Record damages awarded to NSW employee for wrongful termination: what can we learn?

Eden Elliott - Friday, October 30, 2020

Case study prepared by WISE Workplace State Manager NSW, Tracey Bosnich 

Image: unfair dismissal

Most of us may believe that if a contract is not signed, it is not legally enforceable. On 10 September 2020, the NSW Supreme Court handed down a significant decision, awarding record damages to an employee for termination of employment and amongst other findings, providing grounds upon which an unsigned contract may be held to be legally enforceable and take precedent over a signed contract.

Background

Ms Melinda Roderick (“Roderick”), the Executive Director of Washington H. Soul Pattinson & Company Ltd (“WHSP”) had been employed since 2006,  when Roderick commenced in the role of Chief Financial Director. She was appointed as Finance Director in 2014, till 12 April 2018, when she was terminated without notice. More notably, Roderick was the only female on the Board and was the second most senior employee in the company.

On 10 September 2020, Roderick was awarded record damages in the amount of $1.105 million. The case was litigated on the issues of termination of employment without warning, failure to give reasonable notice of termination, and failure to pay both short term and long-term incentive entitlements.

Original Signed Contract v Unsigned Contract

Roderick's terms and conditions of employment were originally set out in the 2006 contract ("the original contract"). However, following Roderick becoming the Finance Director in 2014, a draft ‘new contract’ was made in 2015, but was never signed. WHSP argued the original contract prevailed. 

Roderick submitted that when she became the Finance Director, the original contract was discharged. The Court noted that there was a significant change in her role tasks, obligations and duties and that the original contract could not have appropriately been applied in the circumstances, especially where the original contract ‘did not contain a clause specifying that it would remain in force, even if the duties are altered’. It was noted that under the new contract Roderick's responsibilities had significantly increased, in that she became the director of 12 companies. 

Despite the new contract being unsigned, the Court found that the implied intention was for her original contract to be discharged and for the parties to be bound by the new contract. Therefore, the terms and conditions of the unsigned new contract were found to apply and took precedent over the signed 2006 contract.

Calculation of termination payment 

WHSP calculated Roderick’s termination payment based on the signed original contract. Accordingly, Roderick was only paid three months’ of her old salary, in lieu of notice, which was expressly stipulated as the notice period in the original contract.

Roderick’s claim for damages was made in accordance with the notice period expressly stipulated in the new unsigned 2015 contract, being 24 months; and for payment of an amount representing her incentive entitlements under both the long-term and short-term incentive plan and scheme, included in the new contract.

Key issues litigated with respect to damages

There were five issues litigated: whether the original 2006 contract containing the express term of three months' notice applied; if the new unsigned contract applied, what was the implied period of notice; the notice period Roderick should have actually been given; determination of whether Roderick was eligible for entitlements pursuant to the short term and long-term incentives; and the reason for her termination.

Implied Notice and Incentive Bonuses

WHSP argued the original contract provided an express term of a three-month notice period.  As they did not give three months' notice, WHSP paid Roderick an amount in lieu of the three months’ notice and therefore argued they were not in breach of contract.  Roderick argued she was entitled to 24 months’ notice in accordance with the unsigned 2015 contract.

Once the Court established that the original contract no longer applied, it had to determine, what the ‘implied reasonable notice term’ should be. The Supreme Court did not uphold the 24 months’ notice period in the new contract, but determined that Roderick was entitled to 12 months' notice.

Roderick argued the new contract entitled her to the incentives. WHSP argued it was not obliged to pay the incentives as payment was discretionary and dependent on performance, and that Roderick was terminated for ‘poor performance’,  had not worked the full year and was no longer employed. WHSP further submitted that Roderick was terminated prior to the assessment of these incentive benefits.

The Court stated any "decision as to payment is only discretionary in the sense of assessing [Roderick's] performance against the KPIs". The Court stipulated that was an implied contractual obligation to "exercise any discretion conformably with the purpose of the scheme and not to choose arbitrarily or capriciously or unreasonably to not pay money, irrespective of whether the agreed parameters had been achieved". The argument to not pay Roderick as the employment ended "only a matter of days before the end of the relevant financial year would be quite unreasonable and arbitrary".

Reason for termination

The termination letter stated that Roderick was "not the right fit". Roderick argued that she was terminated without explanation. WHSP then subsequently submitted during the litigation, that Roderick was actually terminated for “poor performance”.

