Unfair Dismissal: Case Studies from the FWC

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Perhaps one of the most vexed issues employers face is how to terminate employees without exposing the organisation to the risk of a successful unfair dismissal action. 

In light of the 15 January updates to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) Unfair Dismissals Benchbook, these two unfair dismissal cases at the FWC demonstrate the importance of employers being on safe legal ground before dismissing an employee. This is particularly important in circumstances where successful actions could result in a significant compensatory payment, or the employer being forced to re-hire a terminated staff member.  

1. The sleeping ferry master

In the decision of Sclater v Transdev Harbour City Ferries Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7968, it was found that a ferry master who fell asleep during his shift had been appropriately terminated and not unfairly dismissed. 

In this matter, Mr Sclater was discovered to be asleep on a bench in the wheelhouse during the course of his shift travelling from the Pyrmont Bay Wharf to McMahons Point Wharf in Sydney. Instead of Mr Sclater, the ship’s engineer Mr Drygajlo was manning the helm. 

It was subsequently discovered that Mr Sclater, who was on numerous different types of medication due to a (disclosed and medically cleared) heart condition, had been taking a cough medicine for approximately a week. 

Despite warnings regarding potential drowsiness, Mr Sclater claimed not to have noticed that part of the label and had suffered no ill effects. However, on the date of Mr Sclater’s transgression, he had forgotten to take his heart medication but remembered to take the cough syrup. As a result, Mr Sclater suddenly felt extremely drowsy and sat down to “close his eyes”. By his own estimation, he was only unconscious for about five minutes.

The employer, Transdev, argued that Mr Sclater had both breached the company’s Drug and Alcohol Policy and had given dishonest evidence about whether he had in fact been asleep, and for how long. Although the FWC did not find any dishonesty in Mr Sclater’s evidence regarding how long he had been asleep, it was concluded that he had breached the relevant policy. 

This was because Mr Sclater: 

  • Did not obtain proper advice from the pharmacist about contraindications with his existing medicine and the cough syrup.
  • Exceeded the prescribed dosage of the cough medicine.
  • Did not read the information about the potential side effects. 

Ultimately, the FWC determined that, given Mr Sclater’s role as ferry master, there was no option but for him to remain fully alert at all times when on duty. His failure to do so in the circumstances meant that he had been validly dismissed.

2. Beers before work

By contrast, in the matter of Morcos v Serco Australia Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7675, Mr Morcos was reinstated to his employment after being found to have been unfairly dismissed. 

Employed at the Villawood Detention Centre, Mr Morcos was on a rostered day off and had consumed two beers when he received a telephone call and was asked to come in for a shift. He agreed, believing that his blood alcohol concentration would have returned to 0.00 before his shift commenced. However, following a random alcohol test at work, Mr Morcos recorded two readings of 0.037 and 0.032. He was sent home (notably by driving his car!). 

Mr Morcos worked one further shift but was then terminated for breaches of the Drug and Alcohol Policy. 
The FWC found in Mr Morcos’ favour, however, noting that:

  • A blood alcohol reading between 0 and 0.005 could (and at that workplace previously had) result in a written warning and not an immediate termination. 
  • Mr Morcos had consumed a reasonable amount of alcohol on a rostered day off, believing that he would not be required to work after consuming the beers.
  • Mr Morcos was allowed to work the next day for an entire shift and was not subjected to alcohol testing on that occasion. 

The FWC therefore concluded that the nature of Mr Morcos’ alleged misconduct was not sufficiently serious to warrant termination. It ordered the employer to reinstate Mr Morcos to his former role. 

Employers, are you facing an unfair dismissal allegation? WISE investigators are experts in this field. They have years of experience in undertaking even the most complex workplace investigations, and are able to ensure your investigation is fair and legally sound. If your organisation needs assistance with a workplace investigation, WISE provides full as well as supported investigation services.

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. 

Dealing with Pornography in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, November 21, 2019

Unsurprisingly, the access to pornography can be extremely problematic in the workplace. Not only does the access to pornography at work open up a minefield of possible harassment and other sexually motivated complaints, it contributes significantly to presenteeism (where staff are physically present but not concentrating on their jobs).

