Sacked on Leave: Procedural Fairness and Unfair Dismissal

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The rules around when staff can be terminated while they are on leave can be a source of consternation for management and human resources professionals. 

The consequences of getting it wrong are demonstrated in the recent Fair Work Commission decision of Tuan Nguyen v Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies Pty Ltd [2020] FWC 79 (30 January 2020). 

In this case, the employer was ordered to pay compensation to an employee deemed to have been unfairly terminated. 

The Facts of the matter

Mr Nguyen was a business manager for Adelaide Fencing and Steel Supplies who was dismissed from his employment following allegations of fraud and dishonesty associated with the supply of products to a customer. 

Following his termination, he lodged an application for unfair dismissal, arguing that the seriousness of the allegations levelled against him were not supported by the available evidence. 

Although the Commission found that there was legitimate cause for concern about Mr Nguyen’s reckless conduct, and he had been validly terminated, it was ultimately held that due process had not been followed in effecting the termination. 

This was because Mr Nguyen was found not to have been given prior warning or a “genuine opportunity” to deal with the serious substance of the allegations, particularly given as Mr Nguyen was on extended sick leave at the time of the termination. 

Accordingly, the dismissal was found to have been harsh, unreasonable and unfair, with the Commission ordering compensation in the sum of $10,000. 

key lessons employers can learn

Employers should take note of a few key principles which underpinned the decision in Nguyen, namely:

  • The Commission expects employers to provide a “fair go all round”. In practice, this means that decisions in relation to employment status cannot be made arbitrarily. Instead, they must take into account a balanced, practical and common sense method to ensure that both the employer and the employee are treated fairly. Notably, this includes an opportunity to respond to allegations made against the employee by the business.
  • Procedural fairness is king. Although it is certainly understandable that employers wish to exit staff who are underperforming or otherwise breaching workplace practices or even the law as expeditiously as possible, there is no excuse to “rush” the process, at the cost of following due process. This means providing employees with clearly articulated warnings, notice of the reasons for dismissal, ensuring a legitimate and practical opportunity has been given for them to respond, and permitting the employee to have a support person of their choosing attend any interviews. 
  • In addition, objectivity is crucial. When making decisions as to ongoing employment, it is essential that the results of any investigation can stand up to objective standards of evidence, and will not be undermined by allegations of subjectivity or bias. 
  • Take your time. Unless there are urgent reasons to immediately terminate employees (such as serious criminal activity), there is no benefit in terminating too quickly. This is especially the case when employees are on sick leave, as in most cases the Commission will determine that due process has not been followed in dealing with those staff. 
  • Engage in performance management early. Although there may be a concern that a documented performance management process will further alienate an unhappy or recalcitrant employee, engaging in this process at appropriate times and in a correct fashion will bolster any ultimate termination, should this become necessary. It also affords the employer a reasonable management defence when challenged. 
In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will prioritise “a fair go all round” and not hesitate to find in favour of an applicant (notwithstanding that they may have engaged in legitimate misconduct) if procedural fairness is not followed. To ensure procedural fairness when dealing with misconduct, contact WISE for resources, expert advice and independent, unbiased investigation services.


How to Navigate Counter Allegations in Investigations

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Friday, February 14, 2020

It is not unusual when investigating allegations such as sexual harassment, bullying or theft for the person accused of the misconduct to make a counter allegation.

This in turn can generate further counter allegations, making it difficult for investigators to keep track of a growing litany of wrongdoings!

Steering through the sea of counter allegations means handling each complaint separately, being mindful of procedural fairness and adhering to the civil standard of proof. 

Divide ALLEGATIONS into separate incidents

It is important not to conflate cause and effect when it comes to counter allegations. If the allegation is that person A slapped person B, who, according to A, retaliated by stealing A’s smartphone, these two allegations must be investigated separately.

It may be that that person B had nothing to do with the smartphone’s disappearance, or the slap never happened. 

By looking at them as two unrelated incidents, investigators will not ‘miss’ important evidence, such as A accidentally leaving their phone in a meeting room.

keep procedural fairness top of mind 

The smartphone theft/disappearance may only come up when B is being investigated for the alleged slap. The alleged wrongdoer makes the counter claim in an interview that was up to that point unknown.

In effect, this means there are two allegations under investigation. Depending on the circumstances, this new information may require the interview to be suspended while further inquiries are made by the investigator. 

While it may be tempting to view the counter allegation as 'tit for tat' failing to investigate this new complaint could be viewed by a court or tribunal as a denial of procedural fairness by the employer.

Many unfair dismissal claims are successful because the employer in question failed to afford procedural fairness to the alleged wrongdoer.

The civil standard of proof

While investigating allegations and counter allegations, compartmentalising each alleged incident, its timings and events ensures impartiality and clarity.

