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.

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

Writing an Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

To say that a workplace investigation report is an important document is certainly something of an understatement. Following the investigation, the report will be relied upon for all manner of significant organisational decisions, tasks and action. 

As a result, it is essential that workplace investigators create a professional, transparent and unbiased document.

ONE REPORT, MANY PURPOSES

When the investigation is complete and the report is handed to the employer, this document will provide a focal point for immediate action.

Employers will rely upon the report for appropriate disciplinary action, and as a means of establishing compliance where required. The investigation report will often form the basis of policy changes and will need to be clear and persuasive in this regard. 

Perhaps most importantly, the report will underpin the defence of any future claims. How the investigation has been carried out and the weight to be given to findings will be on display now and into the future. 

A sound methodology 

It is insufficient to simply cobble together some aspects of the investigation and present a pleasant-looking report. The report should be transparent; provide a clear step-by-step explanation of the investigation; state the allegations; make reference to the information and documents obtained and considered and the process of analysing and weighting the evidence - among many other elements. 

Readers will be looking to see how the interview process was carried out, if parties were treated with equal respect, plus whether findings were made with objectivity and on the evidence available.

The report should clearly reflect the author's thinking regarding whether allegations are substantiated, unsubstantiated or if a lack of evidence exists. 

A strong methodology will ensure the highest quality of evidence obtained - which can be of great significance when serious claims have been made, as explained in the Briginshaw v Briginshaw case. 

the right report format 

There is a tried-and-true approach to setting out a professional workplace investigation report. The first item is the executive summary which - as it sounds - provides a high-level overview of the process and outcomes. The methodology of the investigation is explained, demonstrating an underpinning coherence to the investigation process. Importantly, the civil standard of proof - 'on the balance of probabilities' - is defined and explained to ensure there is an understanding across a broad audience. The allegations, particulars and evidence are then set out in a professional and objective manner. 

A most challenging aspect of the report is describing and explaining the findings made. In essence, the investigator is explaining why one person's version of events or piece of evidence is to be preferred over another. Again, this must be done thoroughly and with transparency. 

The investigator then sets out any other issues that have arisen through the investigation, such as other issues identified in the workplace, the illness of a hoped-for witness or difficulties accessing documents, just as examples. Finally, the report sets out the final findings and where requested or appropriate makes recommendations in a clear and unbiased manner.

top tips for report writing 

When approaching the task of writing a report, a useful phrase is 'know your audience'. In most cases it will be the employer who has sole access to the investigation report. Yet the reality remains that a court could examine the report document at any future stage. 

In any event, aim to be short and concise at all times with clear and unbiased descriptions. Sometimes the investigation report will need to reflect the technical realities of the workplace, which might include convoluted descriptions or layered processes. 

In these circumstances it can be a good idea to create a glossary of terms or a similar explanatory system that allows for inclusion of and explanation of complex information, while not interrupting the flow of the document. Keep to a logical sequence. Having done the good work of a high-quality investigation, it can be all undermined if the employer is left with a report that is confusing or unhelpful. 

In writing up findings, it is essential that investigators 'follow the evidence'. For example, if evidence A plus evidence B led you to finding W then clearly state this. You cannot simply 'find W' without explaining your reasoning.

The task of pulling together all relevant material into a cohesive report at the conclusion of an investigation can be a challenging prospect. Utilising an external investigator can ensure a report is written in an unbiased, objective and timely manner. To appoint an expert to your organisation's investigation, contact WISE.

Interview Techniques for Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 24, 2019

In any workplace investigation, there will be multiple competing factors for an investigator to consider. One core issue is developing the appropriate interview strategy.

Investigative interviewing requires careful consideration of the purpose of the investigation, and exactly who will be interviewed. There is also the question of tone - ensuring that the interview remains cordial and does not begin to resemble an interrogation. 

At WISE Workplace, we have a wealth of experience in investigative interviewing, including the best practice interview techniques to bring to the task.  

the purpose of the investigative interview

The purpose of the investigative interview is to glean relevant information about a workplace allegation in a manner that is professional and fair. 

In devising a good investigation strategy, the interviewer will carefully select who is to be interviewed during the process. 

