'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.

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.

Bullying in High Stress Workplaces: Can an Investigation Help?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A disproportionately high number of allegations of bullying in emergency services and other high stress environments have led to a referral to the NSW parliament for an inquiry in May 2017, looking at the policy response to bullying, harassment, and discrimination in certain emergency services. A review is also being conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission of allegations of bullying and harassment into the MFB and CFA. 

The very nature of the tasks undertaken in these workplaces understandably provokes a variety of extreme responses in both senior and lower-level staff. A combination of observed trauma, time-critical demands and associated spikes in adrenaline for individual professionals can lead to tense communication and decision-making.

It is essential that Human Resource (HR) managers take an objective approach towards all issues raised by the parties when allegations of bullying in emergency services arise. 

In many cases, a well-planned workplace investigation will mark the difference between costly repercussions and an efficient resolution of issues within these high stress environments. 

Alarming workplace reports

Incidents of workplace bullying are on rise across Australian emergency contexts. A 2017 report on emergency departments highlighted the deplorable extent of workplace bullying reported amongst emergency doctors. Shaming, verbal abuse and sexual harassment were just some of the parlous behaviours reported by 1/3 of survey participants.

Similarly, NSW has announced that the extent of workplace bullying within emergency services now requires a dedicated investigation. There are indications that the hierarchical nature of these services leads to the depersonalised treatment of personnel involved. 

Submissions for the NSW Parliament inquiry closed in July, with hearings scheduled for September - October 2017. During the inquiry, police, ambulance and fire services will each be scrutinised in relation to allegations of bullying and the troubling aftershocks that can accompany such incidents. 

Workplace bullying and hr responses

The importance of HR departments in recognising and dealing promptly with allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services cannot be overstated. 

As part of this focus, it is essential that any workplace investigation into alleged bullying be carried out in a professional and objective manner. Moreover, important decisions need to be made about an organisation's capacity to conduct an investigation that complies with the demands of procedural fairness. 

In some matters that are likely to prove particularly complex or sensitive it might be preferable to source the expertise of a trained workplace investigator. 

If HR managers can find prompt and accurate answers to these questions, any future costs of workplace disputes are likely to be mitigated. 

THE good and the bad of workplace investigations

Unfortunately, even a workplace investigation, if carried out without careful preparation and execution can be entirely unproductive - or even a costly blow to the organisation. At times, employers can underestimate their own lack of objectivity during investigations of workplace bullying. Unlike many workplace procedures, knowing the people involved can actually prove a hindrance to workplace investigations. The ability to see things in a truly fresh and clear manner is crucial to investigations; and sometimes hard to muster if preconceptions exist. 

Some employers are fortunate enough to have within their ranks staff that are fully trained in the nuances of workplace bullying allegations and the right way to conduct workplace investigations. When carried out correctly, an in-house investigation can do all that is necessary to produce a fair and accurate investigation report. 

Yet if any doubt remains about the potential bias, pre-judgement or lack of resources within the organisation, then an external workplace investigation will pay dividends. If an investigation has fatal flaws that are later picked up in official proceedings, then employers will find themselves in an unenviable position.  

investigation woes: a case in point

In a recent Federal Court matter, Justice North made a piercing analysis of the deficiencies in one organisation's methods of investigation. Victoria's Royal Women's Hospital conducted a workplace investigation into the alleged contribution made by a neonatologist to the deaths of two infants. His Honour explained that the deficiencies within the investigation report were significant. Vague allegations against the worker and the lack of specifics concerning event, time and place led to a report that was devilled by 'apparent holes' as well as 'pollution' from fraught relationships. 

The case highlights the importance of gaining true objectivity from the situation whenever a workplace investigation is undertaken.

Care at every turn

Employers understand that when allegations of workplace bullying arise it becomes essential to keep the elements of procedural fairness front-and-centre. HR and senior management must make fast and accurate decisions about how and when to activate a workplace investigation. 

Considering the disproportionately high number of allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services, it is hoped that good decisions are made around the best way to investigate these troubling situations. 

Should you or your organisation be seeking clarity on the best way to conduct a workplace investigation, please get in touch with us. 

Performance Management to Avoid Bullying Complaints

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Staff who are subject to increased employer supervision or performance management may feel that they are being personally victimised, attacked or even bullied.

