How to Deal with Workplace Conflict

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Any sphere in which humans interact with each other is likely to involve certain levels of conflict. This is certainly the case in the workplace, where employees are required to spend significant amounts of time with people they may not otherwise choose to be involved with. 

Although workplace conflict is unavoidable, it does need to be dealt with to ensure that staff remain engaged and productive. We take a look at the best strategies for resolving issues amongst employees.  

WHAT IS WORKPLACE conflict?

There are two broad types of conflict which can occur in the workplace. These include conflict of ideas, and personality clashes. 

By and large, a conflict of ideas can be a force for positive change in the office. This type of conflict generally arises when two or more employees feel strongly about the way something is done. One staff member may like following detailed processes to the absolute letter, while another staff member 'wings it'. Although these different working styles are likely to result in conflict and frustration, it is important that all workplaces embrace differences in employees, for the betterment of the organisation. 

A much more negative type of conflict, however, arises from personality clashes. While not all staff will get along all of the time, it is important that a minimum level of appropriate behaviour is insisted upon within the workplace. This includes always treating colleagues with respect, being polite and courteous.  

consequences of workplace conflict

Negative workplace conflict, which typically arises from personality clashes, results in reduced productivity and the creation of a toxic workplace. It goes without saying that staff who are locked in unhealthy relationships with their colleagues are more likely to take sick leave to avoid seeing their co-worker. Alternatively, there may be increased levels of presenteeism, where staff attend work but are not providing their best work. Even staff who are not directly involved in the conflict will likely feel increasingly stressed due to the negative atmosphere, and ultimately this will result in higher levels of staff turnover. 

Situations where there are high levels of conflict could also potentially result in more serious types of negative behaviours being engaged in, such as bullying, victimisation or harassment.

Resolving the conflict

There are many techniques and strategies available to employers to manage workplace conflict. Mediation utilising an independent third party can be particularly helpful, especially in cases where traditional management action has not been successful. 

Through mediation, staff members can ventilate their concerns and feel they have been adequately heard. As the mediator is generally an external party, employees are also less likely to feel that biased decisions are being made against them. 

Additional techniques include ongoing training for staff, in particular as to what types of behaviour will and will not be tolerated in front of peers. All expectations on behaviour must be recorded in clear policies and procedures. 

It is also important for employers to improve communication, so that staff know what is expected of them and what type of behaviour will not be tolerated. Management must also take clear steps to nip intolerable levels of workplace conflict in the bud, as soon as it becomes apparent.

Team bonding activities can also be a helpful way for staff to get to know their colleagues better, and perhaps develop an understanding of their motivations and concerns. 

By following these techniques, unnecessary and toxic workplace conflict and culture can be minimised. This in turn will have a positive impact on any organisation. 

Conflict among staff can easily fuel larger problems within an organisation, stunting productivity and quality of services. If your workplace is experiencing internal conflict and requires independent and expert support, WISE Workplace houses experienced mediators to help facilitate the resolution of workplace conflict.

How and When to Report Workplace Bullying

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Workplace bullying can sometimes be difficult to identify. After all, people from many different walks of life are thrown together in a working environment, and this will often result in personality clashes and natural disagreements. Not everybody in the office will be friends with each other. 

So how can you tell when something has strayed into the area of workplace bullying? And how do you know when to deal with it formally? 

what is workplace bullying?

The simple definition of bullying in the workplace is 'repeated and unreasonable behaviour' directed towards an individual or a group of workers that is ultimately posing a risk to their health and/or safety. 

This may mean pranks or 'hazing', which threaten the physical health and/or safety of an individual can constitute bullying. Other types of bullying include psychological harm caused by aggressive behaviour, abusive comments, unjustified criticism, or subtler behaviours, such as excluding and isolating colleagues from activities in the workplace. 

In 2017, Safe Work Australia published statistics which showed that 39% of all mental disorder claims arising from the workplace, involved harassment or bullying. However not everything which is unpleasant or creates conflict in the workplace constitutes bullying. 

