Legal Issues When Conducting Workplace Interviews

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 29, 2018

When a workplace investigation has to be conducted, the most valuable information will generally be obtained through interviewing the staff involved in the incident and any witnesses. This information will play a critical role in determining what has happened or who or what was responsible. 

In order to obtain relevant and reliable information from the parties involved, good communication skills, an eye for detail and the ability to think on your feet is required. However, it is equally important to remember your legal obligations when interviewing staff.

legal issues

In conducting an interview process, key legal issues include:

  • The creation of statements 
    When an interview is conducted, a statement recording the comments made during the interview must be prepared and provided to the interviewee for review and, if the contents of the statement are agreed upon, signature. 
  • Audio recordings
    The laws on the creation of audio recordings differ in each Australian state. Generally speaking, if a person is advised that they are being recorded and they do not explicitly object, it is acceptable to continue with an audio recording. It is best practice to seek their explicit approval once recording has commenced. It is important to bear in mind that a transcript of the recording must be made available to the interviewee upon request. 
  • Support person
    Anybody involved in a workplace investigation, but especially the person against whom allegations have been made, must have the opportunity to have a support person of their choice present during each step of the investigative process, particularly during the interview. Witnesses have to be informed of this right in advance, in order to provide them with the opportunity to find a suitable support person.   

Procedural fairness and privacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of any workplace interview is ensuring that the process is conducted in accordance with the rules of procedural fairness. This includes:

  • The complainant and the respondent have the opportunity to provide their entire version of events and to have a support person present. 
  • The respondent is advised of the particulars of the allegations against them, so that they can respond in detail. 
  • The respondent is advised of their rights in relation to the investigative process.
  • Proceedings are not delayed unnecessarily.
  • The respondent has sufficient time to prepare for the interview process. Best practice is to allow at least 48 hours' notice but preferably more, depending on the complexity of the particulars. 
  • All relevant witnesses are interviewed.
  • Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence is taken into account.
  • All evidence is considered in an unbiased and impartial manner. 
  • No finding of guilt or otherwise is made until after all parties have had the opportunity to participate in the interview process and had the opportunity to respond to the allegations against them. 

All parties involved in the investigation are entitled to privacy. Witnesses who have disclosed information in confidence, may be intimidated by the fear of victimisation or backlash. This means that information divulged during the interview process is to be kept strictly confidential, unless it is absolutely necessary for the resolution of the dispute that it be shared beyond the immediate investigative team.

tips for successfully conducting an interview

In addition to taking the above steps, inexperienced interviewers may wish to consider obtaining specific legal advice, depending on the situation and the allegations which have been made. 

The interview process should always be undertaken from the perspective that only information which is collected fairly and decisions which are made in an unbiased manner will support disciplinary or administrative action against any employee. 

If you dismiss an employee or take disciplinary action against them without affording procedural fairness and establishing the relevant facts, it is possible that Fair Work Australia or other relevant tribunals may find the action was harsh, unjust or unreasonable in the circumstances. 

An investigation may be costly and time consuming, however the consequences of not conducting one may be even greater. If you need assistance in conducting investigations and undertaking investigative interviewing, contact WISE Workplace today, or purchase our 'Investigative Interviewing Book'.   

Analysing Evidence: The Key Step of Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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

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

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

WHAT evidence should be included? 

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

Exculpatory and inculpatory evidence

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

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

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

Analysis of the evidence

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

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

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

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

writing up the analysis

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

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

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

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

Counter Allegations - Who Did What When?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Experienced workplace investigators are well aware that when two or more people are in dispute, there will inevitably be differing perspectives on what 'the truth' might look like. Contentious workplace issues can often play out in a 'he said, she said' fashion, with one allegation being closely followed up by a second person's counter-allegation. Such complications should be dealt with in a fair, considered and methodical way.

Separate allegations made by opposing parties will ideally be dealt with in discrete stages by workplace investigators, with each being handled in accordance with its individual merits. And as evidence comes to light regarding one or more of the competing allegations, investigators should aim to assess and weigh each piece of information with utmost care and objectivity.

When two tribes go to war 

When a counter-allegation is initially made, it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding this development. It does not necessarily mean that the first complainant was misrepresenting events or indeed that the second complainant is somehow defensive, guilty or panicky. It is possible that both the original and the counter complaints are valid.

