Shades of Grey: Raunchy Material and the Lessons from Shea

- Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Lessons from Shea
Shades of Grey: Raunchy Material and the Lessons From Shea

In the recent costs hearing for Shea v EnergyAustralia Services Pty Ltd, Federal Court Justice Jessup helpfully took the opportunity to summarise the findings of Justice Dodds-Streeton regarding the original unfair dismissal proceedings. There, Ms Shea had unsuccessfully sought relief against alleged adverse action on the part of her employer. 

In a bad light

 Ms Shea’s accusations were substantial and relied upon various sources of information for purported corroboration. In his findings against the applicant, Justice Jessup spoke with evident disapproval regarding both the quality and the means of acquisition of Ms Shea’s evidence. Of particular note, sexually explicit text messages between two staff members had been retrieved forensically by Ms Shea as purported proof of sexual harassment in the workplace. His Honour stated that Ms Shea’s methods of obtaining both the phone and text messages ‘did not show her in a good light’, aligning with the substantive trial judgement as to the ‘irregular’ nature of the acquisition [57-58]. 

Unseemly acts 

But the inadmissibility of the texts – and the resultant forensic report – was not the only issue in question. Justice Jessup quoted with approval the original finding of Justice Dodds-Streeton – the text messages represented nothing more than ‘a private exchange between consenting adult sexual partners’ [quoted at 56]. Further, this private nature actually placed a duty of confidentiality upon any readers of the texts. 

Thus, not only was the material found to have been obtained abnormally, usage of the forensic report was both irrelevant to the workplace issue at hand, and malicious in nature. His Honour went even further in his disapproval, noting the ‘unseemly manner’ in which the phone was obtained, with a very obvious agenda in play to cause ‘embarrassment and humiliation’ to the other party [59]. 

Eyes on the court

In administrative proceedings, the rules of evidence don’t formally apply. So there is a sense in mediations, conciliations and reviews that parties can place it all on the table in order to find resolution. The idea here is that people can often experience a greater sense of procedural fairness in a less formal environment. Yet Shea reminds us of the considerable pitfalls that can occur in court proceedings when undetected irregularities have coloured earlier processes – inadvertently or otherwise. It is crucial that internal and external workplace investigators establish quality control mechanisms throughout all stages of information collection. Keeping any future court proceedings front of mind can assist investigators in overcoming the kinds of evidentiary taints that befell the applicant in Shea.   

Quality counts 

And where certain key material can only be collected in an unusual manner, corroboration of the information obtained can assist in enhancing overall quality and future admissibility. Potential evidence should be free of irregularity, irrelevance, confidentiality breaches and/or personal agendas. Certainly, administrative processes won’t require the stringent attention to rules of evidence that apply in court. Yet the ‘juiciest’ piece of information brought out at in an administrative forum might well become the trial stage’s most useless piece of scurrilous and ultimately inadmissible evidence. Worse – if found to be obtained for personal or ‘unseemly’ reasons, a hefty costs ruling is certainly a possibility for the parties involved.

Is an Employee Obliged to Divulge Facts About Their Partner?

- Tuesday, October 07, 2014
Divulging information
is an employee obliged to divulge facts about their partner?

In a recent matter before the Fair Work Commission – Lakatos v Termicide Pest Control Pty Ltd – the short answer to the above proposition was ‘yes’. The employee, Ms Lakatos, refused at first instance to answer questions posed by her employer regarding her fiancé’s new employment. Her fiancé, Mr McKay, had in fact previously worked for Termicide. And as the owner of Termicide correctly suspected, Mr McKay was now working for a competitor in the pest control industry. Of particular concern to the employer was the possibility of threats to his business posed by Mr McKay’s position, including his access to confidential information. Eventually, Ms Lakatos provided the information about her fiancé’s new workplace, but was nevertheless dismissed. The Commission found that the employer possessed a valid reason for the dismissal. 