Indeed, according to a report in the Financial Times, 45% of daily viewers of popular pornography compilation site Pornhub, accessed the site between standard business hours of 9am to 6pm. In addition, staff accessing using company resources to access unauthorised websites, can pose a significant cyber security risk to businesses.

Given the almost ubiquitous presence of smartphones and tablets in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to address and manage the increasing issues related to pornography access in the workplace. Nonetheless, care and consideration must be taken when investigating allegations of employees having accessed pornography while at work. 

what does the fair work commission think?

The Australian employment relations tribunal has made its position on pornography being accessed in the workplace clear. For example, in the decision of Allan Croft v Smarter Insurance Brokers Pty Ltd (U2016/4415), Commissioner Cambridge commented that: "particularly if such conduct occurred in breach of the clearly stated and understood policy of the employer, an employee could expect to be disciplined or even dismissed for deliberately accessing, downloading and/or storing hard-core pornographic material on the employer's equipment, whether such conduct occurred within or outside of the ordinary hours of work"

It follows that there is clear support for termination of employment on the basis of accessing pornography - but only if there is a clearly drafted behaviour policy which explicitly prohibits the accessing of pornography on work equipment or during work hours. 

What role does company policy play?

It is not sufficient for an employer to simply discipline or dismiss an employee for accessing pornography at work, without having provided adequate notice of the company's position on pornographic materials.

This means that employers should have in place a clearly articulated and freely available policy on the topic of unacceptable workplace behaviour and conduct. That policy should explicitly set out what is considered improper use of company equipment, technology and Internet access. There should also be a statement to the effect that the use of company equipment and resources should be confined to work-related activities.

In addition to drafting the policies, it is essential that employees are both made aware of and understand them. Ideally, there should be regular training on what is considered to be acceptable behaviour in the workplace.

Action by employers 

Notwithstanding the support of case law, employers should still tread with caution in relation to disciplining or terminating employees for accessing and/or downloading pornography.

It is crucial that employers not act rashly by summarily dismissing staff without following due investigatory processes. When making decisions in relation to discipline or dismissal, the procedures set out in the relevant company policy must be adhered to. This will best protect the employer against subsequent proceedings for unfair dismissal.

Although employers should not deviate from usual investigation practices when dealing with pornography in the workplace, it is important that this type of behaviour is dealt with swiftly and decisively. This is in part because other employees who may be sent or otherwise exposed to pornography could also make claims for sexual harassment.

Addressing employee conduct regarding matters of internet usage and technology is a challenge for all modern workplaces. If your organisation requires assistance in enforcing policies to ensure matters of misconduct are dealt with in a fair and considered manner, WISE delivers training as well as investigation services to help you meet the challenges that arise in contemporary workplaces.

Outsourcing or In-House Investigations?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 03, 2019

For many businesses, one of the critical HR questions is whether investigations into alleged employee misconduct or misbehaviour should be outsourced or conducted in-house.

Depending on the nature of the business and the complaint, it may not always be appropriate or cost-effective for investigations to be referred externally.

However, in other circumstances, particularly when the allegations involve potential criminal conduct or there is an actual or perceived conflict, outsourcing may be the best option.

We examine the different circumstances in which investigations might best be outsourced or kept in-house.

outsourcing vs internal 

The key benefit of conducting workplace investigations internally is the ability to potentially deal with a matter swiftly and cost-effectively. The obvious reason here is that staff tasked with conducting an internal investigation, already have an understanding of the internal processes and procedures of the business. Although time away from normal duties is likely to be required, there is no additional cost associated with tasking existing staff to conduct an internal investigation.

On the other hand, depending on the nature of the allegation, existing staff may be lacking in capacity or capability to properly conduct the investigation. This is particularly likely to be the case if the allegations relate to potential criminal conduct which requires police involvement.

In addition, if the allegations are sensitive or have been made against a staff member who would ordinarily be involved in conducting the investigation, it may not be appropriate for the investigation to occur internally.

