What Should You Include in a Whistleblower Policy?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Whistleblower protections have been top of mind for many Australian organisations recently, following a number of changes to the law. 

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistle-Blower Protections) Bill 2017 is due to come into effect from July 2019.

This will result in significant changes to the way whistleblowers are to be treated under a raft of existing legislation, including the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), the Banking Act 1959 (Cth) and the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (Cth).

One of the key changes is the need for organisations to have policies in place around whistleblower procedures and protections. 

So what are some of the key changes to the law, and what should your whistleblower policy include? 

the key changes to the law

A number of changes will take effect under the new legislation, including: 

  • The expansion of the definition of 'whistleblowers' to include relatives, dependants, their spouses, former employees and former associates.
  • Excluding personal work-related grievances from conduct that is otherwise deemed to be reportable.
  • Enhancing protections for whistleblowers. This includes increased anonymity, more significant penalties for revealing identities of whistleblowers and facilitating the ability for whistleblowers to seek compensation or redress in situations where they have been victimised. 
  • Limiting the persons in a business who are entitled to receive disclosures, but permitting externalisation of whistleblowing to the media and/or parliamentarians in circumstances where the disclosure may be a matter of public interest or emergency. 
  • Requiring public and large proprietary companies (defined as companies with consolidated revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees) to have a detailed and compliant whistleblower policy in place. 

defining conduct to be reported

The intention of the legislation is to protect people who: 

  • Report misconduct or 'an improper state of affairs or circumstances' in situations where the whistleblower has reasonable grounds to suspect that the misconduct has occurred. This is generally expected to cover 'unethical' conduct. 
  • Believe an offence has been committed under legislation whose supervision comes under the purview of the watchdogs APRA or ASIC.
  • Report behaviours which 'represent a danger to the public or financial system' or otherwise relate to a civil or criminal offence which could result in imprisonment for a period of at least one year. 

explaining the process

In the event that a staff member wishes to make a disclosure, it is essential that it is only made to the appropriate category of person. Internally, this includes officers of the company, a person authorised by the company to receive 'protected disclosures' (such as an HR representative) or a senior manager of the whistleblower, who is an employee of the company. Companies can facilitate disclosure by implementing a mechanism for staff members to report online or over the phone. 

External disclosures can be made to ASIC/APRA, auditors or actuaries reviewing the company, lawyers or journalists or parliamentarians where public interest would be met by making the disclosure.

Whistleblowers are entitled to retain anonymity. However, the information does not need to remain confidential, as long as it can be demonstrated that:

  • The information requires investigation.
  • Reasonable steps have been taken to maintain the anonymity of the whistleblower in conducting such an investigation. 

protections for whistleblowers

The new legislation sets out a number of strengthened protections for whistleblowers.

  • Immunity against civil, criminal, administrative or disciplinary action.
  • An inability to enforce contractual remedies against a party making the disclosure.
  • An inability to admit information provided by a whistleblower into evidence in proceedings against them (unless those proceedings are pursued because of the falsity of the information). 
  • Protection against victimising conduct (such as dismissal, demotion, discrimination or similar).
  • Increased anonymity protection through strict liability criminal offences for revealing identities of whistleblowers
  • Significant monetary penalties applicable to person(s) who reveal the identities. 

What to include in a whistleblower policy?

Organisations who are required to have a whistleblower policy must ensure that it covers off key points, including: 

  • What protections the employee can expect to receive.
  • Details on how those protections will work in practice.
  • Specific information on how a disclosure can be made.
  • Details on how disclosures will be investigated.
  • How the policy will be transparently implemented. 

The policy should be communicated to all staff, from the CEO down. It should be made available where all staff members can easily access it, for example posted on an intranet. 

It is clear that the content and nature of a whistleblower policy are key to appropriately implementing the legislation. To assist our clients in understanding the looming changes and preparing, we have published a white paper, which is available on our website for free download.

We also provide our industry-leading Grapevine Confidential Whistleblower Hotline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Grapevine provides employees with the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to trusted and experienced operators.

How to Deal with an Uncooperative Respondent

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 29, 2019

When conducting investigations in the workplace, senior staff and human resource managers often have to deal with uncooperative respondents. 

Understandably, this can significantly hamper the progress of the investigation. 