Keeping quiet

Senior Deputy President Richards’ finding that Ms Lakatos was obliged to provide an explanation about her partner’s activities certainly raises some interesting points. What exactly are employees obliged to divulge about their partners? How far does fidelity to the employer reach? Until very recently in Australia, courts have recognised what is known as ‘spousal privilege’ in criminal matters – that is, a spouse cannot be called upon to give evidence against their partner. In the 2011 Stoddart case, however, the High Court greatly diminished this privilege – leaving jurisdictions rather uneven in their application of the principle. Even putting the criminal law viewpoint to one side, the idea of being compelled to provide private information about a spouse or partner to a third party certainly causes general discomfort. And being confronted with such questions by an employer would no doubt be rather unsettling for the worker involved. How and when it is appropriate to expect an employee to respond to a request for such information is certainly no ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario. 

Answering and cooperating
Information began to surface about Mr McKay’s new place of employment, after which Ms Lakatos was asked direct questions by her employer about her partner’s activities. She refused to respond at first – and was later dismissed for failing to comply with a reasonable request. In his reasoning, Commissioner Richards noted that the circumstances were such that the employer was within his rights to request the information, as it concerned possible significant threats to the business. It was in fact a part of Ms Lakatos’ role to identify such commercial threats, and her refusal to provide relevant information in this regard was deemed unacceptable. As the Applicant, Ms Lakatos was seeking a finding by the Commission that her dismissal from Termicide was ‘harsh, unjust or unreasonable’ in accordance with s394 of the Fair Work Act 2009. She was unsuccessful. In rejecting the Application, Commissioner Richards stated that the employee’s actions in withholding crucial information about her fiancé and his employment with a competitor were unreasonable: “…she refused to provide her employer with any answer to those inquiries, or to cooperate with him at the most elemental level…this was a damaging position for the Applicant to have adopted. Following the Applicant’s refusal to cooperate, [the employer] thereafter lost confidence in the Applicant as an employee who would serve him with all due fidelity.” [63-64 in part]
Questions, questions…
An employer cannot reasonably expect an answer to any and every question that might be put to an employee. There are personal and private issues in any person’s life that do and should remain outside the scope of an employer’s ‘business’. Walking the line between appropriate questioning relevant to the business and an inappropriate inquisition can be a delicate exercise. While finding in favour of Termicide, it is worth noting that Commissioner Richards did opine that: “…there were elements of harshness to the manner of the Applicant’s dismissal.” [80] The particular circumstances in this case – including a discernible urgency regarding potential commercial damage by the Applicant and her fiancé – made the position of the employer more palatable to the Commission.

It certainly appears that information regarding a spouse or partner cannot reasonably be withheld by an employee where legitimate business concerns are involved. This is an evolving area of the law. As in most workplace issues, careful consideration and planning will go a long way to ensuring that the correct approach is taken in similar circumstances.

Confidentiality Should Be No Surprise

- Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Confidentiality Should Be No Surprise

In a recent case involving a union delegate acting as a support person and a breach of confidentiality, the Fair Work Commission noted that those acting as support people during workplace disciplinary processes must be clearly informed by the employer about their obligation to maintain confidentiality. This might seem to some to be a fairly common-sense proposition, hardly requiring particular clarification on the part of the employer. That is, if asked to support a colleague during a disciplinary interview, it should be quite obvious that the sensitive subject matter indicates a need for utmost confidentiality. And, if following a disciplinary meeting, the worker’s support person then provides that confidential material to others, it would perhaps be no surprise if the employer took action against the support person.