This means taking care with unwitnessed and testimonial evidence (hearsay). Vivid descriptions of events may sometimes be compelling yet have no bearing on actual events. Finding an impartial witness to an event can short-circuit this problem, but it can be difficult. Just because person C saw B running from the bathroom crying does not mean the cause was a slap from A. 

Investigators should apply the civil standard of proof when assessing evidence. This means that for an allegation to be substantiated, the evidence must establish that it is more probable than not that the incident occurred.

The strength of evidence necessary to establish an allegation on the balance of probabilities may vary according to the: 

  • Relevance of the evidence to the allegations. 
  • Seriousness of the allegations.
  • Inherent probability of an event occurring.
  • Gravity of the consequences flowing from a finding.
  • The likelihood that the required standard of proof will be obtained.

Employers and management must at all times remain unbiased. Just because a counter allegation is made during an investigation does not mean it lacks substance. It may be that the counter allegation carries more weight and is of a more serious nature than the initial claim.

It can be challenging for investigators when presented with counter allegations. If you want to ensure that you are undertaking investigations effectively, WISE provides a range of skills-based short courses for investigators, as well as formal qualifications such as Certificate IV and Diploma in Government Investigations.



Managing Misconduct over the Holidays

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 18, 2019

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

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

When are employees still 'at work'?

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

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

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

defining misconduct in the workplace

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

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

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

why is there a prevalence of misconduct over the holidays?

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

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

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

mitigating the risk of misconduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio Recording or Written Statements?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, November 07, 2019

Appropriately recording evidence is a crucial part of workplace investigations.

For investigators, this can cause a significant dilemma as to whether it is preferable to rely on written statements, or obtain audio recordings of interviews conducted during the investigation.

Here are a few of the main considerations for each method.

Audio recordings 

An audio recording is effectively a verbatim record of everything that is said during the interview process. It may be particularly useful to conduct audio recordings during initial witness or party interviews, so that these can be transcribed and used to confirm the evidence which has been gathered.

It is essential that all parties are made aware that interviews will be recorded. This should also assist in setting expectations that nothing said during the interview can be considered "off the record".

Significant advantages of audio recordings include:

  • Simplicity. It is easier for the investigator to conduct an interview without having to take contemporaneous notes. The practice of taking notes can be disruptive to the interview process, breaking both the interviewer's and the interviewee's concentration and the "flow" of the conversation.
  • Creation of an accurate record. Written statements may be considered to be ambiguous or open to interpretation - however an audio recording is fairly difficult to refute.
  • Reinforcing significance of the process. If an audio recording is produced, involved parties can be left in no doubt that an investigation is being taken seriously.
  • Flexibility. If it is difficult to arrange for a party to be interviewed in person, modern technology means that interviews can be recorded by telephone or video. This introduces greater flexibility into the recording process.
It is important to remember however, that it can be easier to contest what is recorded in a transcript, rather than in a written statement which the interviewee has been asked to sign.

written statements

By contrast, a written statement is a document which is produced as a summary of the contents of the interview. Generally, it is produced after the interview, based on notes taken by the interviewer or an offsider. 

Although it is extremely unlikely that every word said or every implied nuance during the interview will be recorded in a written statement, a key advantage of this type of evidence gathering is that witnesses will have the opportunity to review their written statement. The interviewed party can then sign the statement, or refute the contents.

In order to be effective, the statement should be produced as soon as possible after the interview has concluded, while it is still fresh in everybody's memory.

procedural requirements for interviews 

When determining whether an interview should be supported by a written statement or an audio recording, it is important to bear in mind that certain organisations or agencies have policy and/or procedural requirements preferring one method of evidence collection over the other. Further, in the event that a witness prefers not to have the interview recorded, an investigator cannot rely on this method.

The interviewer should give thought both to the personality of the interviewee, and the subject matter of the interview, when determining the best method. If it is intended that the interview proceed on a casual or somewhat informal basis, relying on a recording is likely to be considered overkill.

Audio recording is also reliant on technology functioning properly. In the event that a recording device malfunctions or does not record properly, there is a risk that the interview will not have been recorded at all. This could mean that the entire process needs to occur again - or alternatively, that there is no evidence supporting the interviewing process.

THe importance of flexibility in investigations

Unless company policy dictates one method of evidence collection over the other, this is always a decision that should be made based on individual circumstances.

As is generally the case in workplace investigations, there is never a "one size fits all" approach that can be utilised on every occasion. Investigators must be prepared to make an assessment on which method of evidence collection is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

WISE investigators have extensive experience in conducting investigative interviews and collecting evidence, whether by audio recording or written statement. If you require established procedures to be followed or would like flexibility during the investigation process, WISE offers investigation services to assist. Additionally, if your organisation is seeking advice and training on interview techniques, WISE offers short courses and resources to upskill your staff.

