So You've Been Accused of Bullying - What Now?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The issue of workplace bullying is much more openly discussed these days, and most employees are aware that they can make a formal complaint to their employers and have the matter investigated – with appropriate resolution to follow.

But what happens if you are not the victim, but instead have been accused of being the bully?

HOW TO DEAL WITH AN OVERWHELMING EXPERIENCE

Being accused of bullying is never pleasant. It can create a number of confusing feelings, including concerns about your job security, a sense of lost control over your workplace and working experience, and frustration or even anger towards your accuser.

This can particularly be the case if you dispute that the alleged behaviour occurred or took place as claimed, and feel that you have been wrongly accused.

In some circumstances, those accused of workplace bullying may even develop feelings of depression or anxiety.

But there are strategies which you can employ to stay focused and keep your emotions under control while the investigation process is underway.

These include:

  • Remembering that the accusation is only an allegation and does not mean that anything has or will be proven against you.

  • Understanding that there is an investigation process which needs to be followed to ensure fairness is afforded to both parties. Your organisation will need to investigate the allegations and talk to staff before they get your side of the story.

  • Avoiding interfering in the investigation, as this will risk a finding of bias and will only extend the process.

YOUR RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

As the alleged perpetrator of the workplace bullying, you are entitled to be advised of what the allegations made against you are, although you cannot be provided with a copy of the initial letter of complaint.

This is to ensure that the complainant maintains some privacy and avoids potential further harassment. Once you have been advised of the complaint and the details of the allegation, it is a good idea to make a written record of your version of events.

You have the right to participate in an interview and, if you take up this right, it is important to calmly address the facts and provide a rational, not emotional, response to the allegations.

You are also entitled to request that you have a support person to sit in on interviews and provide you with moral support throughout the investigation process.

The key thing to remember is that you have the right to an unbiased investigation. If you genuinely believe that the investigator or somebody with the power to make the final determination is prejudiced against you or otherwise has a conflict of interest, you should set out your concerns, preferably in writing, and request that another person becomes involved in the process.

If you continue to feel that the process is tainted by bias, you can contact the Fair Work Commission's Help Line or obtain independent legal or consulting advice to ensure that your rights are protected.

By the same token, you should avoid discussing the complaint at all with co-workers or decision-makers, and certainly should not engage in discussions with the complainant under any circumstances. Any attempt to do so may be perceived as an attempt to influence witnesses or otherwise interfere with the investigation.

REMEMBER THAT THE INVESTIGATION CAN TAKE TIME

It's important to be aware that the workplace investigation process can be lengthy, and more serious allegations of bullying might take six or more weeks to investigate. Factors such as the victim (or you) going on stress leave or annual leave can also affect the timeframe of the investigation.

Although it is certainly justifiable to feel stressed, and you should seek support if you feel unwell, going on medical leave in response to the complaint will only prolong the investigation. Your health is likely to be better served in the long-term by assisting in the process, enabling a quicker resolution.

Being accused of workplace bullying and the subsequent investigation process can be an upsetting experience. If your organisations needs assistance in how to respond to bullying allegations to ensure procedural fairness for all parties, we can provide you with advice on the investigation process. Feel free to contact us here.

Witness Statements Protected in Australia Post FOI Bid

- Wednesday, April 26, 2017


A recent decision of the Australian Information Commissioner has confirmed that certain categories of internal documents cannot generally be forced to be the subject of a disclosure process.

The decision, which was handed down by Commissioner Tim Pilgrim on April 5, 2017, arose from a refusal by Australia Post to produce documents to a former employee, identified for the purpose of the proceedings as "LC".

LC had complained to his former employer that he had heard two managers making "derogatory comments" about him, and reported that he had heard from an HR officer that the managers would be disciplined for their actions. Accordingly, LC issued a Freedom of Information (FOI) request seeking documents pertaining to Australia Post's investigations, with a view to identifying what disciplinary action would be taken.

aUSTRALIA POST CLAIMS DOCUMENTS EXEMPT

However, the requested documents were not produced by Australia Post, which claimed that the materials were exempt from production under sections 47E(c) and 47F of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth).

Section 47E(c) of the Act provides that documents are not required to be produced if they would or could "have a substantial adverse effect on the management or assessment of personnel by the Commonwealth or by an agency". Meanwhile, section 47F states that documents need not be produced if they would unreasonably reveal personal information about any person, including a deceased person.

LC requested a review of the FOI decision. However, Commissioner Pilgrim agreed with Australia Post's refusal to produce the documents, in accordance with the "management functions" exemption set out in section 47E(c).

