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.  

Crossing the Line: Flirting vs Sexual Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The recent media attention on sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a turning point; what may have been considered 'innocent flirting' in the 70s and 80s is increasingly being called what it is - unwanted harassment. The public condemnation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein's conduct has emboldened people to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against other celebrities, in what some have described as the 'Weinstein ripple effect'. 

There has been a significant shift in recent years in the way the criminal justice system conceptualises consent, and this has likewise affected the perception of harassment. 

Although the Hollywood allegations are of a serious nature, with some amounting to sexual assault and rape, they have also cast the spotlight on work relationships in journalism, entertainment, politics and the everyday workplace -'the office'. The question arises: what constitutes sexual harassment in 2017?

legal definition of sexual harassment in australia

Although many assume that sexual harassment must occur between a man and a woman, in Australia this is not the case - it can take place between persons identifying with any sex or any gender. 

According to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), 'sexual harassment' includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other conduct of a sexual nature - the key element being that the behaviour is not welcomed by the recipient. 

The conduct needs to be assessed from the viewpoint of a reasonable person and whether the reasonable person would consider, in all the circumstances, that the recipient might be 'offended, humiliated or intimidated' by it. 

Even more seriously, sexual assault includes a person being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will and without their consent. If the victim is a child, it's sexual assault regardless of any apparent consent. 

In cases where sexual assault is alleged in the workplace, the complainant needs to be advised that they can make a complaint to the Police. 

Should the conduct involve a minor, it may constitute 'reportable conduct' - which is required to be reported in accordance with the relevant state legislation, as well as to the Police. 

SO, is it flirting - or harassment?

Many interpersonal interactions between employees are, particularly in their early stages, subtler and more ambiguous than clear examples of harassment. Smiles, winks, compliments, sexual innuendo and humour, suggestive glances, or even a touch on the arm or shoulder could be seen by some as innocent flirting - but perceived by others as harassment. Recipients of such behaviour may wonder whether these comments and behaviours are friendly or sinister in nature, intentional or accidental, a one-time event or likely to persist. 

When determining whether behaviour might be sexual harassment, it can be made clearer by answering some important questions, such as: 

  • Does the recipient seem uncomfortable or fail to respond to comments or discussions?
  • Is one person involved in the conversation in a position of authority?
  • Could the person making the overtures impose real professional consequences on the recipient if they were turned down?

the role of touching in sexual harassment

It is clear that engaging in unwanted touching is an even more serious offence than making offensive or inappropriate comments or suggestions. For this reason, many employers consider it prudent to ban physical contact in the workplace beyond simple handshakes. Of course, this can also have an impact on how friendly the workplace is perceived as being, so depending on your workplace, it may be more appropriate to closely monitor physical interaction rather than ban it outright. Generally speaking, however, those in positions of power such as managers or supervisors should avoid physical contact where possible. 

the role of power and status

Interestingly, studies have revealed that some men in positions of power find their roles inextricably linked to sex - meaning that they struggle to differentiate between women (or other men, if that lines up with their sexual orientation) who are sexually responsive, or who are simply being friendly. For many reasons, not least to protect a business against potential claims of harassment, employers must do their best to minimise the potential for any inappropriate conduct to occur between managers and supervisors and staff. 

So what should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure that they are safe and protected while at work. Employers must have clear policies in place on what types of behaviour are considered to be sexual harassment, and how complaints can be made. Policies should be well communicated to all staff, and staff should be educated on what is expected of them regarding behaviour in the workplace. 

In order to protect your business and staff against flirting going too far and turning into sexual harassment, contact WISE Workplace today for expert assistance with workplace investigations, anti-sexual harassment training and assistance with reviewing or drafting your policies.  

Workplace Party Pitfalls and Perils (A Christmas Story)

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 15, 2017

At a time when workers increasingly work remotely, communicate online or use hot desks, the annual staff Christmas party is a valuable opportunity to get everyone interacting face to face. 

A Christmas party is also a good way of getting staff who rarely see one another during the working week to meet, to reward staff for hard work, to celebrate the success of the past year, and to motivate employees for the year ahead. 

At the same time, it is essential that reasonable steps are taken to manage the risk to the organisation's reputation, to provide an environment free from discrimination and to protect the health and safety of all involved in the Christmas party. 