Police Involvement in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On occasion, police will become involved and/or need to be involved in the allegations from a workplace matter. In this situation, it's important for employers to know what their obligations are, and to be aware of some of the challenges that can arise. 

So, let's take a look at when police are or may need to be called in and what should happen once they are. 

WHAT matters require the police? 

Generally speaking, any allegation of a serious or potentially criminal nature necessitates the involvement of police. This includes allegations of physical assault, sexual assault, stalking, child abuse, significant fraud or theft. 

In the event that a complaint could have criminal implications, it is always a good idea to get the police involved as soon as possible. This helps ensure that any police investigation is not hampered by destroyed evidence, ongoing delays or similar interference. 

the employer's obligations

If police have become involved in a workplace matter, the police investigation takes precedence over the internal one. 

However, while the police investigation does take priority, an employer must still carry out an internal investigation. This is to afford the employee who is the subject of the investigation due process and procedural fairness. 

The internal investigation and a police investigation must both be treated entirely separately, but run in tandem. The internal investigation must be managed without impeding the police investigation. It is essential for the employer to communicate closely with police and provide assistance wherever required.

It is also important for an employer to remember that one of their paramount obligations is to provide a safe working environment for staff. This means that if there have been serious allegations such as physical or sexual abuse, the complainant and respondent must be separated in the workplace. Generally, staff against whom allegations have been made should be suspended on full pay, pending the outcome of the police investigation. 

the challenges involved 

It is likely that the police investigation will require the use of resources that would otherwise be engaged in conducting the internal investigation. For this reason, it can be difficult to actively investigate a workplace matter internally while the police are undertaking their own investigation. 

It can also be difficult for employers to balance the need to assist police with their legal obligations to their employees.

a case in point

This balancing act is demonstrated in the matter of Wong v Taitung Australia Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 7982. In this matter, Mr Wong, an employee who was accused of theft, named several other employees allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise. 

Police suggested that the employer not take disciplinary action in relation to the employees, in order to obtain and preserve the evidence against them. This meant that the employer permitted Mr Wong to continue working with no warnings, despite having sufficient evidence to conduct a summary dismissal.

The police were unable to obtain sufficient evidence to charge him, however he was ultimately terminated. However, the Fair Work Commission found that the summary dismissal of Mr Wong was unjust in the circumstances. 

The added factor of police involvement while undertaking internal workplace investigations presents unique challenges for employers. The balancing of police intervention into serious criminal allegations, with the strict employment principles and procedures, is both challenging and essential to ensure employers' actions are reasonable. WISE provides external investigation services as well as training in conducting investigations necessary to manage the workplace-police dynamic. 

How to Move Forward After a Workplace Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A workplace investigation can be a traumatic and emotional event for everyone involved. 

Let's take a look at how an organisation can move forward after a workplace investigation, regardless of whether the complaint has upheld or if any disciplinary action has been taken. 

WHAT happens when an investigation is concluded? 

After the investigative process has finished it is important for all parties involved to be updated on the outcome. This includes the complainant, the accused and potentially in some circumstances, witnesses who have been heavily involved in the process. It is important that the parties are kept in the loop and do not find out from each other or another source, that the investigation has concluded. 

Any concerns arising out of the investigative process and findings which are raised by the parties, should also be dealt with. This may include questions of how confidentiality is to be maintained; details of how any disciplinary action will be implemented and work in practice; concerns about how the parties are to continue to work together (if possible); and how an organisation will be able to support all of the parties affected by the investigation findings and outcomes. 

Once these concerns have been identified and addressed to the best of management's abilities, the outcome of the investigation should not be shared with the workplace generally. However should be communicated with the applicable parties, where appropriate to do so, that does not breach any parties confidentiality.  

Having a communication strategy will avoid rumour or conjecture.   

what are some common complications? 

It may be tempting for management not to share the outcome of an investigation with staff. This approach is usually taken in an effort to avoid breaching confidentiality or to squash gossip. 

However, poor communication generally results in a growing mistrust of management - especially if a decision is made to terminate a respondent's employment. If they are simply there one day and gone the next, this can have a negative impact on staff confidence levels. 

Communication is particularly crucial if the investigation has led to changes in the management structure. These changes could occur, for example, because there is a termination of employment in a team, or it has become apparent that the 'old' structure isn't efficient. These types of changes require extremely good communication at all times. 

Similarly, the temptation for staff to breach confidentiality and gossip is extreme after an investigation. This is especially so if the outcome is perceived as being unfair or inappropriate. In order to minimise the spread of gossip, management should ensure that as much information that is appropriate and maintains confidentiality, is distributed to the business in a timely fashion. All parties involved in the investigation, regardless of the nature of their involvement, should be reminded of their confidentiality obligations and the potential consequences of breaching them. 