RELEASE OF DOCUMENTS WOULD 'IMPEDE INVESTIGATIONS'

In these circumstances, the documents related to both managing and assessing personnel because they related to complaints by employees and associated disciplinary proceedings.

Specifically, Commissioner Pilgrim found that documents including witness statements and counselling or disciplinary action documents directly related to the management functions of an organisation, and accordingly could "reasonably be expected to have a substantial adverse effect" on those functions.

In particular, Commissioner Pilgrim concluded that permitting the release of these documents would impede the proper progress of investigations, because there was a very reasonable prospect that it would put people off making complaints or providing honest witness statements during enquiries, particularly over concerns of "backlash" from co-workers and supervisors or senior employees.

Having regard to the nature of Australia Post's business, Commissioner Pilgrim also found that public interest dictated that Australia Post and other government organisations should be able to protect the integrity of their code of conduct complaint processes.

THE WIDER IMPACT ON WORKPLACE INVESTIGATIONS

The recent decision in LC and Australia Post highlights the importance of employers being able to maintain the integrity, privacy and confidentiality of their internal disciplinary processes. In particular, witnesses and complainants can be reassured that anything they divulge and which is recorded during the provision of interviews cannot be easily disclosed on the basis of FOI requests.

Make sure that your internal documentation and disciplinary processes are protected, private and accurate. The majority of unfair dismissal claims are due to lack of process and procedural fairness. Fix the process and reduce time and money spent in court with the Workplace Investigation Tool Kit. You can find more information about it here

A Perplexing Problem: Protecting Children Overseas

- Thursday, April 20, 2017


Every year billions of Australian dollars are provided to fund aid projects overseas. The money is targeted to assist developing countries with education, housing, health and community projects. Naturally children are a prime target group for these aid programs.  The majority of these organisations are funded by the Australian public via donations and government funding provided to not-for-profit organisations, many of them faith based organisations.

International rules and expectations govern the protocols for handling and responding to allegations related to child protection, however, enforcing these laws is a tricky business often involving multiple jurisdictions and multiple agencies who may disagree around responsibilities and liabilities.

Policies and procedures are not enough to protect children who are by definition amongst the most vulnerable in the world.

Small operations, voluntary management and high dependency on the goodwill of front end service delivery mitigate against strong child protection regimes. Poor oversight due to long distance, remoteness and cultural differences are also key features of this problem.

Funding bodies in Australia are expected to have high quality child protection systems and policies in place to gain government funding but the challenge of enforcing or even providing adequate training in the expectations to the end providers of the service can be beyond reach.

Now that we know that we cannot unquestioningly depend on the nature of goodly people to act without harming children, what cost do we place on the need to provide secure safe environments for children receiving charitable services?

Documents provided to the Guardian relating to the level of abuse within detention centres on Nauru demonstrate the abject failure of outsourced government funded programs. How then do we expect small voluntary projects to be faring against these standards?

It is clear that policies and procedures are woefully inadequate yet how much of the donated money do we want spent on compliance when it comes to protecting children?

WISE Workplace is regularly requested to undertake investigations of allegations made against staff overseas who are working or administering charitable projects. The work requires a high level understanding of the environment, the agency, funding requirements, boards and community management structures, and the local culture and cultural background of staff and service recipients. The work remains some of the most challenging to investigate. Weak employment relationships can lead to inconclusive outcomes and an inability to enforce any restrictions on volunteers in the field.

For those organisations with managers in Australia trying to manage complaints or allegations arising from activities overseas, using the support of experienced investigators can be a godsend melding the investigative skills of experienced child protection investigators with the cultural and service delivery expertise of the coordinators working for the agency.

Our top 10 list of must do’s if you are a coordinator of a charity funded project overseas:

  1. Nominate a single contact person with responsibility for dealing with complaints related to child protection within your agency

  2. Have clearly articulated Child Protection Standards and Guidelines

  3. Have clearly articulated procedures for dealing with complaints

  4. Understand the criminal law in the country of service delivery

  5. Understand the employee relationship between the funding body and the service providers on the ground

  6. Know your legal obligations under your primary funding agency agreement

  7. Respond quickly to complaints

  8. Conduct a risk assessment and take protective action if necessary

  9. Identify a suitable contact person on the ground in the foreign country to be a liaison pain

  10. Seek specialist help when complaints are serious or complex to investigate.

WISE Workplace runs regular training programs on the principles of undertaking workplace investigations. Our facilitators have extensive experience and expertise in managing all kinds of challenging investigations including running operations overseas via Skype using local contacts. Our unique Investigating Abuse in Care course provides valuable skills in how to assess complaints, reporting obligations, drafting allegations, interviewing victims and respondents, making decisions and maintaining procedural fairness. Book now for courses in May 2017.