Whether the investigation is outsourced or conducted internally, it is essential that there are clear delineations as to who will be conducting the investigation. Further, the ultimate investigator must be provided with the applicable investigation policy and procedures which must be followed.

risks of handling an investigation in-house

As noted, there are numerous potential risks of handling an investigation in-house. Chief amongst these is the fact that the internal staff may lack the necessary skills or training to adequately understand the complex nature of the investigation. This could have significant ramifications if there are demonstrable gaps in the process, as this may ultimately invalidate the findings and any final decision which is made.

Having staff without the requisite experience or skills, conducting an investigation may also mean a failure to comply with legal obligations. In the event that the investigatory process results in termination of employment, litigation or other legal action, any failure to duly comply with all the legal and regulatory requirements, may potentially result in an adverse decision for the company.

The possible apprehension of bias in an internal investigation is significant, particularly if the employees who are conducting the investigation have a close personal or professional relationship with the complainant, the respondent or any of the witnesses. In a small company, or in a situation where a member in a senior leadership position has allegations levelled against them, this potential apprehension of bias is even greater.

This could also result in complaints of pre-determined outcomes, where staff involved in the process may argue that the investigation was not conducted in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Any relationship (whether positive or negative) between the investigatory staff and the parties involved in the investigation is likely to come under significant scrutiny. This may open up the investigatory team to suggestions that the investigation was not conducted impartially or fairly.

Factors for considering whether to outsource 

Impartiality and transparency in the investigative process are always crucial considerations. In situations where there are especially sensitive allegations or the staff involved are likely to resort to post-investigatory litigation, any potential concerns regarding failures in process or impartiality can be addressed by outsourcing the entire investigation.

Similarly, if time is of the essence (particularly when staff have been temporarily stood down and it is important that the investigation process is concluded in an expeditious fashion) outsourcing the investigation may be the preferable outcome. 

This is because external investigators are able to devote themselves completely to the investigation process, while existing employees will most likely need to continue on with their day-to-day work.

the benefits of outsourcing

Although there is a cost associated with the outsourcing of an investigation, there are added benefits. Investigators with specialist expertise are able to deal with complex matters, and are best placed to provide reports which are more likely to be relied upon by the Fair Work Commission.

The majority of contemporary workplace investigations come with their own set of challenges and complexities. If you do not have the time or resources to conduct an investigation or you require an experienced investigator, WISE offers both supported and full service investigations to best assist.  

Police Involvement in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On occasion, police will become involved and/or need to be involved in the allegations from a workplace matter. In this situation, it's important for employers to know what their obligations are, and to be aware of some of the challenges that can arise. 

So, let's take a look at when police are or may need to be called in and what should happen once they are. 

WHAT matters require the police? 

Generally speaking, any allegation of a serious or potentially criminal nature necessitates the involvement of police. This includes allegations of physical assault, sexual assault, stalking, child abuse, significant fraud or theft. 

In the event that a complaint could have criminal implications, it is always a good idea to get the police involved as soon as possible. This helps ensure that any police investigation is not hampered by destroyed evidence, ongoing delays or similar interference. 

the employer's obligations

If police have become involved in a workplace matter, the police investigation takes precedence over the internal one. 

However, while the police investigation does take priority, an employer must still carry out an internal investigation. This is to afford the employee who is the subject of the investigation due process and procedural fairness. 

The internal investigation and a police investigation must both be treated entirely separately, but run in tandem. The internal investigation must be managed without impeding the police investigation. It is essential for the employer to communicate closely with police and provide assistance wherever required.

It is also important for an employer to remember that one of their paramount obligations is to provide a safe working environment for staff. This means that if there have been serious allegations such as physical or sexual abuse, the complainant and respondent must be separated in the workplace. Generally, staff against whom allegations have been made should be suspended on full pay, pending the outcome of the police investigation. 

the challenges involved 

It is likely that the police investigation will require the use of resources that would otherwise be engaged in conducting the internal investigation. For this reason, it can be difficult to actively investigate a workplace matter internally while the police are undertaking their own investigation. 

