Investigating Fraud? When Do You Have to Tell the Respondent?

Harriet Witchell - Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Investigating Fraud
Investigating Fraud? When Do You Have to Tell the Respondent?

The possibility that an employee might be committing fraud can raise many emotions. As with other misconduct, disappointment can be pronounced. When fraud is suspected against either the business itself or customers, plain anger towards the potential culprit can also arise. It is this high emotion that creates the necessity for cool heads in any fraud investigation. If you are involved in an investigation where fraud is alleged, timing and a methodical plan are crucial to ensure that the process is sound. Depending upon the nature and extent of the fraud, the time at which the respondent should be told and/or interviewed can vary. The quality of any documented evidence you collect can have a notable effect on admissibility or weight in any later court proceedings. For this reason, adhering to procedural fairness in the workplace investigation will be vital. 

Get prepared

Your workplace investigation plan should include a basic timeline of actions. Top of the list will be the gathering of information relevant to the allegations of fraud. Be careful about how and from whom this will be collected. At this stage, as few people as possible should be involved in order to maintain confidentiality and the integrity of the investigation. Collect interview notes, documents, relevant screen dumps and any other physical evidence that purports to implicate the respondent in the fraudulent activity. This is also a good time to fully assess any possible motivations or overt emotional issues with the informant/s. Any later interview with the respondent needs to be based upon available facts – not any aspersions cast by an angry individual. Make a decision on any need for immediate action, particularly whether police need to be called if an employee is AWOL with fraud proceeds, for example, or data or money is currently being misappropriated. Once you have enough valid information, decide upon your next steps. It may be that the allegations against the respondent are clearly groundless. Perhaps there was a mere accounting error, for example. But if the allegations appear to have some substance, it might well be time to draft appropriate interview questions. Sometimes, the first person you talk to after the claimant is the respondent - but only after other documentary evidence has been secured. This gives them an early chance to explain their story, plus reduces the chances of workplace gossip or slander about the respondent snowballing unfairly. 

The interview

Having secured an interview time with the respondent, think through the nature and order of questions that you need to ask. The basic purpose of the meeting should be explained, without any blunt statements or accusations about the alleged fraud. It can help to be quite specific about the concerns raised by any informants: “There are concerns being raised about some anomalies that Brian found in the customer invoicing drive,” or “Your employer has some concerns about repeated discrepancies in reconciliations over the last six months”. Recalling the imperative for procedural fairness in the workplace investigation, maintain this objectivity throughout the remainder of the interview. Allow sufficient time for explanations, and ask inquisitive questions that demonstrate your open mind throughout the process.

Cater for reactions

Fraud is a serious accusation. Whether or not the respondent is involved in such behaviour, their individual emotions of indignation, shame and/ or anger might well surface. Assess whether the interview needs rescheduling, if a support person is needed, as well as any requests for legal representation. Also give the respondent options for response. Indicate that an immediate response is not required and they might prefer to respond at a later (agreed) time. Explain the remainder of your investigation plan and associated timeline for actions, in order to provide some sense of order to what might well be a moment of shock for the respondent. 

Cool heads rule 

The alleged fraud might tempt employers, owners and managers to simply confront the respondent in angry indignation. Perhaps understandable – but such action must be avoided in order to maintain the integrity of the investigative process. Remember, your objective in carrying out a well-constructed workplace investigation concerning the alleged fraud is to gather quality evidence in a fair and consistent manner. How and when to let the respondent know can be a delicate matter, dependent upon the nature and urgency of the facts in question. 

For training in the best ways of handling this type of investigation, WISE Workplace offers a Certificate IV in Government Fraud Control and a Diploma in Government Fraud Control.

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

Harriet Witchell - 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.

What are the Steps Involved in An External Investigation

Harriet Witchell - Thursday, April 10, 2014

 

Workplace misconduct, bullying and harassment are surprisingly common among Australian organisations. Although many problems can be managed and resolved through in house human resources and management, sometimes hiring an external investigator is the best option.

A good workplace investigation follows a series of steps to ensure a fair outcome for everyone and an unbiased investigation. Although every investigation is slightly different here is a brief outline of the steps that are usually involved in the investigation process:

1. Define the scope and Terms of Reference
Before engaging an external investigator or with the assistance of the investigator, clients must determine what is wrong with the behaviour that has been reported – define the scope of the investigation and prepare initial allegations or issues to be investigated. Clearly articulating the scope and allegations made in writing to the investigator is a high determinant of success for the investigation and welfare of staff involved.
2. Appoint an external investigator
It’s important to take time to find the right external investigator. A poorly undertaken investigation could be a waste of time and money and could leave you liable for additional costs in the long term, especially if a dissatisfied employee decides to take further action against the outcome or the way the investigation was conducted. Make sure you find a professional investigator with a Private Investigator licence. The licencing process ensures minimum qualifications/experience, and a code of practice. After establishing the correct licence find an investigator with a good track record, solid experience and understanding of the law, particularly in the specific area you are investigating.
3. Analyse the information that’s available
The first step an external investigator should take is to thoroughly examine the information that’s available. In cases of harassment this means looking at all the records and any evidence on either side and gaining a general understanding of the circumstances, workplace policies and any issues that could have led up to the alleged bullying or misconduct. Once the investigator has an understanding of the situation he or she can make an informed decision as to how to proceed.
4. Interviewing the complainant and witnesses
After the investigator has discussed the situation in depth with the client, the next step is to interview the complainant, any witnesses to gather further information. Interviews should be conducted in a private location, recorded and allowing the interviewees to have a support person present if they wish. Copies of records must be provided to individuals to check and sign. In many investigations the initial interviews may reveal new or different information or additional leads. If this is the case, follow up interviews may be required to verify or further investigate new allegations or information.
5. Examination of records
The investigator should be given access to all relevant documents, emails and available digital data to corroborate statements made by witnesses. To ensure impartiality, the examination of disciplinary records should only be undertaken if relevant to the facts at issue. The final decision maker can use prior disciplinary records to determine an appropriate penalty but this should not be considered at the investigation stage.
6. Putting the allegations to the respondent
Only when all the evidence has been gathered is it appropriate to speak to the respondent. Speaking to the respondent last ensures that all relevant allegations and evidence can be put to the respondent for a full and fair response. It is a requirement to meet the obligations under procedural fairness to provide the respondent the opportunity to respond to all allegations this should be done in an environment that is supportive. Audio record this interview wherever possible and make sure the respondent gets a copy to sign. Respondents should always be given the opportunity to have a support person present to give support but not advocate on their behalf. It is fair to provide an opportunity for a written response to be provided also.
7. Analysis and report
Once all the information has been obtained, the investigator will analyse the information and produce a report detailing their findings. The report should detail the investigator’s findings, whether the allegations of misconduct or bullying can be upheld and show how they reached their conclusion. They may also make recommendations for further action by management.
8. Notify parties involved
The complainant and the respondent should be notified of the outcome of the investigation and what further steps are required on both sides. It’s important that any workplace investigation follows a logical process and that findings are carefully detailed to avoid further legal action and ensure a fair outcome. A well-managed investigation can help resolve the situation and lets everyone move on as quickly as possible. Contact us today if you have any questions about the investigation process or to find an experienced, professional external investigator.

Making administrative decisions stick: procedural fairness at work

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

 

A starting point for any court of law when assessing the legitimacy of an administrative decision is fairness – procedural fairness

Now that Safe Work Australia has released the draft model code for bullying in the workplace, employers need to ensure that procedural fairness is at the heart of their response to bullying issues.

A fundamental concept of law is that whenever you make an administrative decision about an employee you need to ensure that the process was procedurally fair.

This applies uniformly to managing misconduct and performance management. Ensuring that actions are taken as a result of ‘reasonable management action’ involves abiding by these principles and sticking to your policies and procedures.

The case of Police Association of New South Wales (on behalf of Kim Gilmour) and Commissioner of Police NSWIRComm 51 is a classic example of how not to conduct a workplace investigation.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission found that the investigation process was so infected by procedural deficiencies as to contaminate the process.

The three key principals of procedural fairness are:
  • The right to be heard
  • The right to an unbiased decision maker
  • The right to have the decision based on evidence
Achieving an unbiased decision can be difficult, the decision makers must not be biased, that is:
  • Actually
  • Potentially or,
  • Perceived as being

It is not enough to get in a second or third opinion to form a committee of decision makers. Bias is assessed using the principle of one biased all biased, rendering any such decisions as biased as if they were made alone. 

When assessing whether there is perceived or potential bias, the law uses the reasonable person test to make the assessment: would a reasonable person in full possession of the same information think there was a potential or perceive a bias?

Flaws found by the Industrial Relations Commission (NSWIRComm 51 ) included:
  • the relevant decision-maker admitted that she: (a) had a pre-determined view of the outcome of the investigation prior to its completion and (b) took irrelevant matters into consideration in making her decision,
  • the initial investigator had been involved in one of the alleged incidents and had previous disagreements with the employee under investigation,
  • two witnesses present at the alleged incidents were not interviewed,
  • there were unreasonable delays in the process,
  • the employee under investigation was not given details of the allegations against him until he was interviewed many months after the investigation process commenced.
Putting this into practice in workplace investigations or in performance management practices:
  • The right to be heard means making sure the employee has enough information to know what they have done wrong, and provide them with an opportunity to be interviewed and provide their side of events.
  • Ensuring an unbiased decision maker means removing decision makers, managers and investigators who have had prior dealings with the employee that could affect their view of the current case. Anyone with a conflict of interest in determining the case without bias should be distanced from the proceedings.
  • The right to have the decision based on evidence entails collecting all the available evidence within reason, and assessing that evidence without bias or favour. Knowing how to weight the reliability of different forms of evidence is critical in drawing the correct conclusions in law.

Safe Work Australia Draft Code of Practice - Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying

Procedural Fairness: a practical guide for workplace investigators