It may be difficult to distinguish between reasonable performance management and bullying, especially when the worker involved is sensitive by nature, has personal stress factors, fails to acknowledge their own performance shortcomings or is emotionally reactive. This leads to an increased risk of bullying complaints when staff members are being performance managed. 

So how can employers use performance management steps to manage their staff to meet operational requirements without risking censure, criticism or complaints of workplace bullying?

When is performance management reasonable?

The following guidelines apply to reasonable performance management:

  • 'Reasonableness' should be judged objectively, rather than basing it on the worker's perception;
  • Management actions do not need to be perfect or ideal to be considered reasonable;
  • A particular course of action may still be 'reasonable action' even if all the separate steps, when seen in isolation, are not;
  • Consideration may be given to whether the management action was a significant departure from established policies or procedures, and if so, whether the departure was reasonable in the circumstances. 

To guard against the perception of bullying, employers need to ensure that they: 

  • Provide clear instructions, information and training to all employees;
  • Establish that employees are aware of and understand the business' performance and disciplinary policies and procedures;
  • Take management action that is justified and follow a process that is procedurally fair and consistent;
  • Provide timely feedback to staff when the issues arise
  • Document all performance matters and disciplinary steps clearly. 

Even though the process is designed to be cooperative and consultative, employees may still object to performance management and complain that they are being bullied, victimised or harassed.

The Commonwealth at section 789FD Fair Work Act 2009, specifically states that an employer is not bullying their staff if they engage in 'reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.'

In practice, reasonable management (as opposed to bullying) means that:

  • A course of action can be considered reasonable from an objective examination even if an individual step in the process is not.
  • Any action taken must be lawful and not 'irrational, absurd or ridiculous'
  • Management should ensure compliance with policies or procedures that are established and already in place. 

Regardless of how aggrieved the employee feels, or how they perceive their employers actions to be intended, a tribunal will consider the reasonableness of the performance management action objectively.  

WHAT IS A REASONABLE MANNER?

What is 'reasonable' is a question of fact and the test is an objective one. Whether the management action was taken in a reasonable manner will depend on the action, the facts and circumstances giving rise to the requirement for action, the way in which the action impacts upon the worker and the circumstances in which the action was implemented and any other relevant matters. 

This may include consideration of:

  • The particular circumstances of the individual involved
  • Whether anything should have prompted a simple inquiry to uncover further circumstances
  • Whether established policies or procedures were followed, and
  • Whether any investigations were carried out in a timely manner. 

The Role of the performance improvement plan (pip)

When used to its maximum potential, a PIP can: 

  • Identify areas where individual employees are under performing or failing. 
  • Provide suggested methods whereby employees can improve their performance, whether to meet minimum required competency levels or, at the other end of the spectrum, or to assist employees to excel in their roles. 
  • Provide objective evidence in circumstances where an employee's performance is substandard and it is anticipated that their employment may eventually need to be terminated;
  • Help managers and employers observe patterns in employee behaviours and performance to identify factors contributing to poor performance. 

 It is important that PIPs are drafted in accordance with the organisation's workplace behaviour management policy. 

Managers should take the time to:

  • Determine the specific root cause of the poor performance;
  • Communicate with the employee in an open, clear and practical manner;
  • Focus on the problem, not the person; and
  • Set goals in consultation with the employee so that the employee knows what the specific concerns are and how to improve their performance. 

tHE three golden rules for employers

To guard against the increased risk of performance management bullying complaints, employers seeking to implement a performance management regime must ensure that:

1. Each employee has a clear, logical, objective and easily accessible position description according to which they can be measured (and self-measure). 

2. The employer's desired improvement outcomes are objective, have been explained to the employee, and are clearly understood. 

3. The employee is provided with employer, and where appropriate, peer support, and guidance to assist them in achieving the desired performance outcomes. 

Following the three golden rules can help employers avoid unfounded claims of workplace bullying when they are improving the effectiveness of their business through performance management procedures. 

Should you require a workplace investigation to determine whether management action has been reasonable or whether it constitutes bullying, contact WISE Workplace

Is Your Complaints Procedure Effective?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Risk management is an important aspect of running a successful business: Whether this takes the form of ensuring compliance with corporate governance programs, reducing instances of workplace fraud or financial misconduct, or eliminating bullying or other forms of harassment. 

Having a strong and coherent whistleblower program in place can help protect your organisation's interests in all of these situations. 

An ineffective complaints system could in fact be preventing your employees from raising any complaints. 