Management staff are entitled to engage in 'reasonable management action', intended to deal with workplace issues. Similarly, disagreements between co-workers which are appropriately managed or resolved need not constitute workplace bullying. 

On the other side of the coin, conduct which involves the victimisation of a person in a way that constitutes discrimination, is a separate category of workplace offence. Although clearly very serious, allegations of discrimination should not be conflated with the concept of workplace bullying. 

when should bullying be reported?

It is clear that the effects of workplace bullying can be far reaching. Bullying not only affects the mental and physical health of the employees directly involved, but can impose additional stressors on all staff and create disharmony in the workplace. 

A good litmus test for determining whether behaviours should be reported or formally dealt with as workplace bullying, is if the behaviours occur repeatedly. If the behaviour is repeated this suggests a wilful or reckless disregard for the needs of the bullied colleague and demonstrates a clear pattern of poor and inappropriate behaviour. 

In any event, reporting matters which make the workplace a less pleasant environment, is always a prudent course of action.

how to report workplace bullying

There are many different ways to report bullying in the workplace. Perhaps the simplest way is by reporting it directly to a supervisor, who then has a duty to pass the information further up the line. 

Of course, this can be problematic if the allegations of bullying involve the supervisor in question or someone even further up the hierarchy of an organisation. Alternatively, a report may be made to a Health and Safety Officer, or directly to the Human Resources team. As a last resort an individual could report the conduct to the Fair Work Commission, or the appropriate state agency such as SafeWork NSW, Victoria, SA etc. 

Depending on the nature and seriousness of the allegations, it may be appropriate to make the report in writing. 

There may well be circumstances, however, where it is preferable to make an anonymous report or otherwise not become too involved in the formal process. In these circumstances, a whistleblowing action may be the more appropriate way to make a disclosure. 

One of the key advantages of whistleblowing is that the bullying behaviours can be reported to a greater selection of people, including senior managers, officers of the company or any other person authorised to receive 'protected disclosures'. This can lessen any discomfort about reporting direct supervisors. The process is also confidential, and reporting can occur anonymously, which is likely to assist in the event of concerns about potential reprisals. 

If there are concerns about bullying in your workplace, there are simple and active measures that can be taken to address any concerns reported. WISE Workplace is an expert within the field of workplace bullying and offers organisations both investigation and whistleblowing services.  

Ruling on Anonymous Social Posts a Warning for Employees

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In the highly-anticipated decision of Comcare v Banerji, the High Court has found it is not unconstitutional for the federal government to restrict the rights of public servants to express their political views in a public forum. 

So what does this decision mean for employees, freedom of political communication and the right to free speech? 

The facts of the matter

The respondent in Comcare v Banerji [2019] HCA 23, Ms Michaela Banerji, was employed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship until September 2013. At this time, her employment was terminated for having breached the Australian Public Service's social media policy and code of conduct. 

Specifically, it was claimed that Ms Banerji had 'tweeted' several thousand posts under an anonymous handle. Those posts commented explicitly on the federal government; Australian immigration policy; ministers; opposition spokespeople and her specific department. 

Following her dismissal, Ms Banerji pursued a number of legal proceedings, claiming that her termination had breached her implied right to freedom of political communication. 

Ms Banerji was successful in her argument before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which held that the anonymity of her Twitter account meant that she could not be identified as a public servant and the policy of her employer had been applied too strictly. 

However, this decision of the AAT was ultimately overturned on appeal to the High Court.

the findings of the high court

In determining in favour of Ms Banerji's employer, the High Court explicitly found that, although the Australian Constitution provides a freedom of political communication, this 'is not a personal right of free speech'.

It was further concluded that, anonymous or not, the tweets threatened the 'integrity and reputation' of the Australian Public Service. Moreover, it was of relevance that Ms Banerji was a public servant, which would become topical if her anonymity was ever threatened.  

the wider implications of the case

As stated in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's decision, placing such significant restrictions on - anonymous - public servants could be considered akin to dealing with 'thoughtcrime'. This means that society is imposing rules and punishments on people who have 'done nothing' other than have differing opinions. 

