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.

COVID-19 decision making: Who is essential?

Eden Elliott - Tuesday, September 01, 2020

As employers, it can be difficult to classify any of your employees’ work as non-essential when every member of your team brings valuable individual strengths. These decisions can also pose significant risks where employers and employees want different things, sometimes leading to employees submitting appeals or complaints about their employer’s determination.

Image: balanced decision-making

We have all been surprised by COVID-19, and many employers have found a need to quickly develop  working from home and pandemic policies to support their decision-making around who stays home and who goes to work. What should these policies include?

  • Employers should always base their decision making on government directions at the applicable time, and appoint a designated officer to monitor and record new guidelines as they are issued. You don’t want to get caught having relied on old advice, or missed a crucial development. Any policies should be driven by this process of checking and applying guidelines, and identifying responsible decision-makers.
  • Review your other policies and make sure they capture the right circumstances. Does your definition of misconduct or bullying include online and remote behaviour? How are you upholding your data privacy obligations for staff working from home? Does your sick leave policy accommodate staff getting tested and waiting for results?
  • For larger organisations, it might be appropriate to decide working arrangements based on specific employee roles, which can provide employees with certainty and consistency around their futures. This can also increase practicality by allowing simpler identification of the working from home needs of each role.
  • Consultation is key to avoiding complaints, which means the policy should provide for employees to have the opportunity to request and make their case for how they prefer to work regardless of their role. These submissions should be kept private and confidential, and should invite employees to nominate practical, health & wellbeing, productivity and any other reasons. However, employers must take care to demonstrate that these submissions have been considered in any subsequent decision, and not ignored.
  • Put measures in place to support your staff while working from home and from the office in pandemic circumstances. Check in with them regularly, acknowledge the difficulties they face, and never forget to recognise their successes. Consider Employee Assistance Programs. Many employers have increased accountability measures for staff working at home, and it is  important to minimise feelings of micromanagement by recognising that these can also be a tool for identifying & addressing increased stressors and other difficulties that take up your employees’ time.
  • Put your duty of care first. At the end of the day, the wellbeing and safety of employees must take precedence, regardless of the short term frustration, decreased productivity and cultural changes to which working from home can contribute. The pandemic will not last forever, and an employer’s response to crises can have a significant impact on employee loyalty, retention and recruitment options in the future.
  • Get expert advice. If you find it difficult to build your processes, or if you receive complaints from staff, WISE can assist in reviewing decisions and policies to help meet employer obligations.

Call WISE on 1300 580 685 to help you develop your pandemic policy or respond to staff complaints.

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. 

Racial Discrimination at Work

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 05, 2020

We are all familiar with the more obvious signs of workplace discrimination; but with targeted racism and xenophobia spreading faster than the Coronavirus, it is vital to be aware of the more nuanced and subtle acts of discrimination at work. 

Queensland has seen MP Duncan Pegg slam a phoney health department bulletin that warned online communities to avoid areas with high proportions of Chinese residents. In France, East-Asian communities began the now global #imnotavirus campaign, highlighting discriminatory comments from “are you dangerous if you cough?” to “stop eating wild animals then infecting everyone around you.” 

This problem is not new. In Canada in 2003, a similar wave of outbreak-fuelled xenophobia cost Toronto an estimated C$1bn, prompting public health officials to remind Canadians not to let ignorance triumph over respect in their communities.  

This viral endemic has already had a global impact on small businesses, schools and communities around the world, and workplaces are far from immune. Queensland surgeon Dr Rhea Liang said that “misinformation” on the virus has led to racially motivated remarks such as were made to her at work last week. Dr Liang’s patient refused her routine handshake, saying “you might have coronavirus” in front of her colleagues and several medical students. 

Most Australian workers are not at significant risk of infection, and employers and employees alike should be aware of the legal pitfalls they may encounter, and harm they may inflict, in attempts to protect themselves from the virus. In Dr Liang’s case, her colleagues were immediately supportive, but she worries about more vulnerable people exposed to racism that results from the stereotyping. 

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status. This extends to expressions of racial hatred against another person, and discriminating in the provision of services, entertainment and facilities or on less favourable terms and conditions. 

WHAT Does this mean for you?

We are all familiar with the obvious signs of racial or xenophobic discrimination, like slurs, segregation, targeted aggression and spreading racist rumours. Refusing to serve or deterring customers on the basis of their nationality or race, out of fear of Coronavirus is also an obvious and unlawful form of discrimination. However as a modern employer, it’s important to recognise the more subtle and nuanced forms of racism which can go unnoticed, and therefore be more damaging than overt behaviours. 