Small wonder then that there is a fine line between potentially permitting a situation to get out of hand, and being so risk averse that you kill the fun of the party altogether. 

Here's a quick guide for employees and employers on how to avoid the potential perils of the work Christmas party.

when is a party classed as a workplace event?

First, in order for a business to be legally liable for events that occur at a Christmas party, it must be considered a 'workplace event'. However, this can extend beyond something which is specifically labelled an 'end of year function' or 'Christmas party', and can include something as informal as a picnic or a sporting activity - or even an unplanned and spontaneous event like an after party. 

The factors that determine whether something is defined as a workplace event include:

  • Whether the employer sponsored or funded the event.
  • If the employer was involved in organising the event or issued invitations.
  • Whether attendance was voluntary or whether the employer expected attendance - for example, by requiring employees who did not attend to take annual leave or work instead. 
  • If employees consider it a 'perk' of employment to attend the event.
  • Whether the employer benefitted from the event, for example by having the opportunity to present awards or network with clients.  

SO HOW CAN THINGS GO WRONG?

Some notable mishaps from past Christmas parties include: 

  • The dismissal of an employee for haranguing and then pushing a fully clothed co-worker into a swimming pool. That decision was upheld by the Fair Work Commission, despite noting that the employer should not have provided virtually unlimited alcohol. Another factor was that the employee was asked to leave by the general manager, but refused to do so, engaging in a physical altercation with him. 
  • An employee urinating off a balcony on Darling Harbour onto dining patrons below was sacked for misconduct. 
  • A formal warning was given to a police officer who used a genital piercing to open beer bottles during a party. 
  • Another employee lost his job after faking his wife's illness to miss his own Christmas party - only to attend that of a competitor.   

how employees can have fun and stay out of trouble

There are a few important things employees should be aware of: 

  • What happens at the party will almost certainly not stay at the party. Quite apart from water-cooler gossip and the potential repercussions of people remembering what you said or did after that fifth glass of wine, there's also potential for humiliating photographs or embarrassing posts to be shared on social media. 
  • Employees should set and stick to limits. Good working relationships can be quickly destroyed, and respect lost, through foolish or careless behaviour by those who have over-imbibed. 
  • Once your reputation has been damaged, it can be incredibly difficult to repair it. Remember that you will need to see your colleagues and any other guests again - if not on Monday, certainly after the Christmas break. 

Instead of overdoing the alcohol, use the party as an opportunity to network with other people in your organisation whom you may not know as well. The Christmas party should be an opportunity to have fun and form more personal connections, with a view to improving your overall work life.

WHAT EMPLOYERS MUST DO

In order to minimise any potential pitfalls from the Christmas party, employers need to know a few key things:

  • If a function is deemed to be a workplace event, then the employer owes a duty of care to employees. This includes being held vicariously responsible for any injuries, discrimination, harassment, or potentially for anything the employees do wrong, such as breakages. 
  • Service of alcohol is the responsibility of the employer. Although employees should feel free to have a good time without undue restrictions, it is up to the employer to ensure that nobody is excessively intoxicated. Some employers may also wish to provide alternative transport home, such as Cabcharge vouchers. 
  • Employers should make it clear exactly when the function starts and finishes. Setting a specific end time for the festivities assists with limiting the employer's duty of care to a finite window, after which point anything that happens at a different venue could be considered to be 'off the clock'. 
  • Employees should be reminded that, even though the event may not be held at the workplace, the usual rules of conduct apply. This includes reminding employees of the company's sexual harassment, bullying and anti-discrimination policies. 
  • Remind employees to be culturally sensitive, especially noting that not all people celebrate Christmas, and ensure that any gifts sanctioned at the workplace event, such as Secret Santa, are not inappropriate or offensive. 

How to deal with any misconduct 

If something does go wrong at the Christmas party, it is important for employers to deal with potential misconduct swiftly and fairly in order to minimise any fallout. WISE Workplace can assist with a professional and unbiased workplace investigation. 

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. 

'I Was Sent to Coventry' and Other Social Bullying Techniques

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

When we think of bullying, the clichés of schoolyard taunts might spring to mind. Yet as we learn more about the wide-ranging techniques of bullying, it is clear that this deeply complex phenomenon can be hard to pin down. 

For example, being ignored, or made an outcast in any situation - 'sent to Coventry' - can be highly distressing. This insidious brand of social bullying unfortunately arises in many workplaces, causing pain and anxiety for victims.

what is bullying? 