Let's take an example: perhaps she took his stapler and he wiped her hard-drive. Two complete denials on the same issue can require the workplace investigator to look more closely at the milieu of the counter-allegations. For instance, if two workers in a scuffle both identically calm that "I did nothing - she pushed me", an astute investigator will know that a pointed and methodical approach to the counter-allegations is certainly called for.

In each of these scenarios, both allegations should be investigated and dealt with separately. It can be tempting to create one big file entitled 'Stapler/hard-drive fiasco' or 'Smith and Jones stoush'. Yet clear delineations between people, events and timing will ensure that impartiality and clarity are maintained for the duration of the investigation and that the validity of each complaint is tested.

Seen and unseen allegationS

Very occasionally a workplace investigation involving counter-allegations will be easily settled. For example, the employee might not have been at work on the day that she allegedly stole the stapler - a simple mistake, evidenced by the work roster and now the complaint file can (on that issue at least) be finalised.

If only things were so simple... In most workplace situations, the investigator will need to step carefully through complex evidence attached to each allegation. Some events might be directly witnessed in a cut and dried way; Brown was in the kitchen with Smith and Jones on 7 December 2017 and can confidently say she saw Smith push Jones, who then walked away. Yet in many cases there are no witnesses to wrongdoing in the workplace and the 'he did/she did' scenario must be dealt with. 

Further clarification in many forms becomes the best way to methodically tease out the knots of knowledge. This might take the form of documentary evidence, circumstantial evidence such as presence at a meeting that day, or a contemporaneous report such as an OH&S report involving counter-complainants. A tidy pattern of good circumstantial evidence can at times provide the clarity needed in the face of vehement counter-allegations. The workplace investigator must carefully assess the quality, reliability and utility of such material, being sure not to make assumptions and/or factual errors along the way.

Hearsay - treading lightly on complex terrain

As with all areas of law and investigations, hearsay evidence can provide helpful insights in situations where nothing more concrete is available. Hearsay is generally words or things observed by an individual who was not directly present when an event occurred. In other words, it is a type of indirect evidence. A simple idea, but surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre successfully during investigations.

Great care is needed in these situations, as hearsay evidence is notorious for causing problems later in post-investigation proceedings. Employees may go home and talk openly to their spouse about distressing events. Or they stomp back to their desks, muttering to a colleague about 'the stapler thief'. Yet the spouse or the colleague cannot tell us much about what actually happened. They are a friendly ear - after the alleged event.

Such indirect evidence can be the least helpful in many cases. However, experienced investigators will know how to gather and utilise such material when more direct evidence is difficult to obtain.

Workplace allegations and motivations

It is not unheard of that rather ulterior motives can exist in a workplace allegation. When stories are not gelling, it is natural for the workplace investigator to think - what am I missing? Why would this person make this up? It is important to consider the possibility that rivalries, emotional issues and/or collusion might unfortunately form part of the mix that has motivated an internal complaint. While it does not pay to assume such a phenomenon, investigators should be aware that such dynamics can and do arise in the workplace.

In workplace investigations, we find that it is never simple. If you have an investigation that has 'blown' out, or you are reviewing cross and counter complaints and could use some professional assistance, then contact WISE today.

Managing Complaints - How To Find The Positive

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When an employee complaint alleging workplace discrimination or harassment is lodged, it is usually seen as a negative moment in the life of the organisation.

However, it is possible for an employer to view this as a positive phenomenon, rather than a sign of complete failure. This is because well-handled complaints can illuminate hidden corporate weaknesses, as well as any lurking issues affecting staff morale or motivation. Such information can become a valuable catalyst for positive change across the broader business - a win-win for internal and external stakeholders alike.

Best-practice in complaints handling is dependent upon a structured complaints process that includes two key ingredients: the quality of investigation process and the structure of the complaints process itself.

1. A thorough high-quality workplace investigation is an essential tool in the management of internal complaints, including allegations of discrimination and harassment.

2. The structural framework of internal complaints policies and procedures will necessarily be clear, accessible and well-publicised. A well-managed complaint can be a good news story not only for the people involved, but for the broader success of the business.