People with first-hand knowledge are the key - not those who simply heard a rumour or were told something second-hand. Such statements constitute hearsay, and can reduce the weight of the evidence and the overall value of the investigation if relied upon. It is important for the investigator to identify and interview those people who were directly involved, or who witnessed a situation first-hand. 

Ideally there will be enough witnesses available to corroborate evidence. If facts such as the identity of an alleged bully can be verified between witnesses, or certain actions can be adequately cross-checked, the resulting findings and report are likely to be sound. 

Having a support person available for witnesses is always recommended. Being interviewed for a workplace investigation can be stressful for any of the parties. The presence of a trusted support person can help to calm the witness.

interviewing or interrogating? 

It is vital to create the right environment for the interview. At a fundamental level, the interviewer should avoid any method of questioning that could be seen as interrogating rather than interviewing.

Keep the tone conversational and allow enough time to develop rapport across the interview. Inviting questions around how the interview will work, plus describing procedural aspects like recording and note-taking can assist in reducing anxiety. 

State the obvious. For example: "This is a difficult situation involving certain allegations in the workplace, and we appreciate your help here today".

Offer the witness the option to stop and clarify any questions and to take comfort breaks if needed. Firing off questions and requiring immediate answers is no way to develop rapport and will not illicit the best information and or evidence. 

Adopting a stern or hostile demeanour is unproductive and can also lead to claims of bias. A professional interviewer should never see themselves as a TV detective with a rough attitude and a light shining in the respondent's face! The interview is not seen as a technique used to extract a confession from a witness. Building good rapport is the key to a quality investigative report that stands the test of time.

high-quality interview techniques 

The experienced interviewer understands how to conduct the workplace interview with transparency and objectivity. While the personal information of others needs to be protected, the witness should be informed of all relevant material relevant to the allegations. Even alarming or distasteful allegations should be dealt with professionally and objectively. 

Building rapport with a witness is essential for effective interviewing. Structured processes such as the PEACE model of interviewing can help interviewers to cover all aspects of a professional interview. 

The PEACE model was developed in the United Kingdom to help investigators conduct the fairest and most productive interview possible. The model provides eight steps that should be undertaken which includes:

PLANNING: Examine what planning and preparation need to occur before an interview.

ENGAGE: Choose methods that assist in building rapport with the respondent, complainant or witness.

ACCOUNT: Gather interviewee accounts in a logical and effective structure. Seek clarification where needed. 

CLOSURE: Complete the interview politely and professionally.

EVALUATE: Review the contents of your transcript and take any necessary next steps.  

Other tools such as active listening and open questions are also excellent ways to gather the best information, without raising problems of biased interviewing - perceived or otherwise. 

Don't rush the witness as they tell their story. Ask open questions, which allow the witness to provide a spontaneous and genuine description of events, rather than being fenced in by closed questioning or unnecessary interruptions.

Mastering the Investigative Interview 

Obtaining first-hand witness evidence by way of interview is essential to uncovering the facts of a matter. However, conducting interviews into serious workplace issues such as bullying and sexual harassment can be a difficult and sometimes a daunting task. 

WISE investigators have mastered key interviewing techniques and have extensive experience in conducting investigative interviews across industries. We have developed a comprehensive guide to steer HR professionals and investigators through the process. Purchase our book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators for the best tips on successful interview techniques.

Social Media Misconduct: The Need for a Fair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An ever-increasing key dilemma for employers in the modern age is how to deal with the misconduct by staff through their use of social media platforms. 

The list of potentially offending conduct is lengthy. For example, staff might call in sick but then post details of their activities on social media. Employees could post inappropriate, defamatory or confidential information on their accounts. One high-profile example is the sacking of a PayPal executive in 2014 who publicly ranted about his co-workers on Twitter, or more recently the well publicised matter regarding Israel Folau and his instagram post. 

Given such a potential minefield, we look at what employers should do to ensure a fair investigation relating to allegations of social media misconduct.

procedural fairness key in australian case

The matter of Singh V Aerocare Flight Support Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 6186 highlights the importance of ensuring that an investigation is thorough and involves appropriate levels of procedural fairness. This requirement applies in social media misconduct, as in all other cases.