Bullying can be physical (including hitting or even destroying property), verbal, cyber (such as bullying on social media), and social. 

A person being 'Sent to Coventry' is a form of social bullying. 

So what do we mean by a person being 'Sent to Coventry'? Historically the phrase appears during the English Civil War when prisoners would be sent to the eponymous North-Western City for punishment, and experienced isolating treatment by locals. But how does this tend to manifest as workplace bullying? 

Picture this: on the surface, the workplace looks pleasant. There is occasional chatter and people seem content. But look closer - on Friday lunch excursions, one person appears to be ignored by the others as they leave. In meetings this person's colleagues seem to ignore their ideas, or quietly mock them when they have the courage to speak. They have also mysteriously been kept off the roster except for a few skeleton shifts... and so on. 

These are classic moves of ostracism as a weapon for workplace bullying. Left unmonitored, such behaviour can lead to severe stress and mental health problems for the outcast employee. 

The worker might originally have committed a 'sin' in the eyes of co-workers - perhaps told management about colleagues misconduct, or appears to be given special treatment. On some level, one or more workers have judged this as being unforgivable, leading to a long and toxic period of unrelenting silence, mockery and isolation.

bullying women, bullying men

What are the gender differences when it comes to social bullying? Unfortunately, this more covert behaviour seems to be a particular feature of female-to-female bullying

The phrase 'deafening silence' sums up the effect of this form of workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately placed on the outside of a work group dynamic by one or more of their colleagues. 

The mechanisms are often subtle, and certainly challenging for management and workplace investigators to detect or prove. Yet by their very nature, stealthy and outwardly ambiguous bullying tactics in the form of ostracism and freezing-out can be painful and injurious for the victims of such attacks.

Men can also engage in subtle forms of social bullying, but are more likely to add overt actions as they bully a fellow worker. Particularly where rank or divisions enable such bullying, male offenders might sabotage the atmosphere and opportunities for targeted colleagues, later escalating to overt physical and verbal abuse. 

pulling rank - the hierarchical workplace

In the armed forces, emergency services and police, there is an opportunity for those in particular positions to 'close ranks' as a form of workplace bullying. For the victims of such behaviour, equipment can mysteriously go missing and vital operational information can 'somehow' bypass the bullied person. Aggressive taunts are also more likely in rank-based organisations.

questioning what is true

Most 'quiet' forms of workplace bullying seem to evaporate when management or a workplace investigator shows up. Also, consummate 'Coventry' bullies will sometimes alternate their attacks with neutral or even pleasant exchanges with the bullied worker. 

The victim is left on the back foot, unsure of what is real or imagined and often quickly becoming susceptible to both functional and mental decline as a result. Such 'gas lighting' attacks often cause the most long-term harm to a worker. 

Investigators must be vigilant in exploring alleged workplace bullying of this type. Common mistakes in the field can be when those investigating warm to often-extroverted perpetrators; bullies are masters of manipulation and can at times seem charming.

Conversely, the worker claiming bullying might appear nervy and unclear in their communication - perhaps even a little 'odd' compared to other workers. Rather than using this as a basis for dismissing the allegations, the history and behaviours behind all interviews must be carefully collated and compared with utmost objectivity. Indeed, the unusual presentation of a worker might in fact indicate a reaction to the effects of a covert system of workplace bullying.

Gathering evidence from multiple witnesses will often assist in identifying if there have been any patterns of behaviour from the perpetrators. 

When it comes to claims that a worker has been 'Sent to Coventry' and subjected to social workplace bullying, it is important to approach the ensuing workplace investigation with care. 

WISE Workplace is happy to assist you with any queries you might have regarding the right way to investigate any alleged workplace bullying incident. We offer unbiased, professional investigation services, carried out by a qualified and experienced team.

Grooming, or an Error in Judgment?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 18, 2017

No employer likes to think that one of their staff members might deal inappropriately with a client, or even could possibly commit a criminal act. But all employers need to be aware of the potential for professional boundaries to be crossed in these ways. This is particularly important for organisations that work directly with vulnerable members of society, including children, the elderly, and the disabled 

We take a look at when certain behaviours might be deemed to be significant errors of judgment, or in the worst-case scenario, grooming.

The definitions 

In NSW, the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 sets out the requirements for people who work with children. It defines misconduct involving children to include the action of 'grooming'. 