So what are the hallmarks of an effective whistleblower program?

Provide confidentiality and support

An effective complaints system should enable your business to identify hotspots, respond to critical incidents and communicate confidentially with reporters. It should also provide employees with a safe and secure environment to report misconduct, enable insightful management and the ability to bring about real cultural change, and reduce corporate risk. 

Perhaps the most crucial component of a successful complaints system is that complainants are guaranteed confidentiality and employer support throughout the whole process. This is particularly important as those who are considering blowing the whistle on co-workers or supervisors may be concerned about reprisals or the potential impact on their employment. 

This is especially likely to be the case in circumstances where the reported conduct involves sexual harassment, workplace bullying or criminal behaviour, such as fraud or theft. Employees considering making a complaint should be offered the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to reduce the fear of retaliation. 

The following statistic are particularly insightful: 

  • A third  of all reports made through whistleblower programs relate to bullying and harassment
  • 67% of people experiencing bullying or harassment do not report it
  • 42% do not report it for fear of negative consequences
  • 49% of misconduct is reported by employees. 

ESTABLISH CLEAR PROCEDURES AND GUIDELINES

It is crucial that reporting systems in your workplace are clearly identified and communicated to all staff. This includes making it clear to all employees how a complaint should be made (including an anonymous complaint), to whom, and what the follow-up process will be once a complaint has been lodged. 

This information should be readily available and easily accessible. 

DON'T MAKE EMPTY PROMISES

Once a whistleblower program is in place in your business, it is important for those utilising the service to feel that their complaints are being taken seriously and will be dealt with and responded to in an appropriate fashion.  

Privacy concerns and operational strategies may mean that complainants are not privy to all aspects of any ultimate disciplinary or punitive processes imposed on those against whom complaints are sustained. It is nonetheless important to confirm with the complainant that it has been duly and independently investigated, and that it has been resolved to the business' satisfaction.

CRACK DOWN ON REPRISALS

It is equally important for your organisation to have a strong and transparent policy to deal with reprisals or victimisation of whistleblowers. In some circumstances, even if confidentially is offered, only a little bit of logic may be required to deduce who made a complaint against another staff member. This maybe particularly relevant if your business is small or if the circumstances surrounding an allegation involve only a few people with detailed knowledge of the facts. 

If anyone involved seeks to retaliate either physically, verbally or by affecting the whistleblower's employment, it is crucial for your organisation to demonstrate a swift and clear zero-tolerance response.  

IMPLEMENTING A PROGRAM CAN BE CHALLENGING

Ensuring easy communication and the ability for staff to raise complaints where necessary, benefits all employees by improving an organisation's ability to deal with risks and increasing employee satisfaction. 

However, implementing an effective whistleblower program can be difficult, particularly in a smaller business with limited resources. It can also be a complicated task to provide a program that responds quickly and is impartial. 

At WISE Workplace, we offer an independent whistleblower hotline program that is ready to take complaints 24/7, provide assessments on the urgency of complaints, and offer expert advice on the dealing with complaints. Contact us to find out more.   

The Risk of Ignoring Reports of Sexual Abuse

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The matter of  Matthew v Winslow Constructions Pty Ltd brings to light the importance of duty of care in a sexual harassment matter. The Supreme Court of Victoria has awarded an employee over $1.3 million in damages after finding that her employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment and allowing her to be subjected to extensive abuse, 

This case bares similarities to Trolan v WD Gelle Insurance and Finance Brokers notable for a number of interlinked reasons. Damage and loss caused by the sexual harassment and bullying behaviour in question led to the sizable sum of $733,723 in compensation being awarded to the plaintiff in the NSW District Court earlier this month. Triggered by a verbal complaint made by the plaintiff to a director of the company, the case was characterised by significant failures to act on the part of the employer. 

Long gone are the days when a written complaint of such behaviour is needed. The Trolan and Matthews matters both demonstrate that where such extreme behaviour is occurring in the workplace, employees don’t need to put concerns to the employer in written form in order to ‘inform’ the employer of the conduct. This thinking certainly might give pause for thought for both employers and workplace investigators – off the record chats about disturbing sexual harassment and/or bullying might well be all the notification that is required. 