The Court noted that it was a "curious feature" that there was not a single document noting an issue with Roderick's performance, including the termination letter itself. It did not accept that Roderick had performed poorly,  but more so "that it (WHSP) could do better in terms of value for its money" given that a day after terminating Roderick, WHSP hired a new CFO on a lower salary. Further, the new CFO had no position on the board and reported to the chief executive, which the Court noted "would have saved [WHSP] a considerable sum".

Key lessons

This case illustrates the following important points for employers:

  • employers should be aware of the terms of their employment contracts;
  • employers should ensure the contract is executed by all the parties;
  • where an employee’s role title, duties and obligations are changed, the Court will look into the ‘intention of the parties to be bound by that contract’ as well as any alteration of responsibilities and duties, to determine when there is a signed contract and an unsigned contract, which contract will apply.

The dangers of wrongful termination for employers are significant – in this case, to the tune of over a million dollars. Employers should always be cautious when ending employment contracts, particularly if the termination involves role changes, very senior employees, complaints, disputes, poor performance or particularly wrongdoing, to ensure termination processes are both compliant and procedurally fair. 

WISE Workplace offers consultancy support with HR and dispute resolution matters to assist employers in meeting these obligations.  If you are seeking advice on the proper way to resolve an internal workplace dispute, contact us today.

How Fact-Finding and Disciplinary Investigations Differ

Vince Scopelliti - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

When dealing with allegations of staff misconduct, employers must be able to clearly delineate between fact-finding and disciplinary investigations. 

This includes communicating the difference to staff involved in the process.

fact-finding vs formal investigation

A 'fact-finding' process is often a necessary preliminary step in determining whether a disciplinary investigation is warranted. Following an incident or complaint, a third-party must interview involved parties to obtain objective information and determine whether the event merits a more detailed investigation.

Alternatively, the results may be sufficient to establish that there was no misconduct, or that the results of any further investigation are unlikely to provide any clear determination. Fact-finding may initially be a fairly informal process, although it should still be clearly documented.

It is extremely important that staff are made aware that a fact-finding process is simply that - not accusatory but only to gather information. This should be clearly spelled out in the organisation's policies and procedures, which staff participating in the process should be pointed towards.

By contrast, once an investigation has commenced, the process becomes much more detailed and formal. This includes the preparation of specific witness statements, collection of detailed information and supporting evidence, and the preparation of a report. That report will be relied upon by management and other decision-makers in determining the consequences following an investigation.

Disciplinary investigations are formal processes that involve specific allegations being put to employees. They are surrounded by confidentiality obligations, and are intended to determine whether an incident was a breach of policy which warrants disciplinary action, and not whether an incident actually occurred.

It is important to bear in mind that the point of a disciplinary investigation is to protect the rights of an individual subject to potential disciplinary proceedings.

communicating the process to the employees involved

Parties engaged in a fact-finding process should be advised clearly why they are involved.

Although it is an informal process, staff should be told that they are being interviewed to outline and assess matters of concern before management can determine a course of further action.

The purpose of the meeting should also be clearly outlined, as well as its status as part of a preliminary assessment or a potential precursor to a formal investigation. However, although the general nature of the query needs to be raised, there is no need for specific information to be divulged.

Before potential respondents are interviewed during the fact-finding process, management should give serious consideration to whether it is essential to do so. If it really is required, the potential respondent must be told that the next steps could involve moving to a formal investigative process and potentially the issue of misconduct allegations which will require a formal response.

what happens when the line becomes blurred

At any point when fact-finding starts getting too close to asking specific questions related to the subject nature of any potential complaint, it is straying towards an informal disciplinary investigation.

This is rife with potential implications for the business, particularly if formal disciplinary processes are commenced as a result. The rights of the accused employee are at risk, and any conduct endorsed by the business could result in unfair dismissal or similar actions by the employee. At this stage, it is recommended that a business involve the services of a formal, external investigator to finalise the process.

If you want to protect your business, draw a real distinction between fact-finding and disciplinary investigations. This can be achieved by using an external provider for all disciplinary proceedings. WISE Workplace offers independent, unbiased and expert third-party investigation services to support you every step of the way - from unpacking the facts of a workplace problem to analysing all sources of evidence raised in relation to misconduct. 

Sacked on Leave: Procedural Fairness and Unfair Dismissal

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The rules around when staff can be terminated while they are on leave can be a source of consternation for management and human resources professionals. 

The consequences of getting it wrong are demonstrated in the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Tuan Nguyen v Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies Pty Ltd [2020] FWC 79 (30 January 2020). 

In this case, the employer was ordered to pay compensation to an employee deemed to have been unfairly terminated. 