Mr Singh was dismissed from his role as a baggage handler in October 2015. Although the reasons for his dismissal were not made immediately clear to him, after proceedings had been issued in the Fair Work Commission, the employer alleged that Mr Singh had breached its social media policy by publicly supporting ISIS and known associates. 

It was also claimed that he had made radicalised comments against the Australian Government. Of particular relevance and concern was Mr Singh's status as an airline employee. 

Before he was terminated, Mr Singh was advised that there had been complaints involving his social media posts and that there would be an investigation. However, Commissioner Hunt found no evidence that Mr Singh was told he could bring a support person to the investigation meetings. Further, although the termination related to a number of posts on social media, Commissioner Hunt accepted that not all posts were shown to Mr Singh for his response. 

Factors in the decision

Relevant factors taken into account by the Commission in determining whether conduct occurring away from the workplace can invoke disciplinary action, include conduct that is: 

  • Likely to cause serious damage to the employer/employee relationship; or
  • Damaging to the employer's interests; or
  • Incompatible with the employee's duty as an employee. 

Before the Commission, Mr Singh's evidence was to the effect that he was against ISIS and radical Islam, and that his comments had been sarcastic. 

the outcome of the case

It was concluded that the employer had not spent sufficient time investigating whether or not Mr Singh was in fact opposed to ISIS. Commissioner Hunt accepted, that if there had been sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Mr Singh had a radicalised perspective on Islam, there would have been too great a risk for an employee with these views to continue working at the airport. 

However, it was determined that in the circumstances the employer should have gone to greater effort to investigate Mr Singh's Facebook newsfeed. If that had occurred, it was considered that it would have been clear that Mr Singh's claimed sarcasm was the true motivation behind his postings. 

Accordingly, the Commission determined that, if a proper investigation had taken place, it would have been apparent that Mr Singh was not radicalised. Therefore, Mr Singh's dismissal was deemed harsh, unjust and unreasonable. 

Instead of terminating his employment, it was considered that an appropriate disciplinary action commensurate with the misconduct would have been reiterating the social media policy of the employer and insisting that Mr Singh refrain from posting incendiary material.

need help in ensuring a fair investigation? 

This case demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where it is determined that the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair and enforceable, WISE Workplace provides investigation services, as well as 'conducting workplace investigations' training. 

Can Employers Investigate if Complainants Ask Them Not To?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

One of the more difficult aspects of managing an employment relationship is appropriately dealing with complaints, both from the perspective of the complainant and the accused. This is made even more complicated when a reluctant complainant brings something to the attention of Human Resources or management, then does not want it investigated. 

We examine why a complainant might not want to take an issue further, and what an employer's rights and obligations are in these circumstances.

why a complainant might be reluctant

There are many reasons why an employee might be reluctant to have a complaint investigated. These include: 

  • Fear of retribution - This is common in circumstances where the 'accused' holds a position of power over the complainant in the workplace. The complainant might fear reprisals and that their daily work life will become more difficult. This is particularly the case if the complaint relates to physical, sexual or emotional aggression. 
  • Fear that the complainant will not be taken seriously - The complainant might be worried their complaint will be considered 'trivial' or won't be dealt with objectively because of the position of the other party.
  • Time commitments - It is well known that an investigation will require a significant amount of time commitment from all parties. A complainant might not wish to be involved in a lengthy and time-consuming process. 
  • Lack of evidence - Complainants could feel that they are involved in a 'he said, she said' situation. The complainant might be concerned that an investigation will not ultimately support their version of events.    

The best way to address these concerns is for Human Resources or management to make clear to staff that all complaints are taken seriously and are duly investigated. This is regardless of who made the complaint, against whom it is levelled, and how much evidence might be required to fully conduct an investigation.

is a complainant allowed to withdraw a complaint? 

A complainant has the right to withdraw both the complaint and their support of any investigation. This generally spells the end of the investigation, because the person who receives a complaint is bound by confidentiality. This leaves the reluctant complainant as the only source of evidence to support an investigation.  

employer obligations to investigate

But employers are obliged to balance their duties of confidentiality with their obligations under workplace health and safety legislation. This includes eliminating discrimination and ensuring that everybody is able to undertake their jobs without unreasonable impostes. In circumstances of accusations of significant misconduct or even criminal activity, an employer may be justified in or even compelled to pursue an investigation, notwithstanding that a complaint has been withdrawn.