It can also be difficult for employers to balance the need to assist police with their legal obligations to their employees.

a case in point

This balancing act is demonstrated in the matter of Wong v Taitung Australia Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 7982. In this matter, Mr Wong, an employee who was accused of theft, named several other employees allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise. 

Police suggested that the employer not take disciplinary action in relation to the employees, in order to obtain and preserve the evidence against them. This meant that the employer permitted Mr Wong to continue working with no warnings, despite having sufficient evidence to conduct a summary dismissal.

The police were unable to obtain sufficient evidence to charge him, however he was ultimately terminated. However, the Fair Work Commission found that the summary dismissal of Mr Wong was unjust in the circumstances. 

The added factor of police involvement while undertaking internal workplace investigations presents unique challenges for employers. The balancing of police intervention into serious criminal allegations, with the strict employment principles and procedures, is both challenging and essential to ensure employers' actions are reasonable. WISE provides external investigation services as well as training in conducting investigations necessary to manage the workplace-police dynamic. 

How and When to Report Workplace Bullying

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Workplace bullying can sometimes be difficult to identify. After all, people from many different walks of life are thrown together in a working environment, and this will often result in personality clashes and natural disagreements. Not everybody in the office will be friends with each other. 

So how can you tell when something has strayed into the area of workplace bullying? And how do you know when to deal with it formally? 

what is workplace bullying?

The simple definition of bullying in the workplace is 'repeated and unreasonable behaviour' directed towards an individual or a group of workers that is ultimately posing a risk to their health and/or safety. 

This may mean pranks or 'hazing', which threaten the physical health and/or safety of an individual can constitute bullying. Other types of bullying include psychological harm caused by aggressive behaviour, abusive comments, unjustified criticism, or subtler behaviours, such as excluding and isolating colleagues from activities in the workplace. 

In 2017, Safe Work Australia published statistics which showed that 39% of all mental disorder claims arising from the workplace, involved harassment or bullying. However not everything which is unpleasant or creates conflict in the workplace constitutes bullying. 

Management staff are entitled to engage in 'reasonable management action', intended to deal with workplace issues. Similarly, disagreements between co-workers which are appropriately managed or resolved need not constitute workplace bullying. 

On the other side of the coin, conduct which involves the victimisation of a person in a way that constitutes discrimination, is a separate category of workplace offence. Although clearly very serious, allegations of discrimination should not be conflated with the concept of workplace bullying. 

when should bullying be reported?

It is clear that the effects of workplace bullying can be far reaching. Bullying not only affects the mental and physical health of the employees directly involved, but can impose additional stressors on all staff and create disharmony in the workplace. 

A good litmus test for determining whether behaviours should be reported or formally dealt with as workplace bullying, is if the behaviours occur repeatedly. If the behaviour is repeated this suggests a wilful or reckless disregard for the needs of the bullied colleague and demonstrates a clear pattern of poor and inappropriate behaviour. 

In any event, reporting matters which make the workplace a less pleasant environment, is always a prudent course of action.

how to report workplace bullying

There are many different ways to report bullying in the workplace. Perhaps the simplest way is by reporting it directly to a supervisor, who then has a duty to pass the information further up the line. 

Of course, this can be problematic if the allegations of bullying involve the supervisor in question or someone even further up the hierarchy of an organisation. Alternatively, a report may be made to a Health and Safety Officer, or directly to the Human Resources team. As a last resort an individual could report the conduct to the Fair Work Commission, or the appropriate state agency such as SafeWork NSW, Victoria, SA etc. 

Depending on the nature and seriousness of the allegations, it may be appropriate to make the report in writing. 

There may well be circumstances, however, where it is preferable to make an anonymous report or otherwise not become too involved in the formal process. In these circumstances, a whistleblowing action may be the more appropriate way to make a disclosure. 

One of the key advantages of whistleblowing is that the bullying behaviours can be reported to a greater selection of people, including senior managers, officers of the company or any other person authorised to receive 'protected disclosures'. This can lessen any discomfort about reporting direct supervisors. The process is also confidential, and reporting can occur anonymously, which is likely to assist in the event of concerns about potential reprisals. 

