences, or trauma related to the incident. Conversation management provides research-backed techniques for getting to the bottom of any unclear or uncertain material.  

Widening our investigative toolkit

These two techniques – cognitive interviewing and conversation management – provide two different yet equally valuable tools for investigators to draw upon when conducting a workplace investigation. With no two humans alike, we will inevitably hit a brick wall or two when conducting our interviews in the workplace. Yet it pays to have a clear investigation plan for dealing with such eventualities, rather than winging it. If a witness becomes visibly confused, flustered or appears extremely uncomfortable in the process, then pushing on regardless might elicit low-quality material. With these and other proven questioning techniques in our investigative toolkit, we can certainly feel better equipped to delve into the vagaries of witness accounts. 

 WISE Workplace provides investigative interview training for HR managers and workplace investigators. Dates for 2015 are out now. 

How to Plan a Workplace Investigation and Why it’s Important

- Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Plan a Workplace Investigation and Why it’s Important

If you are conducting either internal or external workplace investigations, it is crucial that you formulate a unique plan of action for each investigative process. No two workplace issues are the same, and a well-structured investigation plan will ensure that you account for the many variables that can arise. Almost certainly, you will be dealing with complex fact scenarios and high emotions within the workplace. Without a well-planned workplace investigation process, such factors can lead to distractions and pitfalls that have the potential to take the investigation off-track. The key factors to build into your investigation plan include:

    • Maintaining procedural fairness during the workplace investigation
    • Planning how to elicit the best evidence
    • Ensuring full coverage of pertinent issues
A good workplace investigation plan guides the process - yet retains sufficient flexibility to accommodate unforeseen developments.
Maintaining procedural fairness e

Legally, procedural fairness is not as simple as ‘being fair’ in our dealings. The very structure of a procedure such as a workplace investigation must also appear fair to an objective bystander. For example, a well-meaning internal investigator might dissuade a worker from bringing a support person because ‘this is just a friendly chat’ about alleged misconduct. It might well transpire that any evidence gathered in this process is tainted by a lack of procedural fairness. A cogent plan for how and when staff and management will be engaged is crucial. If the size or nature of the organisation is such that such fairness cannot be guaranteed, engagement of an external investigator might well be the prudent option. For external investigators, assessing any potential power dynamics, access issues or managerial support for the investigation can all enable the investigator to create a robust and procedurally fair workplace investigation plan, suitable for individual workplaces.

Plan for the best evidence

In workplace investigations, it pays to keep in mind that the best reports and recommendations are built upon sound evidence. The Briginshaw principle reminds us that although there is only one civil standard of proof – the balance of probabilities – the seriousness of the allegations and possible consequences in a particular matter will affect whether available evidence is sufficiently probative to meet that standard. In the heat of the moment in a workplace investigation, it can certainly be difficult to remember your rules of evidence, with a view to possible future actions! Unfortunately with workplace disputes often creating a veritable minefield of evidentiary blunders such as hearsay (‘I heard from Henry that Sheila saw Jane take the printer’), it is best to plan for the location and elicitation of the most probative available evidence in the circumstances. In your investigation plan it helps to go over any written brief or preliminary notes you might have on the physical and social characteristics of the workplace, in order to timetable your evidence-gathering strategy. Are original documents onsite, are private interview rooms available, are any key staff members on leave, do managers encourage support people for interviewees? With a little forward planning, the workplace investigation can extract strong and compelling evidence.

Ensure full coverage of pertinent issues

A workplace investigation should proceed with clear and detailed terms of reference (TOR). The investigator must be clearly informed as to the scope and scale of the investigation, in order to be able to create an investigation plan that most closely meets these parameters. Within that plan, it will be necessary to identify the relevant aspects of employment law or related legislation, in order to gauge the most pressing issues to investigate relevant to the TOR. For example, recent case law regarding exclusionary provisions within anti-discrimination legislation might affect the types of relevant issues to best explore in a given workplace. As well as planning for legal and factual issue coverage, a sound investigation plan will ensure that the workplace investigation does not head off on a tangent. It can take strong professional aptitude to compassionately hear a story, while also limiting interviews to the pertinent issues.

In order to be fair, to collect good evidence, and to cover all of the pertinent issues, a detailed workplace investigation plan is a must-have for all workplace investigators.