Similarly, Section 25A (1) of the Ombudsman Act 1974 (NSW) considers 'reportable conduct' to include: 

  • Any sexual offence or misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child, including child pornography. Grooming, sexually explicit comments and other overtly sexual behaviour, as well as crossing professional boundaries are included in the definition of sexual misconduct. 
  • Any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child.
  • Any behaviour, which causes psychological harm to a child, even if the child agreed to that behaviour. 

In NSW, the offence of grooming is set out in Section 66EB of the Crimes Act 1900. It is defined as behaviour by an adult who exposes a child to indecent material or provides a child with an intoxicating substance with the intention of making it easier to procure the child for unlawful sexual activity. 

A child is defined as being under the age of 16, however the maximum penalty for the offence of grooming is higher (up to 12 years), if the child is under 14. This is very similar to the definition contained in the Commonwealth Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Act 2010

By contrast, in Victoria the Crimes Amendment (Grooming) Act 2014 defines grooming as 'predatory conduct' engaged in to prepare a child for participation in sexual activity at a later time. What is relevant in Victoria is the intention in the interaction. 

For example, even if nothing sexual is ever explicitly discussed or implied, shown or raised, the conduct can still be considered 'grooming' if the person befriends a child or their parent with the intended, hidden purpose of later pursuing sexual activity. 

grooming children - examples of common behaviours

Specific instances of grooming are likely to differ depending on the circumstances, but examples could include:

  • Creating a belief in a child or group of children that they are in a special relationship with the 'groomer', whether by participating in particularly adult conversation or providing 'special' gifts or activities. 
  • Permitting testing of boundaries, such as engaging in adult or inappropriate behaviours, including jokes, sexual displays or nudity in front of a child. 
  • Establishing an inappropriate relationship outside of work, including inappropriate or excessive text, email or social media contact, or developing unnecessary and close friendships with family members. 
  • Targeting children who are particularly vulnerable due to disability, history of trauma or previous emotional, physical or sexual abuse.  

a case in point

A recent decision of the Victorian County Court highlights some of the difficulties in determining whether behaviour constitutes grooming, or simply a person creating a bond because they want to help out a vulnerable child. 

In this case, reported by The Age, a troubled student was mentored by a teacher in his mid-20's There was never any sexual contact between them, but the teacher provided numerous gifts and engaged in regular excursions with the pre-teen boy, eventually turning into 'sleepovers'.

The accounts of the boy suggest that the sleepovers included physical contact and sexual discussion, which was completely denied by the teacher. Although the teacher was ultimately acquitted of charges, his life and livelihood were destroyed.  

gROOMING THE ELDERLY - FINANCIAL ABUSE

Another, less well-known example of grooming involves a specific type of behaviour, by carers or medical staff, towards elderly patients. These actions are designed to foster unnaturally close relationships between the caregiver and the client, with the intention of obtaining financial gain. This could occur through:

  • Traditional theft, such as taking money or items from a client's room.
  • Misusing financial information, such as PIN numbers or cheque books, to take out unauthorised funds. 
  • In extreme cases, procuring powers of attorney, or ensuring inclusion into wills in order to obtain a significant portion or the entirety of a financial estate. 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GROOMING AND AN ERROR IN JUDGMENT

A finding that behaviour constitutes grooming, as opposed to a simple error of judgment, is likely to depend on the intention and the degree of the wrongdoing. Circumstances, which could contribute towards a finding of grooming include:

  • Whether an action is a 'once off' or a repeated pattern. For example, one ill-considered movie outing between a teacher and a student, or a series of meetings outside school hours. 
  • Whether there is any ulterior motive, particularly a sexual one, or if a decision was simply made rashly.
  • Whether the person in a position of authority intentionally pursued or sought out a relationship with the vulnerable person. 
  • Whether there may be a reasonable alternative explanation for the behaviour.
  • Whether there was a request/coercion for the vulnerable person to keep any aspect of the relationship secret.
  • Whether there was repeated conduct despite previous warnings from supervisors/managers. 

why codes of conduct are important

If your organisation works with vulnerable persons such as children, specific Codes of Conduct, which set out the professional boundaries expected between staff and clients, and the consequences for any breach of these, can be very useful. 