The Facts of the matter

Mr Nguyen was a business manager for Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies who was dismissed from his employment following allegations of fraud and dishonesty associated with the supply of products to a customer. 

Following his termination, he lodged an application for unfair dismissal, arguing that the seriousness of the allegations levelled against him were not supported by the available evidence. 

Although the Commission found that there was legitimate cause for concern about Mr Nguyen’s reckless conduct, and he had been validly terminated, it was ultimately held that due process had not been followed in effecting the termination. 

This was because Mr Nguyen was found not to have been given prior warning or a “genuine opportunity” to deal with the serious substance of the allegations, particularly given as Mr Nguyen was on extended sick leave at the time of the termination. 

Accordingly, the dismissal was found to have been harsh, unreasonable and unfair, with the Commission ordering compensation in the sum of $10,000. 

key lessons employers can learn

Employers should take note of a few key principles which underpinned the decision in Nguyen, namely:

  • The Commission expects employers to provide a “fair go all round”. In practice, this means that decisions in relation to employment status cannot be made arbitrarily. Instead, they must take into account a balanced, practical and common sense method to ensure that both the employer and the employee are treated fairly. Notably, this includes an opportunity to respond to allegations made against the employee by the business.
  • Procedural fairness is king. Although it is certainly understandable that employers wish to exit staff who are underperforming or otherwise breaching workplace practices or even the law as expeditiously as possible, there is no excuse to “rush” the process, at the cost of following due process. This means providing employees with clearly articulated warnings, notice of the reasons for dismissal, ensuring a legitimate and practical opportunity has been given for them to respond, and permitting the employee to have a support person of their choosing attend any interviews. 
  • In addition, objectivity is crucial. When making decisions as to ongoing employment, it is essential that the results of any investigation can stand up to objective standards of evidence, and will not be undermined by allegations of subjectivity or bias. 
  • Take your time. Unless there are urgent reasons to immediately terminate employees (such as serious criminal activity), there is no benefit in terminating too quickly. This is especially the case when employees are on sick leave, as in most cases the Commission will determine that due process has not been followed in dealing with those staff. 
  • Engage in performance management early. Although there may be a concern that a documented performance management process will further alienate an unhappy or recalcitrant employee, engaging in this process at appropriate times and in a correct fashion will bolster any ultimate termination, should this become necessary. It also affords the employer a reasonable management defence when challenged. 
In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will prioritise “a fair go all round” and not hesitate to find in favour of an applicant (notwithstanding that they may have engaged in legitimate misconduct) if procedural fairness is not followed. To ensure procedural fairness when dealing with misconduct, contact WISE for resources, expert advice and independent, unbiased investigation services.


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. 

When a Pre-Determined View Leads to an Unfair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 31, 2019

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

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

the facts of the matter 

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

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

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

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

THE need for procedural fairness

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

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

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

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

Taking a pre-determined view 

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

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

THE need for separation between investigator and decision-maker

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

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

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. 

Analysing Evidence: The Key Step of Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 15, 2018

One of the most challenging and important tasks undertaken by a workplace investigator is the analysis of the evidence that has been gathered during the course of the investigation. 

Key questions to consider include: What evidence should be contained in the investigation report? How do I analyse what I have gathered? How does this connect with the findings I make in the investigation report? 

Here's how to effectively and transparently analyse the evidence.

WHAT evidence should be included? 

There is a simple answer to this question: ALL relevant evidence collected in the course of the workplace investigation will need to form part of the analysis, the findings and the final report. The act of leaving evidence out without explanation can - intentionally or otherwise - indicate a lack of thoroughness or even worse a prejudgement about a fact in issue. A piece of evidence might ultimately prove to be of little consequence, but this should be at least acknowledged and noted. So if in doubt don't leave it out. 

Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence

One way to begin marshalling material is to consider if the evidence is exculpatory or inculpatory. If we think of the allegation in question - let's say sexual harassment in the workplace - we can begin to analyse the evidence in terms of those items that most likely indicate that the conduct occurred, and those that point to the opposite conclusion. 

Evidence that indicates or tends to indicate that something occurred is known as inculpatory evidence. Conversely if evidence vindicates or tends to clear the alleged harasser of the wrongdoing, then this is known as exculpatory evidence. 

It is unlikely that you will have two neat piles from the start! However, this formal approach to organising the evidence can assist in creating a logical report that withstands future scrutiny. 

Analysis of the evidence

For each piece of evidence examined, investigators need to determine how strong or weak it is in the overall context of the investigation. Strong evidence will be consistent, reliable and in terms of witness statements, believable, probable and credible. 