Ultimately, the decision means that employees, whether in the public or private spheres must carefully consider expressing opinions, be they political or otherwise, which differ from those of their employer. It is clearly unwise to post controversial personal opinions under a readily identifiable name, which could in turn identify and embarrass a worker's employer and lead to a conclusion that the opinions have caused damage to an employer's reputation for example. However, of some concern is the decision of the High Court in applying the Australian Public Service's standard and code of conduct requirements to anonymous tweets. 

This decision is particularly topical given the controversy over the recent legal proceedings involving Rugby Australia and Israel Folau, a devout Christian, 'cut and pasted' text on social media about homosexuality and hell. Given Folau's high profile as a rugby player, his employer Rugby Australia, terminated his employment. Folau is pursuing legal proceedings, arguing that his religious freedom has been interfered with as a result of his termination. 

Although the nature of the defence differs from that put forward by Ms Banerji, the ultimate concept is the same: private individuals are putting forward commentary on personal beliefs and opinions, but on a public forum, and are being penalised by losing their employment as a result. Rugby Australia maintains that Folau's breaches of conduct occurred repeatedly, and that he had been warned on several prior occasions about posting such commentary on social media. 

While it is not yet known what the outcome will be for Folau, it is clear that these cases have wide-ranging implications for organisations and employees. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations and the surrounding complexities of contemporary legal issues. If your organisation holds concerns regarding inappropriate social media use, WISE can conduct investigations and analysis of electronic evidence to establish defensible findings.

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.

Making Findings in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 07, 2019

When a workplace investigation is coming to an end, one task can seem deceptively simple - making findings. 

It might seem that because all the information is now available, the investigator can surely just state 'the obvious' in their report. Yet as with most tasks in the investigative process, quality outcomes require much greater consideration of relevant material. Before findings can be made, a thorough analysis of the evidence needs to occur. Findings will need to link clearly with this analysis - and all evidence must be considered.

Issues around organisational policies, plus the correct weight to be given to particular pieces of evidence, are further pieces in the puzzle of investigative findings that need to be addressed.  

analysing the evidence 

Workplace investigators are required to carefully and objectively analyse all available evidence. This includes the evidence that both supports and rebuts a likely finding. For example, if three workers said that it happened but one states that they are not sure, all four pieces of evidence must be analysed and discussed with equal consideration.

It is certainly unacceptable to simply discard a piece of evidence because it does not fit with the majority. As well as not being transparent, experienced investigators know that a small piece of contrary evidence might actually support a bigger finding at another point of the process. 

The analysis of all evidence will also incorporate the consideration of the weight to be attributed to each piece of evidence. This requires an investigator to consider for example the probative weight and value attributed to direct evidence in comparison to hearsay evidence. 

Findings need to be clear and defensible; links from evidence, to analysis, to findings and back again must be logical and well-explained. Essentially, the investigator is asking whether or not the evidence supports, on the balance of probabilities, the findings that are eventually made.  

following the organisation's policies  

As part of making accurate and defensible findings, investigators need to consider and understand the organisation's policies. Logically, in order to make a finding whether or not inappropriate behaviour has occurred, the first step will be an examination of the policy documents. 

Has the conduct in question as alleged breached a policy - and were the policies and procedures clearly understood by all concerned? General state and commonwealth laws will of course also play a part in findings, and in combination with organisational policies, will assist the investigator to mark the perimeters of acceptable behaviour.

weighing the evidence

Making findings can sometimes feel like the completion of a rather large jigsaw puzzle. Evidence is examined and analysed, with pieces being compared to one another for similarities and differences. Investigators need to consider the relevance of each piece of evidence to the allegations and overall investigation, giving more or less weight to some pieces of evidence over others for any number of reasons. 

Sometimes more weight will be given to a piece of evidence because it is for example, clearer, more compelling or better corroborated than other evidence.

remember briginshaw 

The care with which evidence is examined and weighed can have significant consequences for any potential future proceedings.

For serious allegations, employers will need to be able to rely on high-quality evidence from the initial investigation, in order to meet the evidentiary threshold. The standard of proof in all civil matters is 'the balance of probabilities', requiring that parties meet this standard via the evidence that can be marshalled in their favour. 