It is likely that racism at work is vastly underreported. 20% of Australians experience racism every year, but the Australian Human Rights Commission receives just several hundred racial discrimination complaints annually. 
More subtle and dangerous examples of discrimination include:

  • Xenophobic or racist ostracism of, or hostility towards, colleagues or customers in their workplace.
  • Avoiding contact or proximity with, or hostile body language towards people on the basis of their skin colour or nationality 
  • Unintentional or subconscious behaviour 

Subconscious biases and assumptions, even with positive intentions regarding safety or risk to others can all be considered racist behaviour. 

Prevention is always better than cure, and as an employer, workplace culture starts with you. If you are worried about your workplace culture, contact us to organise a Cultural Review. 

SO, how can i prevent racial discrimination from infiltrating my workplace? 

Education: 

Education on racial discrimination at work empowers employee understanding, sensitivity and conversation. Training programs are an important tool for eliminating more subtle discriminatory behaviours, by highlighting the nuanced nature of racial and cultural experience and necessity for sensitivity, and avoiding unintentional or subconscious infliction of harm. This can not only reduce incidences of discrimination but also create a positive culture where employees support each other, demonstrate and monitor their own standards of conduct and can minimise the emotional and psychological impact of external harm to their peers.

Conversation:

Creating space for productive conversations about race and discrimination at work is vital to a positive workplace culture. To encourage employee participation and make the most of these conversations, frame them in a positive and constructive way.

Outline the purpose and goals of the conversations from the outset:

  • Discuss views and experiences relating to racism in a non-judgmental and safe environment 
  • Learn from each other’s experiences and gain understanding that people experience racism in different ways
  • Reflect on intention and how we can unintentionally cause racial harm to our peers or colleagues 
  • Identify opportunities for growth within the organisation and develop systems for positive change 

Be prepared to support employees who may lack understanding of the real prevalence of racism and need for proper attention. People who are not part of a minority group are likely to have less experience of racism, so the nuanced nature of modern discrimination might come as a surprise. Constructive conversations can help these team members challenge their preconceptions, and help them to approach the issues with awareness and understanding. 

For tailored, expert and neutral third-party training programs or conversational facilitators to improve your workplace culture and tackle complex issues such as racial or xenophobic discrimination, contact WISE Workplace today. Working with an experienced facilitator or training provider such as WISE minimises the risk of tricky power imbalances countering your efforts to eliminate racial discrimination at work. 




Whistleblowing in 2020: Is Your Organisation Ready?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 23, 2020

The concept of whistleblowing was once frowned upon, or at the very least looked upon with trepidation. However, in recent years, the value of promoting whistleblowing as an acceptable way to improve corporate regulatory compliance and culture has been demonstrated. In this changing landscape, organisations are embracing whistleblowing - and many also have new obligations to comply with. 

Is your organisation ready for whistleblowing in 2020? Let's look at who can be a whistleblower; who is authorised to receive disclosures; and which organisations must have a whistleblower platform in place. 

What is whistleblowing?

Whistleblowers are individuals with some connection to an organisation, who choose to report corporate misconduct or illegal activities. 

Legislation, including new legislation which came into force on 1 July 2019, provides extended rights and protections to whistleblowers. Ultimately, the intent of the legislation is to ensure that whistleblowers are protected against reprisals, legal action, or general detriment, such as disciplinary action taken by the employer. 

Whistleblower protection may be afforded to various categories of people, including: 

  • Current employees of a company (or a related company)
  • The spouses or relatives of employees 
  • Officers of a company 
  • Contractors who have dealt with the company (potentially including volunteers)
  • General associates of the company

Whistleblowing also includes public interest disclosures. An example of a public interest disclosure might be an employee making a report about a bank which has been consistently charging members fees for no service. These apply in circumstances where a previous report has been made to ASIC or APRA and not actioned within 90 days, and the whistleblower is of the view that the information is of such importance to the public interest that it would be worthwhile reporting concerns to a journalist or a parliamentarian. 