Building Rapport in Investigative Interviews

- Wednesday, April 12, 2017


All workplaces are at risk of allegations of bullying, harassment, discrimination or other claims of misconduct or inappropriate dealings. As such, all employers must be prepared to conduct investigative interviews to determine the veracity and accuracy of any allegations made against or by one or more of their employees.

Apart from properly eliciting the facts, perhaps the most important thing in conducting such interviews is ensuring that there is sufficient rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee. This connection can result in more information being obtained from the interviewee, and also help ensure that more truthful answers are provided.

So what are our top tips on achieving this?

1. TAILOR YOUR APPROACH

There is no "one size fits all" approach when it comes to building rapport in investigative interviews, it's about tailoring the approach to suit the particular circumstances and the interviewee.

For example, there is probably little point running through a standard set of formal questions when interviewing children. Similarly, an employee who claims to be the victim of workplace bullying is unlikely to want to make idle small talk about how the company's netball team is faring in the local comp.

2. ASK QUESTIONS IN THE RIGHT WAY

It is crucial that interviewers are competent and know which questioning techniques to use in which situation in order to put the interviewee at ease and obtain quality information.

For example, taking the interviewee back in time to when the incident occurred can help with recall, while asking open-ended questions can assist in obtaining more detailed explanations.

3. MAKE THE INTERVIEWEE COMFORTABLE

One of the most important aspects of building rapport is to make sure the interviewee is relaxed. Ensure that there is adequate privacy for the interview to take place away from the prying eyes and ears of co-workers, and offer comfortable seating and beverages. It is essential to create a sense of trust in the interviewee, by making them comfortable, conveying an impression of competence and expertise, and by actively listening to them. If this occurs, the interviewee is more likely to feel comfortable divulging information.

4. MIRROR THE INTERVIEWEE TO BOND WITH THEM

A tip frequently utilised by law enforcement officials in conducting investigative interviews is to mirror the interviewee. This involves actively listening to what the interviewee is saying and "mirroring" or reflecting their mental state and emotions, such as expressing frustration about the way in which they have been treated, demonstrating understanding and validation of their feelings, and acknowledging that their experiences are significant and potentially very destabilising.

Mirroring is also closely aligned with the principle of reciprocity, which suggests that interviewees will respond in a way which matches the interviewer's attitude towards and interaction with them. An empathetic or obviously interested interviewer will doubtlessly elicit more information than one with an aggressive or unpleasant style.

It is particularly important to find factors of commonality and shared experiences if there is a power imbalance between the interviewer and the interviewee (such as a relationship of employer and employee or an external workplace investigator who is effectively a stranger). This can be as simple as discussing recent weather events, the traffic or sporting teams.

OBTAINING PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE

Conducting investigative interviews generally can be challenging. For more tips on how to undertake interviews in the workplace, participate in one of our upcoming advanced training courses on conducting investigations.

Alternatively, if you prefer to obtain expert assistance from the get-go, Wise Workplace provides full investigation services. Contact us today to find out how we can help with your workplace investigations.

Bullying: What's the Role of Leadership?

- Wednesday, April 05, 2017


Workplace bullying is somewhat of a scourge in modern society. Broadly categorised by Reach Out Australia as any behaviour which is physically, mentally or socially threatening and takes place in the employment context, it can have an enormous impact on staff effectiveness, employee retention, the number and type of worker's compensation claims and, of course, employee happiness.

Legally, employers have a responsibility to ensure that all workplaces are safe for their staff, including preventing workplace bullying. So what are the key things business leaders should be doing to tackle this problem?

1. PREVENTION IS THE BEST CURE

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with workplace bullying is to try and ensure that it does not happen. As suggested by Safework Australia, workplace bullying can best be prevented by the leadership team identifying potential risk factors within the organisation for bullying.

In addition to ensuring that new staff, wherever possible, are likely to mesh with other employees and not experience personality clashes, this process should also involve regular consultation with employees as to their levels of job satisfaction and the quality of interaction with co-workers, conducting exit interviews with departing employees, obtaining regular feedback and ensuring that there are detailed incident reports recording complaints and other potential instances of workplace bullying behaviour.