In matters where serious allegations have been made, the courts - beginning with Briginshaw v Briginshaw - have indicated that the standard of proof itself remains the same in all cases, but in serious matters where the finding is likely to produce grave consequences, the evidence should be of a particularly high probative value in order to meet the mark.

High-quality OUTCOMES

It is important for employers and their investigators to ensure that findings of workplace investigations can withstand the highest level of scrutiny and appeal. Given the complexities surrounding current workplace investigations, a high level of skill is required to ensure report findings are both sound and defensible. To ensure that you are assessing evidence effectively, WISE provides training in conducting workplace investigations

How to Write Letters of Notification and Allegation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

During the process of conducting workplace investigations, it is generally necessary to prepare letters of notification, and later, letters of allegation. 

We take a look at the difference between the two, and provide some tips on how to prepare these important documents. 

notifying the parties involved

The letter of notification serves as confirmation that an investigation is going to be launched. These formal documents are sent to the respondent, the complainant and any witnesses involved in the investigation. 

It communicates how the process of the investigation will occur, who will be conducting it, as well as detailing the involvement required from the individuals.

For the complainant, this will generally mean the formalisation of their complaint and participation in an interview. A respondent will also need to undergo a formal interview and be advised of their rights, such as having a support person attend. 

A letter of notification should ideally be prepared and sent as soon as an investigation plan has been finalised.

the elements of a letter of notification

When writing a letter of notification, it is important that it contains specific details including:

  • What exactly is being investigated.
  • Who is conducting the investigation. It is important to identify which members of the organisation will be involved.
  • A formal request for interview. 
  • The offer of a support person to all parties who will be interviewed.
  • A reminder for all parties involved to maintain confidentiality around the process, and the potential consequences of a failure to do so. 

Writing letters of allegation

Although similar to a letter of notification, a letter of allegation contains more detailed information. Instead of being addressed to all the parties involved, only the respondent will receive a letter of allegation. 

The letter should clearly set out: 

  • Details and particulars of the allegations. This information should be as specific as possible, to give the respondent a genuine opportunity to respond to the allegations. 
  • A request for supporting documents. The respondent should be advised of the opportunity to provide any information or evidence supporting their position. 
  • A formal request for interview. Although this has already been identified in the letter of notification, the letter of allegation reiterates the requirement for participation in the interview process. The letter should also reiterate the right of the respondent to have a support person involved in the process. 
  • The letter is required to stipulate if there is a finding of misconduct, what disciplinary actions may be considered and imposed. 
  • A further reminder of the need to maintain confidentiality.  

A letter of allegation should be sent after the complainant has been formally interviewed. This means that detailed allegations can be put to the respondent. 

Do's and do not's when preparing letters of allegations

When preparing a letter of allegations, it is important that procedural fairness is maintained. The respondent should have only clear allegations put to them, supported with evidence where available of the conduct or behaviour alleged. 

The letter of allegation should avoid making any conclusions about the investigation. 

Importantly, it should also demonstrate that the investigators and decisions-makers involved are objective. 

Communication with the parties to a workplace investigation is critical in ensuring a fair and considered approach is taken. Failing to comply with the steps of procedural fairness can impact on the soundness of investigation outcomes, findings and recommendations and leave employers open to decisions being overturned. 

WISE Workplace provides training in investigating workplace misconduct. This training is aimed at providing practical skills that enable you to draft procedurally fair and legally compliant letters of notification and allegations.   

Creating an Action Plan: ToR and External Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is crucial to be able to demonstrate that appropriate procedures have been followed. This is essential in defending any subsequent action that may be taken. 

It can be helpful for employers to create an action plan utilising Terms of Reference (ToR) and the services of an external investigator to keep the investigation process on track. 

3 Key principles for drafting the tor

The ToR is a framework that provides structure and a plan for the investigation. Without it, an investigation runs the risk of becoming too broad or unwieldy. There are three basic guiding principles for employers to keep in mind when drafting the ToR. 