Courage TO TELL 

In August 2008, Ms Matthews commenced working as a labourer with Winslow Contractors. Between August 2008 and early July 2010, Ms Matthews was subjected to a relentless assortment of unwanted and lewd sexual advances from a number of site workers, including by her foreman. The behaviour included several threats of physical and sexual assault, intimidation, and bullying. On occasions when Ms Matthews verbally complained to management, nothing appeared to be done about her complaints. In September 2009, Ms Matthews was moved to a different site crew and the behaviour stopped. However, in late June 2010 Ms Matthews was moved back to the original site and the behaviours resumed, including the threat of rape. Ms Matthews reported the matters over the telephone, on 1 July 2010, to whom she believed was the person in charge of HR. Instead of a change in the behaviours occurring, Ms Matthews was further harassed and asked to 'come round, we will have a drink and talk about it'

SILENT DAMAGE

Ms Matthews did not return to work after 1 July 2010 and was found by her doctor to have suffered a severe work-related injury, with an incapacity to work again. The essential cause of her diagnosed psychiatric illnesses, including PTSD, was the sexual harassment and bullying that she had endured over a period of time while working at Winslow Contractors. And for part of this time, it was with the full knowledge of her employer. 

LISTEN OUT

Busy employers can be tempted to argue that they can’t be everywhere at once. Although employers are certainly not blind to the potential for unacceptable behaviour, there can however be an built-in assumption that if someone has a problem in the workplace, they should go through formal channels to remedy this. Generally, this would include submitting a written complaint about the alleged conduct. Yet as seen in Matthews the burden rests largely with the employer to detect and resolve any such occurrences. That Ms Matthews had two discussions with a representative of the employer was certainly sufficient grounds to say she provided notice about the offending conduct. 

LINGERING PAIN

The consequences of such a failure to respond to sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace can be wide-reaching. Where an injury is suffered, as in Matthews, compensation is evidently payable. This will often take the form of both long-term statutory payments and sizeable common law damages. Failures to follow workplace health and safety procedures can lead to considerable penalties, compliance orders and fines. As well as requiring a substantial workplace investigation to ascertain the details of the alleged behaviour, criminal charges might ensue and/or civil action on grounds of negligence might be brought against the employer to remedy the failure to act; A complex and damaging array of legal and financial consequences indeed. 

WORDS ARE ENOUGH 

It is that failure to act that can cause so much preventable harm. At the moment when the Area Site Manager was told verbally of the conduct, the employer was officially informed and was required to act. Yet this damaging and ultimately costly chain of events was allowed to continue, causing a serious breach of the employer’s duty to protect. Employers are obliged to create a workplace free from harm. And when an employee has the courage and strength to report the offending behaviour, employers must both listen and respond. Written notes, formal documents or approved forms need not be furnished in circumstances such as those faced by Ms Matthews. Her verbal revelation of the disturbing situation in which she found herself sufficed to put the employer on notice. 

ACT EARLY 

The lesson from Matthews? Don’t brush breaches of workplace health and safety such as sexual harassment and bullying under the carpet. A bill of $1.3 Million for a failure to act is much more than loose change. If an employee says that these behaviours are occurring, or if it is observed, don’t wait for written confirmation. Act early with appropriate modes of discussion and/or investigation. In this way, an organisation can stay strong, productive and safe for all.

For information on how WISE Workplace can assist to develop your business's ability to respond to complaints of seriousness misconduct, call 1300 580 685 or visit our website

Bullying: I've Been Talking to HR but Nothing's Happening

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, May 24, 2017

If you have been the victim of bullying, the HR department in your organisation is generally the first port of call for raising your concerns. 

It can be mentally or emotionally challenging to make a complaint to HR. You may feel exposed or vulnerable because you are concerned that your complaint may not be believed, or that the person about whom you have made a complaint has been told that you have "dobbed" on them.

Depending on the nature of your complaint, or the relationship of the HR personnel with the person or people about whom the complaint has been made, you may have concerns that a workplace investigation will not be conducted thoroughly or your grievance not taken seriously. In any event, your working life can become very uncertain after you have made a complaint to HR. 

Taking a company issue to the HR team can also be a lengthy process, and it may feel like nothing is happening as time ticks by. But it's important to remember that much of the HR investigation will be taking place without you being directly aware of it. 

Here is a brief look at how the process works.

THE FIRST STEP

After you have aired your grievance, it's important to try and remain focused and perform your job to the best of your ability. If you feel you are unable to do so, it may be best to take a few days off work on sick leave until you feel stronger, and better able to approach your tasks or face your co-workers.    