If there are concerns about bullying in your workplace, there are simple and active measures that can be taken to address any concerns reported. WISE Workplace is an expert within the field of workplace bullying and offers organisations both investigation and whistleblowing services.  

Ruling on Anonymous Social Posts a Warning for Employees

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In the highly-anticipated decision of Comcare v Banerji, the High Court has found it is not unconstitutional for the federal government to restrict the rights of public servants to express their political views in a public forum. 

So what does this decision mean for employees, freedom of political communication and the right to free speech? 

The facts of the matter

The respondent in Comcare v Banerji [2019] HCA 23, Ms Michaela Banerji, was employed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship until September 2013. At this time, her employment was terminated for having breached the Australian Public Service's social media policy and code of conduct. 

Specifically, it was claimed that Ms Banerji had 'tweeted' several thousand posts under an anonymous handle. Those posts commented explicitly on the federal government; Australian immigration policy; ministers; opposition spokespeople and her specific department. 

Following her dismissal, Ms Banerji pursued a number of legal proceedings, claiming that her termination had breached her implied right to freedom of political communication. 

Ms Banerji was successful in her argument before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which held that the anonymity of her Twitter account meant that she could not be identified as a public servant and the policy of her employer had been applied too strictly. 

However, this decision of the AAT was ultimately overturned on appeal to the High Court.

the findings of the high court

In determining in favour of Ms Banerji's employer, the High Court explicitly found that, although the Australian Constitution provides a freedom of political communication, this 'is not a personal right of free speech'.

It was further concluded that, anonymous or not, the tweets threatened the 'integrity and reputation' of the Australian Public Service. Moreover, it was of relevance that Ms Banerji was a public servant, which would become topical if her anonymity was ever threatened.  

the wider implications of the case

As stated in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's decision, placing such significant restrictions on - anonymous - public servants could be considered akin to dealing with 'thoughtcrime'. This means that society is imposing rules and punishments on people who have 'done nothing' other than have differing opinions. 

Ultimately, the decision means that employees, whether in the public or private spheres must carefully consider expressing opinions, be they political or otherwise, which differ from those of their employer. It is clearly unwise to post controversial personal opinions under a readily identifiable name, which could in turn identify and embarrass a worker's employer and lead to a conclusion that the opinions have caused damage to an employer's reputation for example. However, of some concern is the decision of the High Court in applying the Australian Public Service's standard and code of conduct requirements to anonymous tweets. 

This decision is particularly topical given the controversy over the recent legal proceedings involving Rugby Australia and Israel Folau, a devout Christian, 'cut and pasted' text on social media about homosexuality and hell. Given Folau's high profile as a rugby player, his employer Rugby Australia, terminated his employment. Folau is pursuing legal proceedings, arguing that his religious freedom has been interfered with as a result of his termination. 

Although the nature of the defence differs from that put forward by Ms Banerji, the ultimate concept is the same: private individuals are putting forward commentary on personal beliefs and opinions, but on a public forum, and are being penalised by losing their employment as a result. Rugby Australia maintains that Folau's breaches of conduct occurred repeatedly, and that he had been warned on several prior occasions about posting such commentary on social media. 

While it is not yet known what the outcome will be for Folau, it is clear that these cases have wide-ranging implications for organisations and employees. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations and the surrounding complexities of contemporary legal issues. If your organisation holds concerns regarding inappropriate social media use, WISE can conduct investigations and analysis of electronic evidence to establish defensible findings.

The Role of the Fair Work Commission in Workplace Disputes

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 14, 2019

There is a high likelihood that every employer will have to deal with action - or at least the threat of action - involving the Fair Work Commission (FWC). 

Let's take a look at the role of the FWC, and the importance of a defensible investigation report in the event an employee lodges a claim. 

what is the fwc?

The FWC is Australia's national workplace relations tribunal. It deals with a variety of workplace matters, such as salary disputes, enforcing agreements, reviewing workplace conditions, and making decisions on terminations. 