1. Reason

This sets out why an investigation is necessary, which people are anticipated to be involved (at least the complainant and respondent) and the key questions which need to be answered as a result of the investigation. 

2. Remit

The remit section provides the parameters for the investigator's involvement and identifies what the investigator is supposed to do. 

In certain circumstances, the investigator will be required simply to engage in a fact-finding mission, in order to collate information for the employer to make a final determination or outcome. Alternatively, an investigator may be tasked with dispute resolution, or even providing disciplinary recommendations. 

This section can also identify what, if anything, is 'off limits'. For example, an investigator may be prohibited from having access to commercially sensitive information. 

However, it's also important to note that an investigator will be hampered if there are too many restrictions placed on them. 

3. Report

This practical aspect of the ToR identifies in what format the final report is to be provided. The due date and expected distribution list should also be noted in the ToR.

In order to maximise the success of the investigation, the TOR should be drafted as soon as possible after a decision has been made to investigate a complaint.

Why appoint an external investigator? 

Even the most experienced HR professional may struggle to undertake a completely unbiased investigation. Cross allegations and accusations of unfairness can cloud issues and throw the investigation off-track. 

By outsourcing investigations of this nature, employers can prevent any perceived or actual apprehension of bias. External investigators are impartial, and in some cases, better able to conduct an objective investigation than someone internal. 

An external investigator is particularly helpful in circumstances where: 

  • The organisation requiring an investigator is small and all staff are well known to each other.
  • The allegations requiring investigation are particularly egregious, serious or even traumatic.
  • There is potential for criminal or civil proceedings to arise out of the investigation.
  • Senior management or HR staff are directly involved in the complaint, whether as respondents or complainants. 

External investigators also have a level of experience and expertise that can be difficult to match in-house. Even with clear ToR, an internal investigator may find investigating the allegation and writing the final report challenging. 

Appointing an external investigator can also save time. Often, the person chosen to head an investigation internally, will also still have their core duties to perform.

Engaging an external investigator

When you engage an external investigator, it's a good idea to write a letter of appointment/engagement. This should set out clear instructions and confirm the scope of the investigator's role. The ToR should also be included. 

If you require assistance in defining the scope of your investigation, or would like to engage an expert to tackle workplace matters requiring investigation, our investigators are committed to dealing with complaints independently, providing expeditious, thorough investigations with integrity. Visit our website or contact WISE to find out more. 

Receiving Workplace Complaints

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Employers should be well aware of the legal and associated requirements that come into play when someone in the workplace raises their hand with a grievance. 

Complaints about unacceptable and/or inappropriate behaviour can arise from any work area, and in regard to a wide variety of issues. Grievance handling needs to be fair and consistent - yet with each situation being approached on an individual basis. 

We take a look at creating a sound process for the receipt of complaints, which reflects and follows existing policies and procedures.

types of complaints

Complaints can be made in relation to all manner of behaviours. Examples include allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment and even - in workplaces involving children - child abuse. 

Harassment itself covers a wide range of behaviours that could occur on or offsite, including those via digital communication such as email, social media platforms and messaging. 

Employers should note that alleged perpetrators can be colleagues, managers and even occasionally worksite personnel such as contractors.

steps to take when receiving a complaint 

For employers it can sometimes be difficult to know just where to begin once a complaint has been received. At a basic level, all internal procedures and policies should be carefully followed to ensure fairness and consistency. 

A clear and well-understood complaints process needs to be in place prior to the (inevitable) receipt of a workplace complaint. All those involved should receive even-handed treatment, with any decisions being made in a defined and measured way. 

In some instances, the alleged behaviour will constitute reportable conduct, with an employer obliged to notify a specified body about the allegation under a compulsory reporting regime. 

As society comes to grips with some of the behaviours that can occur in relation to our most vulnerable individuals, more stringent reporting requirements for employers continue to be developed. For example, the National Disability Insurance Scheme has been designed to ensure that employers take timely and objective steps upon receipt of any relevant complaint

key principles when responding to complaints 

In the case of complaints, it pays to ask some basic questions about the situations such as:

  • Is the behaviour unacceptable or not?
  • Does the situation warrant measures to minimise the risk of ongoing harm?
  • Do I have a clear understanding of the issues?
  • Do I need additional information or assistance?
  • Can the matter be safely resolved between the parties or at a team level?
  • Should the matter be progressed to an investigation? 