THE COMPLAINT PROCESS 

There are certain steps which a diligent HR team must follow once a complaint has been brought to their attention. Initially, the complaint must be assessed. 

Next, the HR department will meet with relevant senior staff, who must make a decision as to what the appropriate follow-up actions will be.

Depending on the severity of the alleged behaviour, this may involve HR having a quiet word to the other person or the initiation of formal disciplinary proceedings. The latter is more likely to be the case if the person being complained about is already being performance-managed in relation to prior issues. 

Be aware that it may well take HR a week or even longer to finalise the preliminary investigation process, and make and communicate a decision on the best way forward. 

Privacy obligations to the other employees involved may also mean that you are not entitled to know the full details of what further action will be taken.

WHAT CAN HR TELL YOU?

At a minimum, HR is required to advise you of: 

  • The fact that it has received your complaint, is taking it seriously and is conducting appropriate levels of investigation. 
  • What Employee Assistance Programs are available. 
  • Who the liaison person for these programs is (if your organisation has one) and how to contact them. 

WHAT IF THERE IS A FORMAL WORKPLACE INVESTIGATION? 

For serious complaints, your company may engage the services of a third party workplace investigator. 

If this occurs, then you are entitled to: 

  • Be one of the first people interviewed if a detailed investigation is commenced. 
  • Receive a copy of your interview transcript or detailed statement, which you should sign if you agree that it is an accurate record of what you told HR

If your complaint is sufficiently serious, then the respondent facing your allegations will be advised of the exact complaints against them. Although they are also likely to be interviewed, you are not entitled to a copy of their transcript or statement. If you are concerned about any bias, however, be aware that their interview will be recorded.

Once these steps have been finalised, the investigator will draft a report for the review and consideration of the HR department. That report (hopefully completed within a timeframe of less than three weeks) will then be provided to the relevant decision-makers within your organisation for a final determination. 

You will generally be advised that the investigation has been completed, what the findings are, and of any further action steps as they concern you. But in most cases, you will not be specifically advised of any punishment to be meted out to the respondent. 

BE PREPARED FOR WORKPLACE CHANGES

If your complaint is serious, you may be asked to move or transfer offices or departments. This is not a punishment, but is designed to ensure that your wellbeing is protected, generally by reducing the likelihood of any contact occurring between you and the respondent. 

Try not to respond by being offended or otherwise feeling indignant. All businesses, regardless of their size, have legal obligations to all employees. Your employer cannot simply fire workers who have issues with other employees, and other considerations may mean that the respondent cannot be moved. Bear in mind that your organisation is simply trying to find the best outcome for all concerned. 

If you are nervous about making a complaint or otherwise wish to obtain guidance on how whistleblowers should be dealt with, contact WISE Workplace today for detailed assistance with all aspects of the workplace investigation process.  

Child Sexual Exploitation & Trafficking Conference Insights

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A wrap-up of the Children, Justice and Communication Conference at Portsmouth University, May 2017.  Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Children, Justice and Communication Conference at Portsmouth in the UK.  The conference is hosted by some of the world’s leading academics and practitioners working in the areas of child sexual exploitation, trafficking, child abuse, incest and more.  

Opened by Professor Ray Bull, the conference featured the work of Professor Becky Milne, Dr Julie Cherryman, Dr Lucy Akehurst and Professor Penny Cooper to name but a few. 

The audience, mostly police officers from the UK, represent those forward-thinking agencies and officers who want to make a change for the good and tackle some of the most challenging crimes. The number of police officers with higher research degrees is particularly impressive, and is having a massive impact on the quality of policing not only in Britain, but around the world.

Tackling challenging issues across the globe

Some of the issues covered on the first day included the conundrum of obtaining evidence from teenagers who have been exploited and trafficked but consider their actions to be consensual and complicit in the activities. How do we empower these individuals to become witnesses rather than to take on the persona of victim? 


Dr Brian Chappel, a senior police intelligence expert, spoke of the use of juveniles as critical intelligence sources necessary to infiltrate youth gangs. Interestingly, his research showed that the 10 informants who participated in his study were themselves free from any police intervention up to a year later. 


Dr Shaleve-Greene addressed the issues for agencies in handling or identifying the 10,000 unaccompanied migrant minors that go missing across Europe every year. This was another statistic to get my head around – this number reflects only those we know about who are missing and vulnerable to traffickers and exploitation. There are also tremendous challenges to local safeguarding children boards, such as the one operating in Kent on the south coast of Britain. 