For example, if the complainant has raised issues of conduct that may constitute the commissioning of fraud, then the withdrawal of the complaint will not immediately result in the conduct alleged not being able to be independently investigated. There are also other considerations and duties of care that need to be taken into consideration before an informed decision to not undertake or to cease an investigation can be appropriately made. 

The dangers of a rigid policy structure

Although it is essential that all businesses have a complaints and grievances policy, there is some risk in having a procedure that is perceived as being too strict or rigid. If the general consensus amongst the staff is that there are only 'black and white' approaches toward dealing with complaints, this could result in staff being deterred from reporting incidents. This could ultimately result in employers breaching their legislative obligations and duty of care. 

At WISE Workplace, we have expertise in dealing with investigations involving reluctant parties. Talk to our team about full or supported investigation services for your organisation.

Sharing Information After a Workplace Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 08, 2019

For employers, the completion of a workplace investigation can feel like the end of a marathon. The relevant issues have been aired and discussed, a report delivered and decisions made. However, it is also important to effectively share relevant information with affected parties and the broader organisation as the investigation process draws to a close. 

It is likely that employees and other stakeholders affected by the workplace investigation will need feedback in order to comfortably move on from this often unsettling time in the workplace. 

Before commencing post-investigation communication, management should consider issues of confidentiality, the rights of all the affected parties and the best ways to share information across the broader organisation.

Providing confidence in the outcome

The period after a workplace investigation can be an excellent opportunity for both staff and management to make changes and move forward confidently from a difficult situation. 

Providing key stakeholders a broad summary of the investigative findings and a plan for improvement often fosters a sense of understanding and closure. For affected parties, a clear and concise summary of individual outcomes and actions will of course be appropriate and necessary. At every level, the goal is to communicate honestly and with a positive eye to the future.

keeping affected parties informed

Management should meet individually with those affected by the findings of the investigation. The process can be uncomfortable for those who are personally involved. There will often be a sense of apprehension, and in some cases, a curiosity about the decision-making process. 

Affected parties deserve a chance to have the outcomes and the decision-making process explained on a one-on-one basis. However, it is also important to ensure that only the appropriate amount of information regarding the investigation is shared. 

In particular, confidentiality will be necessary in relation to the statements of witnesses and other affected parties. Sensitive information, claims and descriptions have the potential to cause unnecessary harm and can jeopardise the integrity of the final report. 

A copy of the full report should not be released to those involved with the investigation. This document is accessible only by the employer at this stage. The affected parties to an investigation have a legal entitlement to be informed in writing of the findings, conclusions, recommendations and the basis of those findings. The parties therefore could be provided with a written summary of the full report, including the allegations and findings, as they relate to each individual party. 

A witness is not an affected party and should not be provided with the report or a summary unless they are also an affected party, such as a complainant or respondent. 

Communicating across the organisation

Confidentiality is of course of paramount importance. Neither witnesses nor staff want to be fed vague explanations about the outcomes of the investigations. A workplace investigation will commonly reveal deficiencies in policies and procedures, and/or the state of organisational culture. In clearly explaining the outcomes of the investigation, management can allay fears, dampen any gossip and provide a positive statement about any changes to come following the conclusion of an investigation. 

The investigation might well have been an unsettling time within the organisation. Post-investigation communication can be a valuable means of restoring confidence and providing a clear vision for future activities. For example, policies might need to be updated or individual procedures changed for the better. Positive communication about findings and the actions to be taken will help to restore staff equilibrium.

implementing change post workplace investigation 

It can be a challenge for management to know exactly where to start when explaining and implementing decisions following an investigation. 

At WISE Workplace we have significant experience with workplace investigations and helping to manage the aftermath of these processes. Should you require assistance in conducting workplace investigations and communicating outcomes, contact WISE today.

Substantiating Claims of Reportable Conduct

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 01, 2019

It is one of society's great shames that our most vulnerable individuals are often open to abuse by those entrusted with their care. However, it is somewhat edifying to know that stringent legal and regulatory measures are in place in Australia to ensure that employers and others act quickly when allegations arise of abuse in care. 