A key issue is the manner in which the people involved in a complaint are treated and how any required information is communicated.

At all times, employers should take the matter seriously, refrain from victimising any individual and ensure the same treatment for all personnel involved.

Confidentiality should be maintained at all times and support mechanisms put in place for what is, inevitably, a difficult time in the workplace. 

Taking the right approach

It is vital for employers to be aware of their legal obligations and best practice when it comes to addressing workplace complaints. Complaint handling can become quite complex depending on the type of complaints and the number of people involved. 

WISE provides professional and up-to-date training on conducting workplace investigations. Our courses are specifically designed for those engaged in the investigation of workplace misconduct, including bullying and harassment. Please call us if you would like expert assistance around complaints processing and the best way to ensure fairness if - and when - a workplace complaint is received.  In addition keep an eye out over the next seven weeks, as we will be publishing a series of articles, in which we examine the workplace investigation process. 

Performance Management vs Bullying: Where's the Line?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Employers often face a quandary in dealing with underperformers, and whether to place them onto a performance management program. 

It's essential that any such move can always be considered to be 'reasonable management action' in response to inappropriate behaviours or inadequate or unsatisfactory performance, and not simply a way of bullying an employee. 

Let's take a look at the difference between performance management and bullying, and how employers can make sure they are not crossing the line.  

what is performance management?

At some point, every employer will need to manage an underperforming staff member. In practice, this means taking steps to deal with poor conduct, including:

  • Non-compliance with policies/procedures and other workplace requirements
  • Inappropriate, disruptive or generally bad behaviour
  • Unsatisfactory performance of work tasks

The necessary steps may range from informal performance management, where the inappropriate or unsatisfactory behaviour is brought to the staff member's attention, through to a more formal process such as the implementation of a performance improvement plan.

is it reasonable management action or is it bullying?

Employers are not prohibited from dealing with staff that they consider are underperforming. However, care needs to be taken to avoid bullying a staff member, within the meaning of s789FD (1) of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

That legislation defines bullying as a situation where 'an individual... or group of individuals... repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker, or a group of workers of which the worker is a member, and... that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety'.

The same legislation explicitly excludes 'reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner' from the bullying definition.

But what is reasonable management action? Although not an exhaustive list, the following situations constitute appropriate management action within the meaning of the legislation:

  • Scheduling regular meetings to discuss ongoing performance issues
  • Disciplinary an employee for identified misconduct
  • Undertaking an investigation into a complaint
  • Modifying a worker's duties as required by operational reasons or the employee's health.

When making an objective assessment of the reasonableness of the management action, it is important to consider what caused the action, what circumstances were  in train while the action was taken, and what occurred as a result. 

It is also important to note that there is no 'retrospective gold standard'. Just because an employer may, in hindsight, have been able to improve on the way they undertook the action, does not necessarily mean that it was not appropriate reasonable action at the time. 

Moreover, although the staff member's perception of a negative management action is likely to tend towards it being unreasonable, the standard is objectiveness and this is not determined by one or a group of employees' views.

lesson from real-world cases

Unsurprisingly, the question of what constitutes reasonable management action is one which is frequently litigated in court. 

In the decision of Commonwealth Bank of Australia v Reeve [2012] FCAFC 21, it was determined that a manager's day-to-day instructions were not enough to constitute 'management action'.

In National Australia Bank Limited v KRDV [2012] FCA 543, the court considered that although the employee was spoken to about her performance in both a formal Action Operation Management meeting and in a 'casual chat', the two meetings were not sufficiently clear as performance-related discussions to constitute reasonable management action.

how to ensure compliance with reasonable management action

Practical tips for compliance include: 

  • Ensuring that formal and documented performance management processes occur at all relevant times, and avoiding informal or impromptu 'chats' on performance
  • Reviewing policies and procedures regularly, in relation to bullying and also appropriate disciplinary action
  • Advising managers to always provide clear and direct instructions, which cannot be seen as ambiguous
  • Documenting and providing formal written warnings when inappropriate behaviour is called out, to demonstrate that management involvement has been required. 