If you require assistance drafting a Code of Conduct, which meets all of your organisation's needs, or have received a complaint that professional boundaries may have been crossed in your workplace and need to undertake a workplace investigation, contact WISE Workplace. We offer full or supported investigation services and can also assist with investigation training, awareness training.

Professional Distance and Social Media

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Maintaining professional distance in the workplace can be challenging at the best of times. There is a very fine line between managing interpersonal relationships, ensuring that colleagues and co-workers get along with each other, and developing such close relationships that potential conflicts of interest or social problems arise. 

This juggle has become even more difficult with the advent of social media, which can blur that fine line, and complicate relationships in a whole new range of ways.

Types of social media platforms   

Social media has evolved from the early networks, like MySpace or MSN to a whole range of different platforms. There are now professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, image-sharing sites such as Instagram or Snapchat (where images self-destruct after a certain time) and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Whatsapp etc. for social interaction. 

positive use of social media in the workplace

As with any other tool, there are some positive uses for social media in the workplace. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, can be a helpful way to connect with likeminded professionals, or introduce co-workers to other people whose interests may be professionally aligned. 

Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook allow businesses to share news or promote themselves, or permit staff members in different geographical locations to stay in touch. Indeed, many large companies use personalised social media tools such as Yammer to enable staff throughout the organisation to communicate internally. 

when is social media use inappropriate?

Unfortunately, social media can also be misused in the workplace context. In many situations, it is not colleagues being 'friends' on social media that is the main issue, but rather the dissemination of too much information, inappropriate content or the sharing of information with an inappropriate audience. 

It is easy to over-share on social media, forget who the information is potentially accessible to, and the fact that it is often permanent once it is shared. 

Types of inappropriate social media use may include:

  • Posting negative or offensive comments about co-workers, employers, or the workplace (especially if the person posting the comments does not consider who their contacts and potential readers include)
  • Sharing excessively personal information, either about themselves, or other people, which removes professionalism or an ability to maintain a professional distance from co-workers. 
  • Posting comments which could potentially negatively affect the reputation of the employer or co-workers
  • Sharing confidential information concerning clients, co-workers and pending or current contracts/agreements
  • Creating circumstances whereby colleagues may start to dislike each other. For example, it is likely to be completely irrelevant to a working relationship whether a colleague supports the current Prime Minister, or has a particular religious affiliation, but sharing polarising views on social media could cause work relationships to fracture. 

Walking the line

The most significant misuse of social media in the workplace arises from the potential for the professional lines to be blurred - including where inappropriately close, possibly sexual or romantic relationships form. This is especially important in situations where there is a power imbalance - for example, between a manager and a staff member, a teacher and a student, or a treating doctor or psychologist and their patient. 

In these circumstances, it is likely best to avoid a social media 'friendship' completely, in order to ensure that the appropriate professional distance is maintained.

why workplaces need social media guidelines

Employers should have clear policies in place which set out the rules and obligations for employees interacting with colleagues or mentioning the workplace on social media, and the consequences for a breach of the policy. 

A coherent and well-communicated policy can prevent or limit the fallout from many of the issues associated with a failure to maintain professional distance. 

If you are seeking advice on implementing a social media policy, or you require a workplace investigation into a potential conflict of interest or inappropriate relationship or misuse of social media, we can help. WISE Workplace offers both full and supported investigations. You can also find out more about the issues involved in maintaining professional distance here.  

Codes of Conduct and Different Professions

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A Code of Conduct sets out the 'golden rules' or guidelines in which employers and industry bodies codify acceptable standards of behaviour in the workplace. 

Individual businesses can develop their own Codes of Conduct applicable to their specific interests. Many professional bodies also implement standardised Codes of Conduct covering behaviour which is perceived as being a particular risk within that type of industry. 

Why is a code of conduct important?   

A Code of Conduct provides employees with clear parameters for what is appropriate and inappropriate at work. 

The precise content of a Code of Conduct depends on the nature of the industry or business to which it applies. For example, the legal industry imposes strict requirements on confidentiality and integrity, which may be unnecessary in other industries. 

One important aspect of a Code of Conduct is ensuring specific guidelines are in place regarding professional distance and potential conflicts of interest that may arise, whether actual or perceived. 

Acceptable behaviour under these guidelines is likely to differ significantly depending on what is appropriate within a certain profession. For example, while a general practitioner or a physical therapist needs to have physical contact with their clients and patients in order to perform their duties, there is a completely different expectation on teachers, where specific types of physical contact can be inappropriate, in breach of the Code of Conduct or can even constitute reportable conduct. 