Being aware of possible triggers for workplace bullying can also be an effective strategy, for example, awareness of the various leadership styles in the organisation. Ensuring adequate communication between management and employees and requesting forthright feedback on work styles and interactions can help to reduce the risk of workplace bullying significantly.

2. LISTEN TO THE ALLEGED VICTIM - AND THE ALLEGED PERPETRATOR

It is important for leaders to be empathetic and open when speaking with a claimed victim of workplace bullying. Remember that the person alleging bullying, whether this has actually taken place or not, is already harbouring strong negative feelings about the workplace, or at the very least certain people in the workplace.

A heavy-handed or suspicious approach by the employer is likely to further upset the employee and worsen the ongoing impact and consequences of the bullying. At the same time, a leader investigating a workplace bullying claim does not need to blindly accept everything put forward by the apparent victim.

Both the "bully" and the "victim" are the employer's responsibility, and both are therefore entitled to have their full version of events listened to and acted upon appropriately.

3. TAKE DETAILED CONTEMPORANEOUS NOTES 

In the worst case scenario, an employee's bullying allegations may become the subject of legal proceedings.

This means a record of conversations and interactions between senior staff and claimed victims of workplace bullying may become essential evidence. In any event, regardless of the possible outcome, it is always best practice to ensure that all conversations with management are properly recorded, not least to make sure that further claims of workplace bullying are not levelled against management!

4. ENSURE IMPARTIALITY 

Depending on the size and type of your workplace, ensuring that investigations are conducted impartially may be difficult. In certain cases, it may be more appropriate to engage external workplace investigators to review workplace bullying complaints.

However, if employers choose to keep investigations in-house, prejudgement of the ‘facts’ or a bias toward one side or the other must be avoided. Where possible, it can be helpful to task someone who doesn’t work directly with either party with the investigation.

Negotiating the many tricky aspects of investigating workplace bullying complaints can be very stressful. At Wise Workplace, we provide advanced training courses in conducting workplace investigations, to make you and your leadership team as self-sufficient as possible. Register for an upcoming course date now.

Unexplained Injuries in Care – 3 Tips for Investigators

- Wednesday, March 29, 2017
unexplained injuries in care

It goes without saying that injuries occur in all workplaces, not just the community sector. Yet there are certain unexplained injuries within care environments that should receive particular attention.

We set out our top three 3 tips for investigators when confronted with an unexplained injury allegation in aged or disability care contexts.

1. FULLY UNDERSTAND THE CARE ENVIRONMENT

Those charged with investigating claims of abuse by carers have a challenging task. Both circumstances and injuries can be ill-defined, with sometimes little to go on in terms of firm evidence. This is due primarily to the nature of childcare and other care environments – vulnerable people often have difficulty explaining that workplace violence hasoccurred.

Patients can be in a frail or vulnerable state for example, with high dependency on assistance with personal care. Bathing, dressing and feeding in sometimes tight spaces with over-worked staff can lead to a number of unintended injuries for both carers and patients alike. The complexities are substantial. However, the need to fully understand when an injury is a reportable incident under new legislation is vital.

Clients and family members might point to an unexplained injury and assume that the care environment is to blame. Yet investigators should assume nothing as they take careful stock of the facilities, mechanisms and personnel involved in that particular care arrangement.

2. INVESTIGATE FAIRLY THROUGH EMOTIONAL TERRAIN

Good investigators know to treat everyone equally during workplace investigations. We maintain a professional demeanour and ensure that all relevant people are heard. Yet communication by investigators in the aged and disability care can require a unique approach to objectivity.

Clients or family members in these environments can express shock, outrage and complete certainty when it comes to the investigation of an unexplained injury. And investigators themselves might be emotionally swayed when faced with allegations of child abuse, elder abuse or disability abuse.

However, an unexplained injury is exactly that – unexplained. Taking into account the communication needs of the client, the tangle of information supplied by families, plus available documentation at the workplace, it is critical to refrain from drawing any inferences throughout the investigation.

3. ComMUNICATE APPROPRIATELY WHEN nEEDS ARE UNIQUE

We need to take into account the particular communication needs of those vulnerable individuals claiming elder abuse, child abuse or disability abuse by a carer. For example, specific communication technologies, scribing assistance, emotional support and/ or advocacy services might form an integral part of investigations into unexplained injuries.

It is essential to understand the nature of the assistance and make objective determinations around interviewing methods. Questions might include: is the scribe or support person related to the injured client? Does the client appear both willing and able to engage with the interviewer? Is there any visible fear, withdrawal or discomfort?