Alternatively, emergency disclosures may be made if concerned parties have reasonable grounds to believe that the matters to be reported concern substantial or imminent danger to health and safety of people or the environment. 

how the disclosure process works

Disclosure about misconduct may be made anonymously, but must be reported to a specific group of people, including: 

  • Directors, company officers or senior managers
  • Auditors of the company 
  • Actuaries associated with the company 
  • A person specifically authorised to receive disclosures (generally a Human Resources officer) 
  • Regulatory authorities such as ASIC or APRA
  • Legal practitioners

Concerns can be reported internally using pre-determined organisational systems such as phone or online reporting. At the very least, an organisation should publish its whistleblowing policy and identify the people who are entitled to receive reports. 

Within a company, those authorised to receive disclosures must act on disclosures by investigating and protecting whistleblowers. 

WHY IS A WHISTLEBLOWING PLATFORM IMPORTANT?

The new legislation means that all public companies, large proprietary companies and corporate trustees of superannuation funds must have a whistleblower policy from January 1, 2020. Large proprietary companies are classed as those that have a consolidated annual revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees.  

In addition to the legislative requirements, there are reasons why all organisations should have a strong platform for whistleblowing. 

These include increasing public and employee confidence in the desire of the organisation to “do the right thing”, and ensuring that senior personnel are safe in the knowledge that, if anybody is committing wrongdoing, staff and related persons can be confident to report those matters without fear of reprisals. 

One of the most effective ways to deal with whistleblowers is to set up an external hotline. This means that reports can be made anonymously. People can avoid potential embarrassment or concerns about making a report in circumstances where they potentially see the people whose conduct they are reporting on a daily basis.

WISE is a leading provider of whistleblowing services in Australia, offering organisations a secure service known as ‘Grapevine’ for staff to report concerns. 

Grapevine allows for anonymous reporting via phone call or online report. Reporters are enabled to provide supporting evidence, and can also choose whether to remain anonymous or leave their contact details. Each report is assigned a case number so it can be tracked throughout the whistleblowing and assessment process. Reports are reviewed by a highly trained and experienced team, and the organisation's nominated contact person is notified within 24 hours. Updates are available online. Depending on the level of service, the Grapevine team can also follow up and take action according to an organisation's whistleblower policy.

For more information on complying with whistleblower legislation, please download our free whistleblowing whitepaper which can answer your questions regarding the changes. If you would like an obligation-free cost estimate to implement a confidential hotline in your workplace, contact us here.

Managing Volunteers in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 16, 2020

Volunteers can be a fabulous resource in any business. Generally, they bring enthusiasm, true passion for the organisation's ethos and purpose, and a "can-do" attitude to the job.

However, volunteers in the workplace can also bring their own set of challenges for organisations. Even though they are not on the payroll, volunteers enjoy the same protections as paid workers are entitled to. Indeed, the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) defines volunteers as "workers", thereby putting them on equal footing.

So let's look at some tips and tricks for managing volunteers in the workplace.

Employee and volunteer conflict

One of the risks inherent in relying on volunteers is conflict with employees. In part, this may be due to a "us against them" perception. Further, staff who are employed in the business on a daily basis, may perceive that volunteers have less of an understanding or practical knowledge of how tasks should be completed, or how things are done. Employees may also resent the apparent flexibility afforded to volunteers. A pertinent example is the longstanding feud between paid and volunteer Country Fire Authority staff in Victoria, which resulted in the CFA being devolved into a volunteer-only organisation in early 2019.

Difficulties managing volunteer conflict

In addition to the everyday personnel issues facing organisations, additional challenges involving volunteers include:

  • An unwillingness of volunteers to raise concerns or "rock the boat", largely due to the fact that they may already feel isolated or otherwise segregated from employees. Any conflicts or issues may not be raised with management, for fear of reprisals or concerns about not being taken seriously.
  • A lack of understanding of protections. Many volunteers may not be aware that they are entitled to the same protections as paid staff, and may consider it pointless to raise any conflicts or concerns with management.
  • Lower priority for the organisation. Even if volunteers do raise concerns, management may deal with these issues less expeditiously, because volunteers could be perceived as being easily replaceable. 

responsibilities of volunteer-active workplaces

Employers who rely on volunteers or who are considering welcoming them into the workplace, have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment. They must therefore take steps to protect volunteers from bullying and harassment.

In the same fashion, employers remain vicariously liable for volunteer's conduct and behaviour. For example, if a volunteer engaged in an activity on behalf of the organisation and negligently or otherwise causes injury to a third party, the employer could be found liable. This is despite the absence of any financial relationship between the volunteer and the business.

Organisations need to ensure that policies are updated (where required) to identify that they also encompass volunteer staff. Volunteers should be provided with copies of all policies, and their workplace rights and obligations should be clearly communicated.