INVESTIGATING DISCRIMINATION AND HARASSMENT 

When an employee complains that they have been the subject of discrimination or harassment, it is highly likely that there will be differing opinions and perspectives as to whether or not this is actually the case.

As a result, best-practice workplace investigation requires fair, open and even-handed treatment of all who are involved in the investigative process. Further, it is important for investigators to move at a reasonable and logical pace, first making preliminary enquiries before deciding on any next steps.

But what does a good investigation mean on the ground? One key concept is procedural fairness. This means that parties involved are equally able to access the process, to be heard in a substantive way and to be given a fair opportunity to understand and respond adequately to any claims made against them. Under procedural fairness parties have the right to an impartial decision-maker and to having a support person present during their interview. Professional investigators must be seen to be unbiased in every phase of the workplace investigation.

Added to this, a high-quality workplace investigation will ensure that all relevant and reliable evidence has been carefully obtained, anaylsed and included appropriately in the final report. There can be no room for short cuts or preferential treatment in workplace investigations.       

Robust complaints policies and procedures

Employers, investigators, complainants and witnesses alike should ideally all have access to a durable set of internal policies and procedures covering common areas of complaint.

A strong policy document detailing how and to whom to make a complaint should be accessible, user-friendly and up-to-date. The policy should also direct the reader to one or more procedures that need to be followed in the event that an alleged instance of harassment or discrimination has occurred. This is often a time of great stress, and instructions to complainants should be clear and helpful.

Internal policies and procedures that are complicated, badly written or tucked away in a dusty filing cabinet are of little-to-no assistance to the individual seeking to make a complaint.

This is why good investigations and good complaints policies go hand-in-hand: even the best investigator will struggle to keep things fair if complaints policies are convoluted or absent, or if procedures leading up to the investigation are sub-optimal.

Perhaps most importantly, managers and employees should be trained in practically accessing and using these documents, at all stages being assured that complaints are taken seriously and are indeed welcomed by the organisation.

Step by step pathways

A sound complaints process begins with employees first being made aware of a useable and fair pathway for their grievance. A good internal complaints system will work step-by-step through a logical process. This means initially providing clear and succinct information on the nature of common complaints, some definitions where appropriate, the bigger picture of the complaints process and - perhaps most importantly - who to speak with in the first instance about the particular concern.

An internal complaint is a golden opportunity for employers to gain important information about people and workplaces. For this reason, the internal complaints system should be presented in a simple, cordial and helpful format.

Problems arise every day that require the existence of an effective complaints and investigations pathway. Thankfully many complaints can be quickly and easily resolved. However, if you need to undertake investigations or a review of your HR policies, and want to ensure you are conducting it with best practice, our training is developed by investigators for investigators. Contact WISE today to find out more.

Improving Your Investigative Interviewing Skills

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

To any outsider, the job of investigative interviewing seems fairly straightforward - questions are asked and then answers are provided. Yet as we know, the job of interviewing parties in the course of a workplace investigation can be anything but simple. 

For example, the investigative interviewer must ensure procedural fairness at every step along the investigative pathway. And this raises other questions, such as can the venue of the interview impact upon fairness? Why is building rapport a key element of investigative interviews? Should I audio record?

With challenges and variables scattered throughout most investigations, it is necessary for interviewers to be skilled in the core techniques required for fair and productive outcomes. A good workplace investigator never stops refining the skills of the trade.

THE interviewing basics

Procedural fairness requires an investigative interviewer to approach the task with transparency, objectivity and care. For example, any notable bias in the way questions are asked could taint the results of the investigation. It is also essential for the interviewer to explain clearly to the witness the 'what, why and how' of the interview process before questioning begins.

Building rapport is an essential skill when conducting an effective investigative interview. Rapport is the connection created to ensure an understanding of a person's thoughts and feelings, so that effective communication can take place. 

An interviewer might offer a choice of seating, pour some water, ask about the weather outside - just as examples. The right words and actions will be gleaned from the individual characteristics of the witness. Such simple and polite techniques at the commencement of the interview can go a long way towards allaying fears and creating a more comfortable space for questioning. 

Similarly, choosing the right venue can have a surprising effect on the overall atmosphere and quality of proceedings. Questions one might ask oneself as an interviewer include: Is it appropriate to speak with this particular witness on-site? Will we have sufficient privacy? Is there a basic level of comfort? An inappropriate venue for the investigative interview can cause unnecessary distractions and discomfort; neither of which assist in producing high-quality evidence. 

to audio record the interview or not? 