As part of making such determinations, the FWC has the power to impose an outcome on an employer and/or an employee. For example, if a person is considered to have been unfairly dismissed, the FWC may order that their employment is reinstated, or that compensation is payable. 

However, the FWC is not a court, and as such, its decisions can be overruled by a formal court judgement.  

how is the fwc approached?

Applications to the FWC can be lodged online or by mail. Except in certain circumstances where significant financial hardship can be demonstrated, a filing fee ($73.20 at the time of writing) is payable with the application. 

If a former employee wishes to lodge an application relating to unfair dismissal, it must be received by the FWC within 21 days of the official date of the dismissal. 

What does the fwc consider?

A number of different matters can be dealt with by the FWC. However, up to 40% of all applications heard by the tribunal involve claims for unfair dismissal. Other commonly heard applications include those seeking:

  • "Stop" orders for industrial actions;
  • Approval for enterprise agreements/clarification on the terms of an enterprise agreement;
  • Variations in salary awards;
  • An order to prevent bullying in the workplace;
  • A finding as to whether a disciplinary action is reasonable. 

what is the claims process?

Although the exact process differs slightly depending on the nature of the claim, the FWC may elect to: 

  • Recommend informal dispute resolution;
  • Proceed to a hearing of all interested parties;
  • Require written submissions by way of evidence;
  • Provide directions on dealing with the matter;
  • Make binding decisions. 

It is essential to the FWC process, that all matters are dealt with impartially and as swiftly as reasonably possible. 

the importance of a defensible investigation report

The involvement of the FWC generally means that, at some point, an employer will be required to provide evidence. Often, the best evidence available will be a properly completed investigation report. 

The existence of a robust investigation report may prevent a claimant from pursuing an application to the FWC in the first place. The FWC is also likely to look favourably on an employer who has engaged an unbiased external investigator to prepare a detailed report. 

Perhaps most crucially, the FWC will make an assessment on whether an employer's findings and actions are defensible. This will include close examination as to whether the employer can be demonstrated to have shown procedural fairness when dealing with an investigation. 

Dealing with matters brought before the FWC can be a stressful time for employers. WISE are proud that none of our decisions have been successfully challenged in the FWC. If you are looking for assistance to navigate the complex issues of workplace investigations, contact us! Alternatively, download our ultimate toolkit, which will give you confidence in making your workplace investigations procedurally fair, cost effective and consistent.

Social Media Misconduct: The Need for a Fair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An ever-increasing key dilemma for employers in the modern age is how to deal with the misconduct by staff through their use of social media platforms. 

The list of potentially offending conduct is lengthy. For example, staff might call in sick but then post details of their activities on social media. Employees could post inappropriate, defamatory or confidential information on their accounts. One high-profile example is the sacking of a PayPal executive in 2014 who publicly ranted about his co-workers on Twitter, or more recently the well publicised matter regarding Israel Folau and his instagram post. 

Given such a potential minefield, we look at what employers should do to ensure a fair investigation relating to allegations of social media misconduct.

procedural fairness key in australian case

The matter of Singh V Aerocare Flight Support Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 6186 highlights the importance of ensuring that an investigation is thorough and involves appropriate levels of procedural fairness. This requirement applies in social media misconduct, as in all other cases.

Mr Singh was dismissed from his role as a baggage handler in October 2015. Although the reasons for his dismissal were not made immediately clear to him, after proceedings had been issued in the Fair Work Commission, the employer alleged that Mr Singh had breached its social media policy by publicly supporting ISIS and known associates. 

It was also claimed that he had made radicalised comments against the Australian Government. Of particular relevance and concern was Mr Singh's status as an airline employee. 

Before he was terminated, Mr Singh was advised that there had been complaints involving his social media posts and that there would be an investigation. However, Commissioner Hunt found no evidence that Mr Singh was told he could bring a support person to the investigation meetings. Further, although the termination related to a number of posts on social media, Commissioner Hunt accepted that not all posts were shown to Mr Singh for his response. 