In the case of issues involving children, organisations such as the Ombudsman mandate that 'reportable conduct' must be swiftly acted on by employers. In particular, a thorough investigation must be made into the situation to determine whether allegations of abuse in care have been substantiated. 

It is also important to note that organisations involved in regular contact with children are required to have proactive and preventative measures in place. After all, there is no more important issue in society than the protection of vulnerable individuals.

what is reportable conduct

Across Australian states and territories there is general uniformity in the way in which 'reportable conduct' is defined and applied. Section 25A(1) of the Ombudsman Act NSW defines reportable conduct as:

  • Any sexual offence or sexual misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child - including a child pornography offence.
  • Any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child.
  • Any behaviour that causes psychological harm to a child - even if the child consented to the behaviour. 

It is apparent that the legislation targets all manner of abuse, including sexual, physical and psychological. The net is wide and for good reason: any employee or other associate of an organisation who crosses the bounds of propriety and trust with a child should and will be held accountable for their actions. The legislation also covers situations of alleged consent by the child to the behaviour. There can be no doubt that the imbalance of power inherent in these situations is taken into account under the legalisation.

substantiating reportable conduct

While it is essential that inappropriate conduct be reported, facts must first be verified. Upon being notified of allegations related to child abuse, employers must ensure that a professional and objective investigation takes place. If there is insufficient expertise to carry out this serious task, expert advice and investigative services should be sourced externally.

Once the workplace investigation has concluded, the employer will be provided with a report which indicates whether reportable conduct has in fact been established.

Report to which body?

For employers it can be a little confusing to know which conduct to report - as well as who exactly to report issues to. This is in part because Australia has clear distinctions between states, territories and the Commonwealth, and in the field of reportable conduct there are subtle changes to be aware of. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has compiled a Resource Sheet that explains the different reporting requirements across jurisdictions, including the right body to approach in the context of an employer's place of business. 

Discipline and internal procedures 

Once there is a finding that reportable conduct has in fact occurred, attention then turns to the questions of what disciplinary measures might be appropriate in a given context. These will vary in strength and reach. For example, conduct that is substantiated but is of a lower gravity - such as slapping a child's hand for example - might be met with a requirement for training and/or a reprimand by the employer. More serious abuse of a child could lead to the dismissal of the employee and/or criminal charges being founded.

It is crucial that employers within child-related areas train their staff on the nature and consequences of reportable conduct, in addition to having robust procedures in place for dealing with such unfortunate situations. Some larger organisations such as the Department of Education will have quite extensive material and processes in this area. Yet for smaller businesses and organisations, it is vital to understand reportable conduct and to educate staff around this pressing issue. There are serious legal consequences for an organisation and its staff concerning the failure to identify and report child reportable conduct. 

WISE provides Investigating Abuse In Care training, which is specifically developed for organisations dealing with vulnerable clients. Alternatively, we are highly experienced at investigating reportable conduct matters, through our investigation services.       

The Privacy Act: Implications for Workplace Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There can be many questions, fears and insecurities that arise in the course of a workplace investigation. Experienced investigators are often asked by witnesses and other staff to divulge what has been said and by whom. This is unsurprising; after all, for one or more people their reputation and/or job could be on the line as a result of accusations made. 

Workplace investigators must take care when dealing with the information gleaned from their enquiries. The Privacy Act 1988 creates a legal structure that controls how personal information can be obtained and used. From initial enquiries through to the final report, workplace investigators must carefully weigh the privacy implications of their work.

privacy and workplace investigations

The Privacy Act 1988 places firm legal boundaries around how businesses and government agencies are to deal with the personal information of individuals, including employees. Most employers will have the capacity under the Act to deal with employee information as they see fit - providing it is for a lawful purpose. 

Workplace investigators are bound by the privacy legislation, just as any person or organisation who deals with private information is. This can lead to considerable challenges within the course of the investigation, such as having private information that might or might not be of interest to another party or witness within the investigation. It is only in very unusual circumstances that such disclosures could be lawfully made. Overall, consent will not have been given for release to another party; consent is crucial in all such situations.

personal information and the final report

The client is of course the employer in workplace investigations, and it is to the employer that briefings and reports must be directed. It is not unusual for investigators to be bombarded by employees with requests for the release of information, statements, witness accounts and the like, that have been elicited during the investigation.