Dr Sue Gower spoke about the services and educational needs of their staff when they take on responsibility for the children from their own county, a similar number from neighbouring counties, and then double the number to account for the unaccompanied immigrant minors arriving from Europe. 

How intermediaries are working successfully overseas

Professor Penny Cooper hosted a panel of experts who presented on a range of issues connected to the use of intermediaries who support and assist children and vulnerable adults to communicate with police, and courts. 


The NSW Department of Justice is currently trialling the use of intermediaries, so it was great to hear the many ingenious and fantastic ways these experts have of working with children to help them communicate. Convictions have been secured with the use of evidence from children as young as three-years-old. These presentations also addressed the increasingly common needs of children with autism spectrum disorder. 


As practitioners, it’s so important to stick our heads above the partition wall and have a look at the fantastic work going on around the world. 


WISE Workplace offers consulting and investigation services to assist and support workplaces in conducting fair and efficient investigations and developing comprehensive complaints processes.

Contact one of our offices to talk to an advisor about a free consultation.

So You've Been Accused of Bullying - What Now?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The issue of workplace bullying is much more openly discussed these days, and most employees are aware that they can make a formal complaint to their employers and have the matter investigated – with appropriate resolution to follow.

But what happens if you are not the victim, but instead have been accused of being the bully?

HOW TO DEAL WITH AN OVERWHELMING EXPERIENCE

Being accused of bullying is never pleasant. It can create a number of confusing feelings, including concerns about your job security, a sense of lost control over your workplace and working experience, and frustration or even anger towards your accuser.

This can particularly be the case if you dispute that the alleged behaviour occurred or took place as claimed, and feel that you have been wrongly accused.

In some circumstances, those accused of workplace bullying may even develop feelings of depression or anxiety.

But there are strategies which you can employ to stay focused and keep your emotions under control while the investigation process is underway.

These include:

  • Remembering that the accusation is only an allegation and does not mean that anything has or will be proven against you.

  • Understanding that there is an investigation process which needs to be followed to ensure fairness is afforded to both parties. Your organisation will need to investigate the allegations and talk to staff before they get your side of the story.

  • Avoiding interfering in the investigation, as this will risk a finding of bias and will only extend the process.

YOUR RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

As the alleged perpetrator of the workplace bullying, you are entitled to be advised of what the allegations made against you are, although you cannot be provided with a copy of the initial letter of complaint.

This is to ensure that the complainant maintains some privacy and avoids potential further harassment. Once you have been advised of the complaint and the details of the allegation, it is a good idea to make a written record of your version of events.

You have the right to participate in an interview and, if you take up this right, it is important to calmly address the facts and provide a rational, not emotional, response to the allegations.

You are also entitled to request that you have a support person to sit in on interviews and provide you with moral support throughout the investigation process.

The key thing to remember is that you have the right to an unbiased investigation. If you genuinely believe that the investigator or somebody with the power to make the final determination is prejudiced against you or otherwise has a conflict of interest, you should set out your concerns, preferably in writing, and request that another person becomes involved in the process.

If you continue to feel that the process is tainted by bias, you can contact the Fair Work Commission's Help Line or obtain independent legal or consulting advice to ensure that your rights are protected.

By the same token, you should avoid discussing the complaint at all with co-workers or decision-makers, and certainly should not engage in discussions with the complainant under any circumstances. Any attempt to do so may be perceived as an attempt to influence witnesses or otherwise interfere with the investigation.

REMEMBER THAT THE INVESTIGATION CAN TAKE TIME

It's important to be aware that the workplace investigation process can be lengthy, and more serious allegations of bullying might take six or more weeks to investigate. Factors such as the victim (or you) going on stress leave or annual leave can also affect the timeframe of the investigation.

Although it is certainly justifiable to feel stressed, and you should seek support if you feel unwell, going on medical leave in response to the complaint will only prolong the investigation. Your health is likely to be better served in the long-term by assisting in the process, enabling a quicker resolution.

Being accused of workplace bullying and the subsequent investigation process can be an upsetting experience. If your organisations needs assistance in how to respond to bullying allegations to ensure procedural fairness for all parties, we can provide you with advice on the investigation process. Feel free to contact us here.