As a corollary, it is vital to avoid any dismissive or patronising communication techniques when interviewing the person in aged, child or disability contexts. We should never assume that they cannot or won’t communicate – particularly if someone else in the room tells us this! As well as having to sport an unexplained injury, it would be disappointing indeed if the injured party leaves an interview feeling ignored, pressured or misunderstood.

THE UNEXPLAINED INJURY – TAKING CARE

Workplace investigators must be extremely careful not to jump to any conclusions when an unexplained injury arises in aged or disability contexts. Keep in mind our three top tips on understanding, fairness and communication in care environments. This will help you to create and manage the best possible workplace investigation. After all, Australians are known for looking after each other well, and a good investigation can ensure that unexplained injuries in the caring sector are dealt with fairly at every turn. 

Our upcoming must-do 2017 investigation training will give you the best possible tools for tackling unexplained injuries in aged and disability care. Join is there, or get in touch to access our top-selling Workplace Investigation Toolkit, plus other professional resources to assist your investigations. 

The Key Warning Signs of Grooming and Sexual Manipulation

- Wednesday, March 22, 2017

warning signs of grooming

As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has painfully revealed, our most trusted institutions have at times mishandled some of the worst cases of child abuse imaginable.

It is becoming clear to us as a nation that the trust given by children and other vulnerable people to individuals in positions of power is boundless. And it is this trust that can become hijacked via the insidious tactics of grooming and sexual manipulation.

Standing outside of the abhorrent situation, we might ask – how on earth could this happen? Wouldn’t a sexual predator be immediately visible to an employer in a child-focused setting? However, grooming and sexual manipulation work in such a subtle way that even other adults close to the situation can be lulled into a false sense of security.

The new NSW legislation on Reportable Conduct has commendably included grooming as a distinct behaviour that must be reported in child care contexts. It is therefore essential that all child-related employers become aware of the warning signs of child grooming and sexual manipulation in the workplace.

Warning Sign 1: The special relationship

Grooming behaviour can manifest as the slow development of a special relationship between a worker and a particular child or children in care. This might involve the giving of privileges, compliments or treats that might be held back from other children. The child can develop a strong sense of trust and even enjoyment from this relationship, particularly if fun and friendship appear to be the key drivers. Such children might previously have been at the less-confident or lonely end of development, with the perpetrator appearing to have commendably ‘drawn out’ the child.

Warning Sign 2: Returning favours

Once a seemingly trust-based relationship is in place, the perpetrator of child abuse will often connect their special gifts and words with requests for touching and/or emotional favours from the child in return. At first this might not seem like an unpleasant or abusive situation in the mind of an innocent child – after all, they have identified this adult as a friend to be trusted. Observers might in fact see a child drawn to a particular carer quite intensely. It can be heartbreaking to think that this could be the middle stages of a targeted grooming strategy.

Warning Sign 3: The conflicted or ‘acting out’ child

When behaviours gradually move into sexual talk, touching or more overt acts, the perpetrator of child abuse can take a more sexually manipulative stance against the child. The child might resist the abuser, but can be manipulated into continuance of the inappropriate relationship through emotional blackmail. One of the earlier favours granted to the child such as gifts, treats or special games might be threatened or recalled. The child can then become anxious and in some cases will actively seek to appease the sexual abuser. Observers of the situation might see contradictory signs between the once-friendly employee and child. Behaviourally, the child could lash out at others or experience a regression in development.

Make knowledge your strength

Thankfully there is now so much research occurring around grooming behaviours and sexual manipulation in care settings. Further, Australian legislatures are slowly but determinedly developing laws to protect children and to enable the effective reporting of inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

Child sexual abuse tends to arise not from some caricature of an evil villain but in fact via a subtle conflation of grooming, manipulation, child vulnerability and institutional ‘blind spots’. Codes of conduct and training on professional boundaries are just some of the methods that can assist employers in combating the scourge of child sexual abuse by carers.

We actively investigate and advise upon issues within child-focused workplaces. In addition, we have handled grooming complaints between remote student teacher networks, top sporting organisers and athletes, elderly residents in a mixed care facility, bus drivers and passengers, disabled individuals and in-home carers. Every case requires skill, sensitivity and an unbiased examination of the evidence.

Join us in our enduring quest to make workplaces safe for all concerned - not just owners and workers, but for those precious Australian children who inherently trust the adults around them. We are proud to be presenting purpose-built training on Abuse in Care in coming months. Give us a call for further details.