One key issue to consider is this - will you record the interview or take a statement, or simply take notes? An audio recording has obvious advantages, such as providing a word-by-word account of the interview. It is, however, vital to research any particular legal requirements within your state or territory about the need to obtain consent from the interviewee to record the conversation. An audio recording of the investigative interview should demonstrate a strong and professional structure to the interview, as well as a fair approach taken to the witness. When and how to record an investigative interview can be a tricky variable to consider, and at times might require expert advice.

the peace-ful investigative interview

In the 1990's, a selection of British law enforcement officers came together in order to find a better approach to investigative interviews. They identified the need for a strong but flexible alternative to current questioning techniques. The PEACE model of interviewing was born, and it has proven invaluable to investigative interviewers. 

Five key concepts make up the acronym:

P - preparation and planning - Do you have a good list of potential questions and a thorough understanding of the scope of the investigation?

E - engage and explain - Have you built rapport, explained all procedural issues to the interviewee and provided an opportunity for questions?

A - account, clarify and challenge - Have you allowed the witness to answer responses fully, without bias or suggestion? Have you sought to clarify concerns and challenged any discrepancies in a professional manner?

C - closure - Did the witness have an opportunity to ask, clarify and add further to the interview where appropriate? And if so, have you explained any next steps and thanked them for their time?

E - evaluation - In listening to or reading back the interview, how would you evaluate the substance, quality and fairness of the process? 

The PEACE model is a great tool for mapping out key aspects of an investigative interview, thus ensuring that nothing is missed in your witness statements. 

suggestibility and free recall

Psychologists consider that every person will have a particular level of suggestibility, which can change across their lifespan. Suggestibility is the extent to which we can be persuaded to 'fill in' our memory through the suggestions of another. Children for example are particularly vulnerable to such prompting in an interview setting. 

Psychological concepts such as free recall demonstrate that memory can be affected by factors such as the timing and positioning of details as they are laid down as memories. Investigative interviewers need to take great care not to ask questions in a way that might sway or alter the facts as provided. 

Conducting investigative interviews is almost always a challenge. For more tips on how to effectively undertake interviews, purchase our book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators, or alternatively, we provide on-site training in investigative interviewing, which can be tailored to the needs of your organisation.   

Stand By Me: The Role of the Support Person

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For an employee who is on the receiving end of disciplinary action, performance management or a workplace investigation, it is an upsetting, and even a potentially traumatic experience. 

Every employee involved in such a process is entitled to have a support person present during any meetings or interviews. 

A failure to afford an employee a support person can result in the process being deemed a breach of procedural fairness, and the outcome may be declared invalid upon review.

what is the role of a support person?

The role of the support person in any interview or meeting is to provide moral and emotional support, ensure that the process is fair, and to assist with communication - they are not required, or permitted, to act as an advocate, put forward a version of events or make an argument on behalf of the employee.

While support persons are entitled to ask some questions about the process, it is crucial that they don't respond or answer questions in terms of the substance of the matter, on behalf of the employee. 

A person engaged as a translator cannot generally act as a support person at the same time.

CAN AN EMPLOYER DENY A REQUEST FOR A SPECIFIC SUPPORT PERSON?

Only in certain exceptional circumstances the employer can refuse to have a specific person sit in as a support person. 

These circumstances include where the requested support person:

  • Holds a more senior role in the organisation than the person who is conducting the interview - thereby creating a risk of undue influence or pressure by the support person on the interviewer;
  • Could be disruptive to the process or has their own agenda (such as a former employee or somebody who is known to be on bad terms with management or the executive);
  • Is involved with the subject matter of the investigation or may be witness to some of the events. A person who is involved in the investigation in some way cannot be seen to be neutral and it is not desirable for a potential witness to have access to the respondent's evidence. 

Although employers may be able to object to a specific support person who has been requested, they are required to advise employees of their right to select a different person.

tHE ATTITUDE OF THE FAIR WORK COMMISSION

When determining cases of unfair dismissal, one of the factors the Fair Work Commission considers is whether the employee was unreasonably denied the right to have a support person present during any interviews. 