When commencing a relationship with a volunteer, it is also important to ensure that there are very clear volunteer engagement "Agreements" in place. These should be carefully drafted to ensure that both parties are well aware of their rights and obligations under the agreement.

Volunteer-based organisations, like all workplaces, have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for all their workers. All conflict and alleged misconduct should be taken seriously, whether it relates to paid staff and/or volunteers. If your organisation needs assistance managing a challenging workplace conflict, WISE offers both supported and full investigation services to provide you with the flexibility you need. 

Managing Misconduct over the Holidays

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The festive season is fraught with concern for employers. With many staff on leave and those who remain letting their proverbial hair down (often with a beverage or three!) the holiday period can be a minefield.

We take a look at when employees are still considered to be "at work", define misconduct and provide some tips for dealing with poor behaviour in the workplace over the holidays. 

When are employees still 'at work'?

A workplace is where people perform their jobs, undertaking their contracted hours of work. However, a work function held outside the office and outside regular business hours, is considered to be an extension of the workplace.

A general rule of thumb is, that if an event is organised and paid for by an employer, it's officially sanctioned. Liability therefore remains with the employer for any misconduct that occurs. This is likely to be the case, regardless of how many pre-event warnings have been issued to staff, and how many times staff have been reminded of the applicable policies and codes of conduct.

It is also important to keep in mind that employers may bear third party liability, to family members who attend a staff Christmas party, functions held in public venues (where people other than staff could get injured) and in circumstances where a worker causes injury to another person, when leaving an event in a state of intoxication.

defining misconduct in the workplace

Misconduct over the holiday period generally refers to inappropriate behaviour such as discrimination, workplace harassment and bullying, or sexual harassment. This type of behaviour is often associated with the Christmas party, where people have consumed alcohol and have lowered inhibitions.

It is important for employers to remember that the definition of sexual harassment, for example, includes but is not limited to, conduct of a sexual nature which is offensive, humiliating or embarrassing to the person complaining of the behaviour. Crucially, it is irrelevant if the behaviour was intended to offend - it is the opinion of the "victim" and not the "perpetrator" which is relevant.

Other types of misconduct include staff pulling "sickies" due to hangovers, or poor behaviour such as sharing inappropriate stories or having general disagreements between co-workers boil over.  

why is there a prevalence of misconduct over the holidays?

As noted, there is often an increased incidence of misconduct in circumstances where staff are consuming (potentially excessive) amounts of alcohol and otherwise lowering inhibitions.

There is also a general misapprehension amongst employees to the effect that a Christmas party is not considered to be related to employment - which is not the case.

This is part of the reason why employers should also give serious consideration as to whether they wish to gift alcohol, either to their staff or to clients or business associates. While alcohol is a convenient and often appreciated gift, it can create an impression that an employer is not concerned about responsible service of alcohol.

mitigating the risk of misconduct

There are numerous ways that employers can mitigate the risk of misconduct during the holidays. 

Before a function, employers should take steps to remind staff (generally via an email) that it is to be treated as a workplace event, and therefore the usual policies and procedures remain in place. It is also timely to recirculate documents such as code of conduct, sexual harassment or bullying policies and procedures.

During the work function, employers should consider ensuring that at least one (if not more) senior personnel are in a position to remind staff who have over-consumed alcohol, that they should stop drinking and/or perhaps even leave the event.

Similarly, companies should ensure that there are sufficient taxi vouchers or other safe methods of transport home, for all employees who want them. This ensures that the business cannot be responsible for any employees who injure themselves and/or others on the way from the party.

If allegations of misconduct do arise from a Christmas function, employers must ensure that due process and fair procedures are implemented. This includes taking into account the fact that staff may be on leave or have applied to be on leave.

Although the investigative process should not be unnecessarily drawn out, staff who have pre-booked leave, should not be prejudiced by the fact that they are unavailable at that time of year. They should have the same opportunity to prepare a response to allegations as at any other time of year.

Managing staff and keeping in touch with staff over a quieter holiday period can be a challenge. If you need assistance reviewing and managing staff behaviour in your workplace, WISE Workplace provides expert external investigation services to meet your needs. 

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

Outsourcing or In-House Investigations?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 03, 2019

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

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

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

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

outsourcing vs internal 

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

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

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

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

risks of handling an investigation in-house

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

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

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

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

Factors for considering whether to outsource 

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

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

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

the benefits of outsourcing

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

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