Making it clear

Yet, in CFMEU v MSS Strategic Medical and Rescue [2014] FWC 4336 (MSS), a support person named Leighton did in fact express such surprise about the confidentiality requirements arising from his involvement in a colleague’s disciplinary interview. Leighton was asked by his co-worker Arnold to attend the interview as Arnold’s support person. After attending the meeting in this capacity, Leighton then proceeded to distribute to colleagues via email certain written information provided in confidence during the disciplinary process. The core issue in the case was actually whether the employer’s decision to issue Leighton with a final written warning was unnecessarily harsh in the circumstances. Before traversing that issue, Commissioner David Gregory was very clear in noting the basic remit of any support person’s obligations in the context of a workplace investigation:

Any person in that role of support person should understand an investigation into issues to do with an employee’s work performance or behaviour are private matters between the parties, and the confidentiality of those processes should be respected at all times. [at 49]
Clarity of roles

Commissioner Gregory noted that Leighton’s particular role in the workplace required some consideration. He was a union delegate of the CFMEU at the MSS worksite, as well as being actively involved in other union activities across Victoria. The Commissioner stated that this position in the workplace could be seen in two lights. As a delegate, he should have been aware of the requirements flowing from workplace investigations. Yet considering his natural tendency to want to actively assist all workers at the site, his dissemination of this particular information arising from Arnold’s meeting was perhaps understandable.

A duty to inform

Other elements of Leighton’s behaviour and work history were noted, including a formerly unblemished employment record and his apology for the unintended breach. He maintained throughout that he simply did not understand the need for confidentiality in the disciplinary context. On this point, the Commissioner noted that employers are obliged to inform workers clearly and unequivocally of the need to maintain confidentiality about any information that arises in their capacity as a workplace support person. This should occur at a number of junctures during employment, including at the commencement of any workplace investigation in which they are involved. The FWC ordered a lessening of Leighton’s sanction, from final written warning to a written warning.

Support with information

As can be seen from this case, even for those regularly involved in workplace investigations, employers must take care to clearly and unambiguously set out the requirement of confidentiality. It can never be assumed that a person would ‘naturally’ be aware of their obligations in this context. It is common for union delegates to be involved in workplace investigations as support people. Such workers should be reminded that once in the role of support person, they are in attendance purely to support their colleague and to ensure a fair process. Clarify that any impulse to disseminate meeting outcomes for the perceived good of all colleagues, for example, must be resisted. Setting out possible actions to be taken in the case of a breach of confidentiality would also go some way to assisting support people to exercise the discretion required in workplace disciplinary investigations.

Keeping confidence

For employers or HR departments working through a workplace investigation, or simply wanting to enhance employee knowledge of confidentiality requirements, it is essential that the information provided is clear and accurate. To avoid any ‘surprises’ about the need to maintain confidence in investigative processes, get in touch to see how we can assist with your specific requirements. WISE Workplace provides a number of one-day investigation programs. To find out more information about programs tailored to your workplace, contact Harriet Stacey on 1300 580 685.

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.

How to Handle Workplace Bullying

- Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to Handle Workplace Bullying

Is bullying a problem in your workplace? According to a regulation impact statement produced by Safe Work Australia, the prevalence of bullying in Australian workplaces is between 3.5 and 21%. The cost of bullying to businesses in terms of lost productivity and absenteeism amounts to millions of dollars every year, and being a victim of bullying can affect the physical and mental health of employees.

If you suspect bullying is a problem in your workplace, it’s important that the problem is addressed, but how do you tackle it without making things worse or aggravating the situation further? Here are a few suggestions to help you handle workplace bullying in your organisation.
Make sure you have all the information

Before you jump in to try to resolve the situation, it’s important to make sure that you have a complete understanding of the issues involved. It’s a good idea to speak to other co-workers who may have witnessed the alleged bullying and find out whether there are any underlying problems which may have contributed to the situation.

If you try to take further measures without having an accurate picture of what is happening, you could end up causing further conflict and making the situation worse. If you have a personal relationship or work closely with either of the parties involved, it may be worth taking a step back and asking HR or even an external investigator to help you.

Before taking further action you will need to evaluate whether the behaviour can be defined as bullying or whether it falls under a different category such as sexual harassment or discrimination. Sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination require a different disciplinary approach to bullying.