Best practice for employers

To ensure best practice in disciplinary or investigative processes, the following steps should be undertaken:

  • Employees must be advised of their right to select a support person for any relevant meeting
  • Employees must have the opportunity for the meeting to be organised, within reason, at a time when the support person is available
  • The support person must receive a clear explanation of their role - that is, to provide moral support only. 
  • The employer must take into account any additional considerations that could apply, such as those involved in an Enterprise Agreement or similar negotiated agreement with the employee. 

Offering employees a support person to attend any meetings and interviews related to disciplinary action, performance management, or workplace investigation with them, is crucial to the fair outcome of these processes. 

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.  

Conducting Workplace Investigations: What You Need to Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Part of running an effective organisation is ensuring that all staff are held accountable for their actions in the workplace, and are able to air grievances and raise complaints in a safe forum. This means that employers may need to undertake investigations into staff misconduct from time to time. 

Managing an unbiased and thorough workplace investigation can be a challenging and complicated process, particularly given the need to deal with sensitive topics and personal feelings. 

So, what are the most important things you need to be aware of when conducting a workplace investigation?

understanding why an investigation is necessary

All employers have a duty to provide a healthy and safe place of work. This includes obligations around workplace bullying, which can be enforced by the Fair Work Commission. 

Workers Compensation claims can arise from employees experiencing stress or other physical or mental harm because of issues with co-workers. If the alleged behaviour is serious enough (such as sexual harassment or assault for example) the employer could become civilly or even criminally liable. 

Employers must conduct fair investigations into all types of allegations made by complainants. Similarly, the accused worker has the right to have the complaint against them determined objectively and the sanction decided on by an unbiased decision-maker.

how can your human resources team support you?

If your organisation is large enough to have a dedicated Human Resources officer or even an HR team, it can be extremely helpful to have them involved in an investigation. 

Your HR team can facilitate a successful investigation by:

  • Keeping open channels of communication with both the complainant and the respondent (as long as confidential information is kept private);
  • Providing a clear timeline and outline of processes;
  • Ensuring that staff are aware of their rights to have support persons involved;
  • At all times maintaining respectful contact and a clear demonstration of objectivity when dealing with witnesses or parties involved.  

fact finding vs formal investigation

Any workplace complaint requires a process of fact-finding or initial enquiry, whereby a third party interviews both the complainant and the accused party for information about what happened. The objective of this process is to determine whether the matter is serious enough to warrant a formal investigation or whether the conduct complained of can for instance be deemed trivial or minor in nature and can be dealt with on that basis. 

A formal investigation process goes much further. It requires the collection of information and evidence, interviewing of witnesses and the drafting of formal statements, the preparation of a detailed investigation report, analysis of the evidence and subsequent detailed consideration by key decision-makers as to the appropriate consequences.

The need for procedural fairness 

A key element of any workplace investigation is to ensure that all parties are afforded procedural fairness - a failure to do this could result in criticism of any decision taken by the employer after the investigation and could expose the organisation to legal liability.

The key elements of procedural fairness include:

  • Providing adequate information about the allegations, generally in written form, and the potential consequences if the employee is found to have engaged in the alleged behaviour;
  • Permitting a reasonable amount of time for the employee to respond to the allegations;
  • Allowing a support person to be present during interviews and providing adequate notice to the interviewee to arrange a support person of their choice;
  • Ensuring that the investigator as well as the ultimate decision-maker is unbiased and objective;
  • Ensuring that decisions effecting the employee are based on evidence. 

So what is involved in conducting a workplace investigation?

The key elements of an effective investigation include:

1. Planning the Investigation

  • Adequate planning before the investigation starts, including considering any potential conflicts of interest;
  • The investigator familiarising himself/herself with the potential consequences which could flow from the investigation, and ensuring that all relevant parties will be interviewed;
  • Preparing a list of interview questions for each witness;
  • Gather and review relevant documents such as the complaint, employment contracts, performance reviews, relevant policies and procedures, incident reports, and any other relevant emails, notices, memos, other documents and information;
  • Notify all parties of there involvement, rights and obligations. 