The reason for the requests is certainly understandable - people will be anxious to know what has been said, by whom and how this could potentially affect their employment. Yet legally this is not information that the workplace investigator is at liberty to provide, unless express consent has been given. 

Personal information at the disposal of the workplace investigator must be returned to the employer, generally in the form of the investigator's final report. Complainants, respondents and witnesses are certainly afforded a summary of the report and findings. Yet actual statements and transcripts involving personal information are certainly protected under the Act from most curious stakeholders.   

Privacy and future proceedings

It makes sense to keep a tight hold on information released during the investigation. Considering that investigative reports are often later scrutinised for their evidentiary worth, it is important for workplace investigators to keep in mind the ramifications of privacy principles upon their work. 

For example, statements that are tainted by knowledge of what another witness has said could certainly be inadmissible or weighted lightly in later proceedings. A loose investigative structure can also see one party privy to more information than another, raising inevitable questions of procedural fairness. 

Navigating a workplace investigation is certainly a matter of juggling many moving parts. Keeping a firm reign on the use of personal information during the investigation is one task that must remain at the forefront of all activities and decisions. For assistance on ways to ensure compliance with the Privacy Act 1988 during an investigation, get in touch with WISE.

The Right Mix: Professionalism, Impartiality and Empathy

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is essential that there is consideration given to maintaining an appropriate balance between professionalism, impartiality and empathy. 

By ensuring that this balance is maintained, employers are best able to protect the interests of staff, and safeguard against allegations of inappropriate conduct during the investigatory stage. 

the need for professionalism

It is essential that professionalism carries through in all aspects of a workplace investigation. A failure to conduct the process appropriately could have far-reaching consequences for an employee - resulting in disciplinary action or even dismissal and for the employer in cases where the process, procedures and findings are legally challenged. 

Professionalism requires investigators to:

  • Ensure confidentiality - Keep any information that is disclosed or otherwise discovered during the investigatory process completely confidential. 
  • Communicate clearly - This means ensuring that all involved parties have a clear understanding of the process, the information that is required and anything else that can be expected as part of the investigation. 
  • Act with competence - When undertaking investigations into an employee's conduct, it is crucial that the investigator is thorough and performs all aspects of the role correctly and appropriately. This includes planning the investigation, conducting interviews and analysing the evidence. 

staying impartial in workplace investigations

Investigations must be impartial for the same reason they need to be professional. The investigator must try as much as possible to collect and analyse objective information and make a decision on that basis, not on personal feelings or subjective factors. 

In order to avoid perceptions of bias, all efforts should be made to ensure that there is no real or perceived conflict of interest between the person conducting the investigation and other people involved in the investigation, such as the complainant or the accused.

Staff who are known in the workplace to be particularly good friends (or particularly adversarial) with each other should not be involved in the same investigation other than as a witness. This may also extend to staff investigating their own direct reports. 

If your business is too small or otherwise structured in a way which makes it complicated for investigations to occur with impartiality, engaging a professional workplace investigator can help ensure an independent and unbiased process.

the value of empathy

Apart from just generally being the right thing to do, there is some real value in being empathetic with staff during the investigation process. 

Showing empathy in the workplace investigation context is likely to result in greater cooperation from witnesses and greater accuracy in statements. For example, most employees do not want to get one of their co-workers into trouble. By empathising with those staff and noting that they do not want anybody to get fired or have adverse consequences as a result of the interview, investigators can build up a greater rapport. 

It can also reassure those involved that investigators understand what they are going through, and that they will be supported through the process. An employee who has to make a complaint against somebody at work, or an employee having to deal with the consequences of a complaint and the potential disciplinary repercussions can suffer significant stress and trauma. This can have far-reaching consequences in the workplace.    

maintaining the balancing act

The three pillars of professionalism, impartiality and empathy are key to conducting a successful workplace investigation, but these can often be difficult to achieve in the average office. For this reason, you may wish to rely on external investigators to ensure that all key elements of a proper workplace investigation are fulfilled. If your organisation needs assistance with investigations, WISE offers both full and supported investigation services, or training for your staff.