Minimise the risk of continued harm

Once you have evaluated the situation, the next step is to take short-term measures to prevent the behaviour continuing. It may take a while to come to a full resolution so in the meantime you may want to consider reassigning tasks, granting leave or taking steps to ensure that the parties involved have minimal or no contact.

Decide whether the matter can be resolved

If the bullying isn’t too serious, it may be possible to resolve the matter internally with a no-blame conciliatory approach or disciplinary measures for the person found to be doing the bullying. In more serious cases, you may need to conduct an in-depth investigation, especially if someone could potentially lose their job over bullying allegations. .

If you decide on a resolution, it’s important to make sure the person being bullied is happy with the outcome. They may wish to deal with the situation themselves first by asking the person doing the bullying to stop, and you can offer them support in this.

As an employer, it’s important that any actions taken are well documented. If your management and employees haven’t undergone specific workplace bullying training it is well worth considering. Anyone who may have to deal with bullying incidents should be aware of the legislation surrounding workplace bullying before they escalate an issue or take action themselves.

Defence Department Criticised for Dismissal Process

- Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Defence Department Criticised for Dismissal Process

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has criticised the Department of Defence for its dismissal of an employee for excessive personal internet browsing, and the use of an anonymous search engine. The dismissal took place after a workplace investigation which the commission deemed to be unfair and unreasonable.

During the investigation of the employee, the Department failed to speak to the employee’s manager or work colleagues about his internet usage, and whether or not it was having an impact on his work. Senior Deputy President of the FWC Jonathan Hamberger made the point that it was fairly evident that co-workers and the employee’s direct manager would have a strong idea of whether he was spending the majority of his time browsing the internet for non work-related reasons

The original allegations against the employee stated that he had visited non work-related websites up to 1,822 times per day but this figure was later amended after it was found to be incorrect. The issue was never raised with the employee’s manager, but instead a bureaucratic process was put into action which was described by the deputy president as “bizarre” and as taking on a life of its own.

Reasons for the findings

Some of the reasons for finding the dismissal to be unfair and harsh included the severity of the penalty compared to the severity of the alleged behaviour. There was no clear evidence that the internet usage was affecting the employee’s work and even if it had been excessive, informal counselling would have been a more appropriate penalty than dismissal, the commission found.

In the employee’s defence he was described as an honest witness with a genuine interest in IT security issues, which explained his motivation in deleting cookies and using anonymous search engines. According to the employee, his reason for using anonymous search engines and deleting cookies was to protect the Department’s IT network rather than as a way of hiding his usage and internet activities.

He admitted to sometimes using the internet for personal reasons but no evidence could be found that his internet usage was adversely affecting his work.

Defence policies criticised

The investigation, as well as not taking into consideration the statements of the employee’s colleagues and manager, was found to have been excessively drawn out and there were no clear policies to provide a valid reason for the employee’s dismissal.

The Defence Department was advised by the commission that if it wanted the use of anonymous search engines to be punishable by dismissal then that needed to be stated clearly in its policies. The current policies were found to be vague and contradictory on the subject of anonymous internet usage.

No remedy has so far been determined, with the parties due to meet at a future date to discuss the options for providing reparations to the employee.

Bullying Claim Ended After Employee Dismissal

- Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bullying Claim Ended After Employee Dismissal

A recent attempt by a former employee to take action against ANZ bank for bullying has been dismissed due to the fact that the employee is no longer working for the bank. According to the deputy president of the Fair Work Commission, the employee had no reasonable prospects of success so continuation of the case was considered unnecessary.