Factors in the decision

Relevant factors taken into account by the Commission in determining whether conduct occurring away from the workplace can invoke disciplinary action, include conduct that is: 

  • Likely to cause serious damage to the employer/employee relationship; or
  • Damaging to the employer's interests; or
  • Incompatible with the employee's duty as an employee. 

Before the Commission, Mr Singh's evidence was to the effect that he was against ISIS and radical Islam, and that his comments had been sarcastic. 

the outcome of the case

It was concluded that the employer had not spent sufficient time investigating whether or not Mr Singh was in fact opposed to ISIS. Commissioner Hunt accepted, that if there had been sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Mr Singh had a radicalised perspective on Islam, there would have been too great a risk for an employee with these views to continue working at the airport. 

However, it was determined that in the circumstances the employer should have gone to greater effort to investigate Mr Singh's Facebook newsfeed. If that had occurred, it was considered that it would have been clear that Mr Singh's claimed sarcasm was the true motivation behind his postings. 

Accordingly, the Commission determined that, if a proper investigation had taken place, it would have been apparent that Mr Singh was not radicalised. Therefore, Mr Singh's dismissal was deemed harsh, unjust and unreasonable. 

Instead of terminating his employment, it was considered that an appropriate disciplinary action commensurate with the misconduct would have been reiterating the social media policy of the employer and insisting that Mr Singh refrain from posting incendiary material.

need help in ensuring a fair investigation? 

This case demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where it is determined that the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair and enforceable, WISE Workplace provides investigation services, as well as 'conducting workplace investigations' training. 

Legal Professional Privilege and Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When a workplace investigation is required, there may occasionally be good reason to seek legal professional privilege regarding the findings. This is particularly the case in matters that may require criminal investigation, such as fraud, theft or sexual harassment. 

So, is it sufficient to engage a law firm when undertaking workplace investigation if you wish to attract legal professional privilege? We take a look at the what privilege means, and its role in investigations.

what exactly is legal professional privilege? 

The concept of legal professional privilege means that communications between an employer and their engaged lawyers are confidential and need not be disclosed, for example to another party or in a court, if the communications have been created for the 'dominant' purpose of providing legal advice or in anticipation of legal proceedings.  

What is the significance of legal professional privilege? 

In many circumstances, an employer's inner workings and thought processes may be something that is best kept private. Ultimately, the key purpose of legal professional privilege is to permit employers and other parties, such as external investigations, to freely discuss information with their solicitors in order to obtain legal advice, without being concerned that the material will form evidence in legal proceedings. 

Employers may wish to maintain privilege and keep parts of certain documents confidential if, for example, there are issues with disclosing identities of complainants or witnesses, or permitting potentially inflammatory or commercially sensitive information being disseminated through the workplace and beyond. 

how can workplace investigations attract legal professional privilege? 

If an organisation wishes to obtain privilege over communications, it is not sufficient simply to engage a law firm to undertake or oversee the workplace investigation. The law firm's engagement must be able to be demonstrated as being for the dominant purpose of preparing for imminent legal proceedings, or providing advice in relation to those proceedings.

This was demonstrated in the decision of Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006, in which Commissioner Wilson determined that the engagement of law firm Minter Ellison to conduct an investigation, under the auspices of providing legal advice, was really an investigation into workplace conduct within the employer council's policies and procedures. Accordingly, it was determined that legal professional privilege did not exist in those circumstances.      

loss of privilege

Legal professional privilege can be easily lost or waived. This can occur if a party explicitly states that they waive privilege, or if they provide a document to another party which would ordinarily attract privilege. It is important to note that it is generally irrelevant if the information was intentionally or accidentally provided - once that has occurred, it is hard to argue that the privilege should be maintained. Further, if a party attempts to rely on the contents of a document, it is rare that privilege will be successfully kept over the document. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services Ltd [2014] FCCA 1517, in which the employer attempted to rely on the contents of an investigation report but did not wish to disclose it. It was held that relying on a document without providing access to Mr Bartolo was unfair, and the document had to be produced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced across all steps of the investigation process, including legal professional privilege implications. If you are seeking a robust, defendable investigation, contact us today!