Considering that a workplace investigation often reflects strong emotions and internal allegiances within the organisation, it is important to make an objective assessment of the reliability of statements made and items presented. Investigators will be on the lookout for statements that might be self-serving, or made a long time after the event in questions, for example.

Other factors to consider will be internal anomalies in statements or possible collusion between witnesses. An element of triangulation of the data will be required - the investigator is looking to detect where dubious connections indicate a weakness in evidence, or conversely where consistent evidence is noticeable across a number of different sources, including documentary evidence. 

It is important to compare and contrast evidence from different sources: Which parts of the evidence consistently support the view that the events in question occurred and which indicate that it did not occur. Once this is done, the weight or value of each part of the evidence can be assessed.    

writing up the analysis

Those new to workplace investigations can sometimes become daunted by the task of reporting on findings made. It is important to be clear about the methodology, about the manner in which the evidence was handled and how you have arrived at your findings. 

Take a methodical approach, which will assist your own thinking as well as allow any reader a logical progression through the document. Some organisations will require the report to be set out in a particular manner and it is important to ascertain if this is the case. 

Above all - make your findings clear. If your finding is that an event occurred, then state this clearly. It will be necessary to explain why you consider certain claims to be substantiated or where there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion on a contended point. This document could well be used in a number of forums including court and tribunal proceedings. It should be a reflection of the fact that the workplace investigation was fair, that all relevant evidence was considered and included, and that findings are based upon well-balanced evidentiary analysis. 

A workplace investigation is a systematic process for establishing facts and circumstances surrounding a complaint or allegation. If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, or would like support in analysing your evidence gathered, WISE provides both supported and full investigation services.

Why Employers Can't Afford to Ignore Procedural Fairness

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 01, 2018

It is important for employers to keep procedural fairness top of mind when conducting workplace investigations or taking disciplinary action.

Failing to do so can result in terminations being deemed unfair, as the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Nicholas Jarmain v Linfox Armaguard Pty Ltd [2018] FWC 3255 (14 June 2018) shows. 

background of the case 

Linfox Armaguard dismissed casual employee Nicholas Jarmain in October 2017 for serious misconduct. While the Fair Work Commission found the termination was justified, it determined that Mr Jarmain had been unfairly dismissed due to insufficient procedural fairness.

Mr Jarmain was dismissed after a client complained that he was "overly engaged in interaction and discussion" and generally inappropriate with staff members and customers of the client.

In response to the allegations, Mr Jarmain was asked to undergo an interview with a security officer and a union support person present. Explanations for his behaviour were sought (and his answers recorded) during the interview, and Mr Jarmain was then suspended from duty.

At a meeting three weeks later, Mr Jarmain was given further opportunity to explain the circumstances giving rise to the complaints against him. However, as his preferred union delegate was injured and unable to attend, the employer substituted their own preferred union official for that meeting.

The employer terminated Mr Jarmain's casual employment the next day, citing wilful and deliberate breaches of safety and security procedures. 

Breaches of procedural fairness

In the interest of procedural fairness, Mr Jarmain's employer should have advised him what claims were being investigated before asking him to participate in a recorded interview.

This was considered to be particularly egregious given that the employer is a big company with sufficient access to HR professionals. HR could (and indeed should) have been relied upon to ensure that Mr Jarmain was afforded procedural fairness when facing disciplinary action.

While the employer's reasons for dismissing Mr Jarmain were "sound, defensible and well-founded", especially given the job involves loaded weapons, the Commission concluded that the flaws in procedure, such as failing to provide any formal warnings or reprimands, were significant. 

The Commission determined that Mr Jarmain had not been given sufficient notification of the circumstances surrounding the complaints against him, or indeed the events giving rise to the complaints - and that he had effectively been ambushed, without sufficient information to defend himself against the claims. 

This meant that both Mr Jarmain's interview and ultimate dismissal were contrary to the requirements of procedural fairness.

Additional failures included the employer selecting the support person assisting Mr Jarmain in the second interview (as opposed to permitting the employee to pick his support person). By making such a decision it was akin to removing Mr Jarmain's right to have a support person present at all.

Further, the employer should not have suspended Mr Jarmain without pay.

the final decision

Ultimately, given the nature of the industry in which Mr Jarmain was employed, Commissioner Cambridge declined to order reinstatement of the employment but ordered compensation payments to the tune of $8,592.

This case demonstrates that having a valid reason to dismiss is only one factor that is considered in unfair dismissal claims. The Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as training.