This dismissal was based on the fact that for a bullying claim to be dealt with in court there needs to be a risk that the employee would continue to be bullied at work in the future. As this particular employee was no longer working for the employer, the risk of future bullying had been removed and therefore there were no grounds for further action on the part of the Fair Work Commission.
Reasons for dismissal not relevant to bullying claims

The employee involved has opposed the move, stating that his dismissal from the organisation which took place while he was on paid parental leave, was invalid. He also claimed that he had been the subject of adverse action on the part of ANZ for making an anti-bullying application. In addition to this, there were a number of arguments made by the employee in support of his claims of an invalid dismissal and unfair treatment.

As the employee didn’t claim any breach of contract on the part of ANZ or refuse to accept the dismissal, the matter was considered not to have any bearing on the original bullying claims. According to the ruling, the employment contract was terminated, the employee accepted this termination and therefore bullying was not likely to be a problem in the future.

The matter being decided by the bullying case was considered to be unrelated to whether or not the dismissal was lawful or fair and this was treated as a matter to be dealt with separately at some point in the future. If, after the matter of the dismissal has been dealt with and the employee is reinstated, he will have the option of bringing a fresh anti-bullying claim to court.

No reasonable chance of success

When making the ruling, the deputy president stated that there was no reasonable prospect of success to the employee from continuing the claim. There is a provision in the Fair Work Act that action can be ceased if there is no chance that it will be successful. The deputy president noted that although at the beginning, when the application was made, there was a chance of success, the circumstances had changed and there was no longer any reasonable prospect of success.

In this case, success was taken to mean an order to stop bullying being issued against ANZ bank. As the employee was no longer working there, an order wouldn’t be able to be issued and therefore, even if the employee had a valid claim, there was no reasonable prospect of success.

Reinstatement Appeal Awarded in Favour of Teacher

- Tuesday, April 15, 2014
                     

Last week the Fair Work Commission ruled in favour of a teacher who appealed against unfair dismissal after 37 years of service. The appeal was granted in spite of recognition that there was a valid reason for him not to be reinstated. In the ruling the Fair Work Commission stated that the employer had acted unfairly during the process and had not adequately investigated reinstatement options for the teacher. The teacher was employed by the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta and had been an employee there for 37 years. He was dismissed at the end of 2012 after refusing to follow a direction not to have contact with students out of school hours (for non-school related activities). Although the request not to have contact with students was found to be reasonable, the way the matter was handled and the teacher’s subsequent dismissal were considered unfair by the Fair Work Commission. This result highlights the need for employers to thoroughly consider reinstatement options for employees and to ensure that employees are fully informed if there is a possibility that they will be dismissed.
Employees should be advised if dismissal is a possibility
The teacher was dismissed at the end of last year after a disciplinary interview. During the process, and especially during the interview he wasn’t made aware of the possibility that he would be dismissed. The Fair Work Commission found that he wasn’t advised that the issues being discussed were significant enough to lead to a dismissal or that the diocese was considering dismissing him. This meant that he was not given an opportunity to address the allegations against him and put forward his case against being dismissed. Investigations also showed that the decision to dismiss the teacher was made for a number of reasons which weren’t discussed during the disciplinary interview. These included unsubstantiated rumours of sexual misconduct. During that time a number of teachers were under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of children and this was believed to be an influencing factor in the decision to dismiss the teacher. These reasons weren’t discussed with him prior to his dismissal and he wasn’t provided with the opportunity to respond to them. Although the teacher was advised that he would have the opportunity to put forward his case to the diocese’s executi ve director, he was never given that chance and was dismissed a couple of weeks later.
Unfair procedure
The Fair Work commission ruled that although the procedure for dismissing the teacher was unfair, the ruling for him to avoid out of school contact with students was reasonable. At the time, the school was under scrutiny for alleged sexual misconduct, and the request for teachers to avoid unsupervised contact with children was reasonable to protect the reputation of the school and the teachers and prevent further allegations being made against them. The Fair Work Commission also agreed that it was reasonable for the principal to refuse to reinstate the teacher to a teaching position, but that other options hadn’t been fully evaluated. The teacher had requested a non-contact position which didn’t involve spending time with students and this wasn’t given due consideration. The teacher had been with the school for 37 years and the fact that his long service hadn’t been taken into consideration formed a significant part of the appeal. This case highlights the need for employers to consider all reinstatement options for employees and ensure that any dismissal is conducted in a fair and reasonable manner.