The Code of Conduct should also address complaints handling and the specific disciplinary response for conflicts of interest and other breaches of the Code.

dealing with vulnerable persons and a 'special class' of clients

In addition to avoiding the more obviously inappropriate behaviours such as perceived sexual or excessive physical contact, professional Codes of Conduct have regard to the type of clients or customers their adherents are likely to encounter. 

In the spheres of nursing, teaching, social work and psychology, practitioners will almost inevitably deal with vulnerable people. Indeed, the nature of the work and the clients' vulnerabilities may mean that they form inappropriate attachments or relationships with professional staff. Guidelines for dealing with these types of situations, including appropriate reporting requirements and the potential for independent observers to be used, are necessary parts of the Code of Conduct for these professions. 

In a similar vein, aged care, legal or financial service providers must ensure that there cannot be any misconception of inappropriate behaviour constituting potential financial abuse or conflict of interest, such as putting undue and improper pressure on a client to make a financial bequest or confer a financial advantage.

Abuse of power

Explicit Codes of Conduct governing conflicts of interest and biased behaviour are vital in professions that are open to abuse of power. For example, there is considerable potential for corruption, fraud and conflicts of interest to arise in the case of staff employed in Local Government or in procurement, public servants and police officers. 

a case in point

David Luke Cottrell and NSW Police [2017] NSWIRComm1030 is a recent example of a breach of a Code of Conduct by a police officer, which ultimately resulted in his dismissal. Constable Cottrell was dismissed from his position after he received payments for tipping off a local tow truck driver about the location of motor vehicle accidents. In essence, Constable Cottrell was passing on confidential information and in doing so, directly created a conflict of interest for himself, and also provided an unfair commercial advantage to the tow truck operator. 

Given that by the very nature of their work, police officers ought to be paragons of moral behaviour, this arrangement clearly breached appropriate professional ethics. This was notwithstanding the police officer's argument in response to his dismissal that he was trying to be 'effective' by clearing accident sites and did not realise that the leaked information was controversial. 

Ultimately, it was held that he had breached the appropriate Code of Conduct by failing to meet the expected high standards of behaviour of a police officer, and did not appreciate the gravity of his misconduct, failed to protect the confidentiality of information and did not carry out his duties impartially.

Determining whether a breach has occurred

Conflicts of interest and inappropriate behaviour can occur inadvertently, and are not always a result of intentional wrongdoing. For this reason, it's important that Codes of Conduct are effectively communicated to staff, and that the penalties for breaches of the code are clearly defined. 

If you suspect that one of your employees may have breached an applicable Code of Conduct, it will become necessary for you to conduct a workplace investigation. WISE Workplace can provide full or supported investigation services to assist you in determining whether any breaches have occurred. 

To find out more about professional distance and conflicts of interest, check out our series on this topic. 

Professional Distance and Conflict of Interest at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

During the seventies and eighties, organisations started to realise that the improper use of power and authority and undeclared and/or ineffectively managed conflicts of interest, posed a significant risk to their integrity and public trust. 

The requirement for ethical business dealings focuses the spotlight on conflicts of interests and the factors involved in creating the perception of conflicts of interest in the workplace. 

It can be difficult to maintain a suitable professional distance with colleagues, subordinates and suppliers, particularly if a significant friendships have been formed outside the workplace. There is an increased risk when managers, employees and co-workers communicate on social media. Employers must also be vigilant about the risks of inappropriate levels of professional distance with clients or colleagues, especially in circumstances where such behaviour may lead to, or can be perceived as, grooming of vulnerable persons. 

When it comes to conflicts of interest, it is best to completely avoid any behaviour, which may result in the creation of a real or perceived conflict of interest. For this reason, many professions address this specifically in their Codes of Conduct or may draft specific conflict of interest policies, which set out expected and appropriate standards of behaviour. 

In our planned six-part series we'll unpack the key elements of professional distance and conflict of interest, from maintaining professional boundaries to determining the difference between a lapse of judgement and grooming. 

breaching professional boundaries   

According to Dr. Anna Corbo Crehan, from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, questions of professional distance occur when two or more people involved in a professional relationship also have an additional relationship, such as one based on love, attraction, friendship or family. "So then, professional distance is the space a professional must keep between their professional relationship with another, and any other relationship they have with that person. By keeping this space, a professional can fulfil their professional and personal obligations, and be seen to do so, in a way that is impartial and/or non-exploitative in regard to the other in the relationship", she says. 