Performance management is part of maintaining a successful business. However, if you receive complaints regarding your performance management approach, and want to ensure that you are complying with best practice and acting in a fair and reasonable manner, contact WISE for assistance and advice today.

How to Deal with an Uncooperative Respondent

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 29, 2019

When conducting investigations in the workplace, senior staff and human resource managers often have to deal with uncooperative respondents. 

Understandably, this can significantly hamper the progress of the investigation. 

WHat is an uncooperative respondent

There are many ways in which the smooth running of an investigation can be negatively affected by an uncooperative respondent. This can arise when: 

  • A respondent refuses to answer questions put to them, meaning that the investigator cannot create a coherent picture of the events or the respondent's perspective.
  • A respondent is no longer employed by the company. This may make it challenging  to even get in touch with the respondent, let alone encourage them to participate in an investigative process.
  • The respondent is out of the workplace on a form of leave (sick leave, stress leave, workers' compensation) that would in some circumstances mean that they are either not medically capable of, or not medically cleared for participation in the investigation process.
  • A respondent intentionally holds up the investigative process. For example, by frequent and consistent rescheduling of meetings, failing to attend work on days when interview sessions have been set up, or otherwise failing to engage in necessary parts of the process. 

what if there is an impact on others involved in the investigation?

It is particularly frustrating to have to deal with a recalcitrant or difficult respondent when other parties to the investigation are adversely affected as a consequence. 

For example, some respondents may seek to intimidate other witnesses with a view to discourage them from participating in the investigative process. 

When dealing with this type of situation, investigators should encourage witnesses to participate in the process by confirming that their involvement remains confidential, and by redacting sensitive information such as names or identifying details when providing documents to the respondent. 

Further, witnesses should be advised that their involvement in the investigative process cannot and will not have any adverse impact on their employment. 

can an investigation occur without the respondent's involvement? 

When faced with a situation where a respondent is failing to cooperate, an investigator can proceed without their involvement in certain circumstances. 

Crucially, it is important that an investigator is able to demonstrate that the investigation proceeded in accordance with all requirements of procedural fairness. 

In particular, this means that there must be a document trail confirming all the efforts that have been made to engage with the recalcitrant respondent. There must also be evidence that attempts have been made to explain to the respondent that their non-involvement may impact but will not stop the investigation process. 

The intention here is to be able to demonstrate to a court, tribunal or other third-party reviewer that the investigator took all reasonable steps to include the respondent and their point of view in the investigation. 

No presumptions or assumptions can be made about the evidence used to determine the substantiation of allegations, if a respondent does not participate in the investigation process. 

how can a respondent be encouraged to participate?

Although some respondents simply will not cooperate, investigators should provide a raft of different options to encourage respondents to meaningfully engage in the process.  

These options include:

  • Encouraging respondents to provide written responses to a series of questions. This is likely to work best for the respondents who are nervous about incriminating themselves during interviews, or otherwise concerned about the investigative process itself. 
  • Reassuring respondents that, despite the allegations facing them, they are entitled to both confidentiality and the assurance of procedural fairness. This may alleviate the concerns of some respondents who feel that they may not be offered a fair right of response. 
  • Reminding a respondent of the entitlement to have a support person present during an interview if required. 
  • Reassuring a respondent that there is an opportunity to provide comment, feedback, additional information and/or evidence on any findings if considered necessary for clarification. 
  • In certain circumstances, it may be best to advise respondents that external investigators have been engaged to facilitate the investigative process. This is likely to be most appropriate in situations where the allegations are particularly serious, or where there is some concern that an internal investigative process may not be completed objectively. For example, if the other parties involved in the investigation are in senior positions or are close to the investigators.  

For more detailed information on conducting interviews, you can purchase a copy of our book, Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators. If you're conducting a workplace investigation and need assistance, contact WISE Workplace today.