2. Interviewing

  • Provide sufficient notice and make appropriate arrangements with all witnesses
  • Conducting formal interviews objectively and sensitively, having regard to the circumstances;
  • Checking that representation or support has been offered and outlining the investigation process and timeline;
  • Obtaining as much detailed evidence as possible

3. Analysing and Weighing the Evidence

  • Assessing the evidence with regard to reliability, consistency and credibility;
  • Preparing an investigation report setting out your findings, including the behaviour that has or has not occurred and consider whether it is unlawful, unreasonable, or a breach of policy;
  • Coming to a conclusion and making a finding, based on the evidence gathered. 

4. Facilitating a Resolution

  • This could include making amendments to business policies, training improvements, broad disciplinary action, mediation and counselling. 

When to ask for help

The consequences of a flawed investigation can be serious: decisions can be challenged in the courts, reputations can suffer and employee morale can take a nose-dive. 

In some situations, it may not be appropriate to conduct an investigation internally, and an external investigator is required to help ensure a fair and unbiased process. 

This could include situations where: 

  • Serious allegations are made and there is a potential risk of criminal or civil litigation;
  • Complaints are made against senior employees;
  • A real or perceived conflict of interest exists, meaning complaints cannot be investigated objectively internally; 
  • There is a need for legal privilege to cover the circumstances;
  • There are insufficient internal resources, where your organisation is simply not able to investigate a complaint thoroughly, due to a lack of expertise, particularly if it involves multiple parties or complex issues that require specialist knowledge. 

If you require assistance with investigating allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace. We offer full investigation services, supported investigations and staff training on how to conduct workplace investigations. 

A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

the nutS and bolts of it

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

what is the extent of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

the need for an anti-bullying culture

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHen employers are accused of bullying 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

how did the fair work COMMISSION view bullying in 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

Case Study 1: The email is mightier than the sword

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

Case Study 2: Lawful adversaries - bullying in law school

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

Case Study 3: A failure to properly investigate

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

Case Study 4: Getting it both right and wrong

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

Case Study 5: Lessons in discourse

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

The take home message

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.  

When Gender is Irrelevant: Male-On-Male Workplace Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour can happen to anybody. When most people think about this type of conduct, it is generally in the context of male-to-female harassment or, perhaps more rarely, female-to-male harassment. However, this is simply not the case - sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anybody towards anybody. 

A recent decision of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal of NSW highlights the potential for employees to be victims of sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, regardless of their gender. 

The decision in Kordas v Ruba & Jo Pty Ltd t/a Aztec Hair & Beauty also affirms the entitlement of workers to financial compensation when they have been subjected to sexual harassment. 

Inappropriate behaviour

In Kordas, the worker complained about various instances of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment during his employment as an apprentice hairdresser working for the respondent. 

The behaviour complained of by the worker included:

  • Being told by his employer that workers were similar to racehorses because 'they need a pat on the bum to go faster'.
  • Having his supervisor tell clients that he and the worker were similar to a gay couple and that they were very 'close'. 
  • Being followed into a private area, slapped on the buttocks with a ruler by his trainer and being asked to smack him back because the trainer 'like[d] being slapped on the bum'.
  • Humiliation by the trainer when he threw a hair clip onto the ground, in the worker's opinion, because the employer wanted to see him bend over. 
  • The trainer complaining that the worker had incorrectly clipped a cape onto a client
  • Feeling harassed when the worker asked the trainer if he felt they got along and the response was yes, because 'you're my bitch'. 
  • Upon complaining to his employer and asking why he was referred to as the salon 'bitch', being told 'I used to work in a restaurant. All the boys used to grab me by my boobs'. 
  • Being grabbed around the waist and physically moved by his supervisor instead of being asked to move out of the way. 
  • Having his palm stroked in a flirtatious manner by his employer when he was handed money for errands. 

The worker had initially complained to his boss, who was also the director and owner of the business running the hair salon, about being victimised. But no action was taken, and the worker was ultimately dismissed. 

The history of complaints

The apprentice stated that he had not complained initially about the inappropriate behaviour because he had wanted to keep his job. 

However, in February 2015, the worker finally complained to the employer about various issues he was experiencing, including very low wages, ongoing harassment and feeling that he was being sabotaged. Although the employer initially promised that everything would be sorted out, he then made the above mentioned comment, likening hairdressers to racehorses. 

At this time, the worker demanded changes in his treatment, but the employer denied ever having received any complaints or personally witnessed any harassment. 