Breaching professional boundaries can also refer to the failure to manage conflicts of interest. A particularly close relationship between co-workers, especially those involving persons in a position of authority, may create the perception (whether real or imagined) of inappropriate work-related benefits or advantages being bestowed on a close associate because of the friendship. 

The most common types of conflict of interest are financial, such as where a monetary advantage is bestowed or a financial saving made, and personal, where a clear benefit is provided to the recipient such as a promotion or an opportunity for advancement or training and development. 

The best way to avoid perceived conflicts of interest is by maintaining clear professional boundaries, especially by those in a position of power, such as employers, supervisors, managers, or instructors. In extreme circumstances it may be prudent to completely avoid forming any relationships with colleagues outside of work.

codes of conduct and different professions 

Many professions abide by specific Codes of Conduct, which set out and govern acceptable standards of behaviour in their specific industry and provide comprehensive guidelines as to what is considered appropriately maintained levels of professional distance in that industry. 

For example, an inappropriate level of closeness may mean one thing in the context of a school teacher, and another thing in the context of a physical therapist. Professions such as nursing, teaching and social work need to have an additional emphasis on protecting vulnerable persons (such as children, the elderly, the disabled, of the mentally ill) from unscrupulous persons of the effects of inappropriately close relationships. 

In other professions, such as aged care or legal services, it is vital that professional distance is maintained to avoid any perception (whether actual or imagined) of financial abuse and conflicts of interest, when a client confers excessive financial benefits on the service provider. 

One recent example of a breach of an industry specific Code of Conduct involved a police officer who sold confidential information and provided accident locations to a tow truck driver, who gained a financial advantage from arriving on the scene ahead of competitors. 

On many occasions, a failure to maintain an appropriate professional distance occurs inadvertently or without any intentional wrongdoing. While it is beneficial for colleagues to develop good relationships with their co-workers, it is important for all employees to be able to maintain a perception of professional distance so that it does not appear as though they are incapable of making impartial business related decisions. 

professional distance and social media 

In the modern workplace, social media has become a virtually omnipresent phenomenon. With the advent of many different types of social media platforms, including LinkedIn and Facebook, there are many opportunities for workers to remain connected. 

Most employers recognise that social media is a platform that is both complimentary to, and additional to, other methods of communication and engagement used by them. Most employers also understand the beneficial networking functions of social media, particularly in the case of LinkedIn, however there is a far greater risk of boundaries being crossed or lines being blurred when communicating through social media. 

There can be particular difficulties in utilising social media when dealing with vulnerable people such as students, the disabled or persons with mental health issues. As a general rule, it is inappropriate for work colleagues or employers to share overly personal information or material on social media. Most workplaces have a clearly set-out social media policy. It is important that employees are made aware of its contents and application and are encouraged to use social media in a responsible, reasonable and ethical manner, in accordance with the employer's Code of Conduct. 

Broadly, if content is critical of a colleague, affects his/her reputation, is personal, hurtful, potentially embarrassing to a co-worker, or otherwise inappropriate, it could easily breach the requirements of professional distance.   

determining grooming, or an error of judgement. 

An important aspect of maintaining professional distance involves taking steps to avoid situations where it could be perceived that 'grooming' is taking place. This is essential not just in the context of children, but other people who are deemed to be vulnerable, including the elderly, those with disabilities, or those involved in situations where there is a power imbalance. 

The act of grooming is a criminal offence in many Australian states. It is a term which generally refers to deliberate and sustained contact with a vulnerable person in order to obtain their trust and prepare them to participate in the groomer's intended purpose, which may be sexually, financially or otherwise motivated. 

As a responsible employer, if somebody reports concerns about potential grooming, or you observe the possibility of such behaviour occurring, it is important that a workplace investigation is conducted to determine whether the contact is in fact grooming, or merely represents a lapse in judgement.

Dealing with a breach of boundaries 

The best litmus test when assessing appropriate levels of professional distance between managers and employees, between co-workers or between employees and clients, is whether there could, in the view of a reasonable person, be a perception of inappropriate behaviour, conflict of interest, favouritism, nepotism, or even grooming. 