Changes to Anti Bullying Legislation: the Effects so Far

- Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New changes to workplace bullying legislation have so far showed underwhelming results according to a Fair Work Commissioner with the first substantive order under the new act being made almost three months after the new system came into effect. The changes were made to the Fair Work Act 2009 last year in response to the recognition of the prevalence of bullying and harassment in Australian organisations and took effect on January 1 this year. The impact of bullying is believed to cost Australian employers millions each year in absenteeism and lack of productivity.

The new laws mean that workers who believe they are being bullied at work can now lodge a complaint directly with the Fair Work Commission. The Fair Work Commission has been given the power to implement any remedy they believe appropriate apart from financial compensation to deal with specific incidents of bullying at work.

Although this new legislation came into effect at the beginning of the year, early reports show that there hasn’t been the anticipated dramatic increase in complaints lodged with the Fair Work Commission. However, it is still fairly early on and the number of complaints could rise in the future.

What has been done so far?

The first official ruling was made on March 21st by Lea Drake, Senior Deputy President of the Fair Work Commission and directions included prohibiting an employee to have any unaccompanied contact with a co-worker or making any comments about the co-worker’s clothing or appearance.

The decision was made after a conference on March 4 and directions also stated that the respondent (the employee accused of bullying) should avoid sending emails or texts to the co-worker except in an emergency, should complete any exercise undertaken at the employer’s premises before 8am and refrain from raising work related issues unless first notifying the Chief Operating Officer or his subordinate.

The applicant was also ordered not to arrive at work before 8.15am. The parties have both been given leave to have the matter re-listed for a later conference if there are any difficulties implementing the orders.

According to workplace tribunals commissioner Anna Cribb, there have been 66 bullying claims made so far under the new system, nine of which were withdrawn in the early stages. This is lower than the predicted 67 claims a week but there has been an element of confusion as to whether alleged acts of bullying committed before January 1 can be included in claims and this may have impacted the level of reporting.

What are the main types of claims?

The majority of claims made so far under the laws have fallen into one of two categories according to HR publication OHS Alert. According to Commissioner Cribb the majority of reports involve employees being bullied either by supervisors or managers or by a group of employees. There were also two cases of supervisors reportedly being bullied by employees.

Although the number of complaints lodged so far falls below what was anticipated, the bullying tribunal’s helpline has reportedly been receiving in excess of 200 calls per week.

How effective is the legislation in dealing with complaints?

It is believed that the Fair Work Act legislation regarding reasonable management action will apply in a significant number of workplace bullying allegations. Many of the applications made by employees regarding bullying by a supervisor are believed to fall into this territory with the need to clarify what exactly constitutes reasonable steps taken by management and what would be classified as harassment or bullying.

Other legislation involving bullying, notably workers’ compensation laws in different states, have clear exclusions as to what behaviour constitutes reasonable direction and disciplinary action by managers and supervisors. So far the Fair Work Act legislation has a certain amount of uncertainty around what behaviour is excluded from further action. It is believed that this could lead to employers being able to claim reasonable disciplinary action rather than bullying and therefore avoid further penalisation.

The Fair Work Commission has recently ruled that alleged bullying activities which took place before January 1 are admissible under the new scheme, and this could lead to an increase in the number of complaints lodged.

Is your business suffering from allegations of workplace bullying? Bullying can be difficult to determine and often an impartial investigator is the best way to ensure a fair result. Contact us today to find out more about what we do and how we can help you effectively deal with claims of harassment and bullying in your organisation.

Investigator bias : How to avoid the mistakes of Qantas

- Tuesday, February 25, 2014

 

Keiko Adachi v Qantas Airways Limited 12 Feb 2014. [2014] FWC 518.