Another common post-investigation outcome is the desire for retribution. This may occur regardless of what the findings were, because for example a peer may consider that a colleague has been treated unfairly. Alternatively, a colleague may form the view that the investigation has not been through or harsh enough or has come to the wrong conclusion. Regardless of the motivation, management must be cautious to avoid and identify any retribution and manage any issues that arise swiftly if this behaviour occurs. 

post-investigation strategies 

Even if an investigation has been run thoroughly and 'cleanly', it is important for post-investigation strategies to be in place to avoid potentially negative consequences. 

As noted, these strategies include excellent communication on a 'top down' basis. This is to minimise gossip and to ensure that confidence in management is restored. 

Additional strategies may include arranging mediation for the involved parties, to ensure that any concerns are voiced before an independent third party. 

The post-investigative period is also a good time for the organisation to pull together as a whole and discuss workplace values and standards. This can be an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the allegations (to the extent that they are disclosable) and to reaffirm the organisation's approach towards such behaviours.

If the alleged behaviour is particularly offensive, and strict action was taken as a result, this can also serve as a timely reminder for the organisation to reinforce and remind all staff, that code of conduct or criminal breaches are taken extremely seriously. 

Similarly, any changes in company culture or procedures that are clearly required in the wake of the investigation, can best be introduced in this timeframe. 

If you need effective resolution of workplace disputes following an investigation, WISE Workplace provides advice coupled with mediation services on how to best resolve post-investigation concerns.

How to Deal with Workplace Conflict

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 04, 2019

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

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

WHAT IS WORKPLACE conflict?

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

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

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

consequences of workplace conflict

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

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

Resolving the conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How and When to Report Workplace Bullying

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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

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

what is workplace bullying?

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

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

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

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

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

when should bullying be reported?

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

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

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

how to report workplace bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruling on Anonymous Social Posts a Warning for Employees

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

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

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

The facts of the matter

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

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

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

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

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

the findings of the high court

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

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

the wider implications of the case

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Role of the Fair Work Commission in Workplace Disputes

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 14, 2019

There is a high likelihood that every employer will have to deal with action - or at least the threat of action - involving the Fair Work Commission (FWC). 

Let's take a look at the role of the FWC, and the importance of a defensible investigation report in the event an employee lodges a claim. 

what is the fwc?

The FWC is Australia's national workplace relations tribunal. It deals with a variety of workplace matters, such as salary disputes, enforcing agreements, reviewing workplace conditions, and making decisions on terminations. 

As part of making such determinations, the FWC has the power to impose an outcome on an employer and/or an employee. For example, if a person is considered to have been unfairly dismissed, the FWC may order that their employment is reinstated, or that compensation is payable. 

However, the FWC is not a court, and as such, its decisions can be overruled by a formal court judgement.  

how is the fwc approached?

Applications to the FWC can be lodged online or by mail. Except in certain circumstances where significant financial hardship can be demonstrated, a filing fee ($73.20 at the time of writing) is payable with the application. 

If a former employee wishes to lodge an application relating to unfair dismissal, it must be received by the FWC within 21 days of the official date of the dismissal. 

What does the fwc consider?

A number of different matters can be dealt with by the FWC. However, up to 40% of all applications heard by the tribunal involve claims for unfair dismissal. Other commonly heard applications include those seeking:

  • "Stop" orders for industrial actions;
  • Approval for enterprise agreements/clarification on the terms of an enterprise agreement;
  • Variations in salary awards;
  • An order to prevent bullying in the workplace;
  • A finding as to whether a disciplinary action is reasonable. 

what is the claims process?

Although the exact process differs slightly depending on the nature of the claim, the FWC may elect to: 

  • Recommend informal dispute resolution;
  • Proceed to a hearing of all interested parties;
  • Require written submissions by way of evidence;
  • Provide directions on dealing with the matter;
  • Make binding decisions. 

It is essential to the FWC process, that all matters are dealt with impartially and as swiftly as reasonably possible. 

the importance of a defensible investigation report

The involvement of the FWC generally means that, at some point, an employer will be required to provide evidence. Often, the best evidence available will be a properly completed investigation report. 

The existence of a robust investigation report may prevent a claimant from pursuing an application to the FWC in the first place. The FWC is also likely to look favourably on an employer who has engaged an unbiased external investigator to prepare a detailed report. 

Perhaps most crucially, the FWC will make an assessment on whether an employer's findings and actions are defensible. This will include close examination as to whether the employer can be demonstrated to have shown procedural fairness when dealing with an investigation. 

Dealing with matters brought before the FWC can be a stressful time for employers. WISE are proud that none of our decisions have been successfully challenged in the FWC. If you are looking for assistance to navigate the complex issues of workplace investigations, contact us! Alternatively, download our ultimate toolkit, which will give you confidence in making your workplace investigations procedurally fair, cost effective and consistent.