The employer then advised the worker that there were no senior staff available to continue his training and dismissed him. The stress and emotions suffered by the worker as a result of this treatment ultimately caused him to leave his chosen profession of hairdressing, working instead as a barber. 

Findings of the tribunal

Upon hearing the complaints, Tribunal Senior Member Scahill and General Member Newman commented that although the harassing behaviour was not the worst they had ever seen, it had clearly impacted upon the apprentice in a very significant way and had caused him to change his future career plans. 

The nature of some of the inappropriate behaviour was found to be sexual harassment, particularly the physical contact and comments regarding being a 'bitch' and a 'gay couple'. Moreover, the significant disparity in power between an employer or senior employee and an apprentice was such that the worker was reasonably and clearly intimidated, humiliated and harassed. 

The employing business was also held vicariously liable for the conduct on the basis that it had failed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and had failed to appropriately respond to the worker's complaints. 

The worker was awarded compensation comprising:

  • $5,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment by the employer
  • $10,000 in damages for the trainer's sexual harassment
  • $15,000 for victimisation

As this case demonstrates sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct can occur in any workplace, and between any gender. If you are concerned about a case of potential harassment at your organisation, contact us for assistance. We offer both supported and full workplace investigation services. 

How Medical Evidence Supports an Unbiased Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 01, 2017

When claims of abuse in care come to light, strong emotions can arise for all concerned. It is not surprising that when an unexplained injury is uncovered, family members, care staff, and employers will want immediate answers. 

However, it is vital that employers maintain clear thinking and remain objective when investigating allegations of abuse in care. 

Engaging an external workplace investigator can be helpful in maintaining neutrality, and conducting a detailed, unbiased investigation. Medical evidence is also highly relevant in these situations as it is collected in a scientific manner, without bias towards a particular party.

zero bias when investigating assaults 

In emotionally charged situations, family and friends may understandably demand immediate answers about the cause of a loved one's unexplained injury. When abuse appears to have occurred against a vulnerable individual, it is a disturbing thought for all involved. 

Workplace investigators understand that despite - or perhaps because of - such high emotions, the investigation must be coordinated and managed with an extremely steady hand. 

An experienced investigator will be acutely aware of the rules of evidence and how important the accurate collection and management of the evidence will become, should the matter be taken on review. Accordingly, from the very start of an investigation, it is understood that all information, statements, workplace documents, interviews and clinical data is to be gathered with a view to fairness, objectivity and clarity.

assessing medical evidence

Family members of the vulnerable person affected by the unexplained injury may not be aware of the detail of the circumstances of the injury. 

Factors such as the site of an unexplained injury, medical history and medications, client age, frailty and demographics, unique aspects of accommodation and access, care routines, staffing variables and medical documentation - to name a few - will all form part of the complex medical evidence matrix when evidence is being assessed. 

Delays in getting the victim medically examined or a delay in reporting incidents can often mean that the medical expert may need to rely on descriptions provided by witnesses or photographs taken of the injury. This will significantly diminish the quality of the medical evidence. Poor quality photographs and descriptions will make it even more difficult to obtain any reliable medical evidence. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the idea that on the balance of probabilities, if a finding is likely to produce grave consequences, the evidence should be of high probative value.

In cases of alleged assaults in care, professional investigators will ensure that all evidence - medical and general - is collected and reported on with utmost care. This approach ensures that irrelevant factors are not given weight. 

When the medical evidence is combined with overall procedural fairness across the investigation, the resulting investigative report into an alleged assault will be of high quality and robust in terms of the weighing of the evidence and findings.

    why an impartial investigation is important

    When investigating abuse in care, the standard of evidence obtained is a crucial factor. By including sound medical evidence, the investigator brings an unbiased and highly detailed viewpoint to the allegations of assault. This expertise can mean the difference between a fair and objective investigative report and one that is tinged by the emotionally charged nature of the situation. 

    Should the matter be taken on review, the court will apply the 'reasonable person test' to the facts and evidence available. If the investigation is not fair, clear and comprehensive, then the court may find the resulting report does not meet this standard. 

    If your organisation requires a workplace investigation into an unexplained injury, our team can assist with either full or supported investigation services. WISE are highly experienced in the complexities of investigating unexplained injuries in care settings, including the assessment of medical evidence.