If you don’t want your investigation failing because you’ve stumbled into the sticky trap of “investigator bias”, take note of these lessons from Qantas in a ruling by the Fair Work Commission early this month. 

The FWC found in favour of the aggrieved stewardess, Keiko Adachi and declared that her dismissal by Qantas for gross misconduct was “harsh, unjust and unreasonable”.

An apparently simple altercation between Ms Adachi and her line manager over her “fitness to fly”, led to her dismissal for gross misconduct, just weeks before she would obtain her award for 25 years’ service.

Prior to the incident, which took place in February 2013, Ms Adachi had made complaints of bullying about her manager (the details were not included in the judgment) and had signed off sick for work-related stress.

On her return to work, her doctor issued a medical certificate declaring she was fit for flying duties, but not fit for ground duties. When Ms Adachi reported for a flight on the 17 February 2013, she presented the medical certificate and said she was “fit to fly”. However the certificate stated that she was only fit for “suitable duties” and not “full duties”, which is a stipulation of the Qantas “return to work” policy.  

Her manager, John El Khoury, said she could not fly that night, and would need to get a new certificate. Ms Adachi asked for the certificate back, but her request was refused. So Adachi took the certificate off the table and in the ensuing tussle between her and her manager, the certificate was ripped and scrunched.

Immediately afterwards, Ms Adachi reported the incident to the police, while the manager reported it to his supervisor. Qantas appointed a more senior manager to investigate the complaint lodged by Mr El Khoury. He found that Ms Adachi’s conduct had breached the Qantas code and warranted her dismissal.

The FWC criticised the investigation, stating it was “flawed” because the investigator had a close working relationship with Mr El Khoury and was unable to view his account of the incident as anything other than highly credible.

As you would expect, the versions provided by the two key participants were divergent; both admitted to a tussle over the certificate but disagreed who initiated it and who was responsible.

The investigator needed further evidence provided by other witnesses to corroborate events.

The first witness stated in an email that he saw the tussle and supported the complaint of Mr El Khoury.  But when the gravity of the situation was explained, he changed his evidence, stating he had not seen or heard what he initially claimed.

The investigator then sought evidence from another 12 witnesses, none of whom could provide any evidence that supported Mr El Khoury’s version. Despite this, the investigator showed a clear preference for Mr El Khoury’s evidence, discounting the evidence of the retracted witness and the other 12 employees.

This situation is commonly referred to as “investigator bias” .

So what can we learn from this case?  If you are an internal investigator; how do you stop yourself from forming a view based on your knowledge or opinion of one of the witnesses?

The answer is that it is very hard. In many institutions and businesses, internal investigators have offices in separate locations in company headquarters, and choose not to socialise extensively with the rest of the employees they are tasked to oversee.

Secondly, it is not necessary to interview all witnesses, but it is vital that the investigator canvass a fair distribution of witnesses to provide him/ her with a rounded view of events.

Despite the need for investigations to be conducted without delay, they should not be rushed – rushing people to respond when they may be on stress-related leave or when the investigator is not fully prepared, can lead to lack of procedural fairness.

When evidence is withdrawn, it is also vital that a full explanation is provided, so that the investigator can assess the real, underlying cause of the retraction; was the witness mistaken or were they targeted?  

Finally, in this case, the investigator failed to identify the complex nature of the IR landscape by contacting a worker whilst on stress leave for bullying,  failing to consider prior complaints of bullying lodged by the worker against her managers, the impact of a WorkCover investigation, and a police investigation and a perceived lack of procedural fairness provided to the respondent.

The case highlights:

  • The risks involved in using untrained internal staff to conduct investigations that may result in dismissal proceedings.  

Organisations should consider using qualified ‘investigators’ to gather and analyse the evidence prior to making decision about disciplinary action.  Where you use an external contractor always check that they have the necessary license and insurance.