If there is any possibility that such assumptions could be made, then it is likely that professional boundaries are being crossed. 

If you have doubts regarding a potential conflict of interest or breach of professional distance, then it is best to get an impartial third party to investigate. Our services include full and supported workplace investigations and training. Contact WISE Workplace today to find out how we can best be of assistance.

Considering Suspending an Employee? What Should You Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

When faced with an allegation of serious misconduct made against a worker, an organisation may seek to suspend the respondent. 

But in what situations is it appropriate to take this kind of action?

tHE LEGALITY OF SUSPENSION 

When taking the significant step of temporarily suspending an employee, an organisation must be able to demonstrate an objectively good reason for doing so. 

Once preliminary enquiries have indicated that there is prima facie evidence to support an allegation of serious misconduct, a risk assessment needs to be carried out, to determine what the risks are associated with suspending or not suspending the respondent. 

The risk assessment should include: 

  • Risks to the complainant and other workers should the respondent remain in the workplace and the potential psychological impact this may have, especially in cases of sexual harassment
  • Risks of the respondent interfering with witnesses or tampering with evidence
  • Potential impact of suspending or not suspending the respondent on the morale of the workforce and the reputation of the organisation
  • Potential impact of suspension on the respondent
  • Whether the suspension or non-suspension is in accordance with the relevant disciplinary policy. 

Generally, it is appropriate to suspend a worker if an investigation into their serious misconduct is being carried out, and their continued presence in the workplace may jeopardise the process. This could include concerns about the misconduct continuing undue influence on or harassment of witnesses, or safety and security issues.

It is important to bear in mind the distinction between 'standing down' and 'suspending' an employee.

In a 'stand down' situation, the employee has not necessarily done anything wrong but the employer cannot usefully employ them for reasons that are outside the employer's control - for example, a fruit picker who cannot continue working during a significant weather event. In those situations, the employee is not paid during the stand down period. 

However, during a suspension period, the employee remains entitled to all rights of their employment contract, except the right to attend work to undertake work duties. 

An alternative to suspension could include redeploying the employee into another area, if the conduct is not of the most serious kind and or if the employer has an alternative site or role available. 

Circumstances leading to suspension 

Suspension should only be utilised in the most serious situations, where the only appropriate next step would likely be termination of employment. 

As such, appropriate circumstances leading to a suspension of an employee generally include accusations of serious misconduct such as defined in Regulation 1.07(2) of the Fair Work Regulations 2009 (Cth)

  • Willful or deliberate behaviour by an employee that is inconsistent with the continuation of the contract of employment;
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the health or safety of a person; or
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the employer's business;
  • The employee, in the course of the employee's employment, engaging in:
            • theft;
            • fraud; or
            • assault;
  •  The employee being intoxicated at work; and
  • The employee refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable instruction that is consistent with the employee's contract of employment. 

Generally, it is appropriate for an employee to be suspended at the beginning of a workplace investigation, although the employee can be suspended during the course of the investigation if it becomes apparent that their presence is or could be interfering with the investigation.

Appropriate conduct by an employer during a suspension

During a period of suspension, an employee is generally asked to keep away from the workplace, colleagues and clients of the business. If they are on full pay then they are generally not entitled to conduct any outside of work employment without the employers consent. 

Although a suspension may be the precursor of a final dismissal once the investigation has been finalised, employees who have been suspended remain entitled to a number of rights, including:

  • Full pay during the period of the suspension
  • Regular review of the suspension period
  • An endeavour to keep the suspension as short as possible
  • A clear explanation of the reasons for the suspension and the anticipated length of the suspension
  • An explanation of the employer's expectations of the employee during the suspension period, such as requiring the employee to be available by telephone during normal business hours. 
  • An assigned contact within the human resources or management team with whom the suspended employee can liaise. 

Avoiding further legal issues

Suspending an employee from the workplace is a serious intrusion on their employment and personal rights. It is essential that employers ensure that all criteria of appropriate conduct are met, in order to avoid a situation where it may be argued that the suspension amounted to a constructive dismissal. Ensuring procedural fairness, transparency and clarity in the process will assist with this objective. 

If you require assistance with a workplace investigation where an employee has been suspended, contact us. We provide full independent and transparent investigation services, or supported investigations where we offer advice and guidance as you compete the process.