WHat is an uncooperative respondent

There are many ways in which the smooth running of an investigation can be negatively affected by an uncooperative respondent. This can arise when: 

  • A respondent refuses to answer questions put to them, meaning that the investigator cannot create a coherent picture of the events or the respondent's perspective.
  • A respondent is no longer employed by the company. This may make it challenging  to even get in touch with the respondent, let alone encourage them to participate in an investigative process.
  • The respondent is out of the workplace on a form of leave (sick leave, stress leave, workers' compensation) that would in some circumstances mean that they are either not medically capable of, or not medically cleared for participation in the investigation process.
  • A respondent intentionally holds up the investigative process. For example, by frequent and consistent rescheduling of meetings, failing to attend work on days when interview sessions have been set up, or otherwise failing to engage in necessary parts of the process. 

what if there is an impact on others involved in the investigation?

It is particularly frustrating to have to deal with a recalcitrant or difficult respondent when other parties to the investigation are adversely affected as a consequence. 

For example, some respondents may seek to intimidate other witnesses with a view to discourage them from participating in the investigative process. 

When dealing with this type of situation, investigators should encourage witnesses to participate in the process by confirming that their involvement remains confidential, and by redacting sensitive information such as names or identifying details when providing documents to the respondent. 

Further, witnesses should be advised that their involvement in the investigative process cannot and will not have any adverse impact on their employment. 

can an investigation occur without the respondent's involvement? 

When faced with a situation where a respondent is failing to cooperate, an investigator can proceed without their involvement in certain circumstances. 

Crucially, it is important that an investigator is able to demonstrate that the investigation proceeded in accordance with all requirements of procedural fairness. 

In particular, this means that there must be a document trail confirming all the efforts that have been made to engage with the recalcitrant respondent. There must also be evidence that attempts have been made to explain to the respondent that their non-involvement may impact but will not stop the investigation process. 

The intention here is to be able to demonstrate to a court, tribunal or other third-party reviewer that the investigator took all reasonable steps to include the respondent and their point of view in the investigation. 

No presumptions or assumptions can be made about the evidence used to determine the substantiation of allegations, if a respondent does not participate in the investigation process. 

how can a respondent be encouraged to participate?

Although some respondents simply will not cooperate, investigators should provide a raft of different options to encourage respondents to meaningfully engage in the process.  

These options include:

  • Encouraging respondents to provide written responses to a series of questions. This is likely to work best for the respondents who are nervous about incriminating themselves during interviews, or otherwise concerned about the investigative process itself. 
  • Reassuring respondents that, despite the allegations facing them, they are entitled to both confidentiality and the assurance of procedural fairness. This may alleviate the concerns of some respondents who feel that they may not be offered a fair right of response. 
  • Reminding a respondent of the entitlement to have a support person present during an interview if required. 
  • Reassuring a respondent that there is an opportunity to provide comment, feedback, additional information and/or evidence on any findings if considered necessary for clarification. 
  • In certain circumstances, it may be best to advise respondents that external investigators have been engaged to facilitate the investigative process. This is likely to be most appropriate in situations where the allegations are particularly serious, or where there is some concern that an internal investigative process may not be completed objectively. For example, if the other parties involved in the investigation are in senior positions or are close to the investigators.  

For more detailed information on conducting interviews, you can purchase a copy of our book, Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators. If you're conducting a workplace investigation and need assistance, contact WISE Workplace today. 

Can Employers Investigate if Complainants Ask Them Not To?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

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

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

why a complainant might be reluctant

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

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

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

is a complainant allowed to withdraw a complaint? 

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

employer obligations to investigate

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

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

The dangers of a rigid policy structure

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

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

Sharing Information After a Workplace Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 08, 2019

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

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

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

Providing confidence in the outcome

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

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

keeping affected parties informed

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

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

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

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

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

Communicating across the organisation

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

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

implementing change post workplace investigation 

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

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

The Right Mix: Professionalism, Impartiality and Empathy

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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

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

the need for professionalism

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

Professionalism requires investigators to:

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

staying impartial in workplace investigations

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

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

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

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

the value of empathy

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

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

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

maintaining the balancing act

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

When to Use an External Investigator

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Using in-house resources to sort out organisational problems certainly makes a lot of sense. HR departments tend to be well equipped to receive and manage internal complaints, facilitating solutions as they go. 

But while sourcing external assistance can seem unnecessary, there are certain serious workplace situations where calling in specialist investigative expertise will be the preferable solution.  

Internal or external: making the decision

When an event in the workplace requires investigation, questions arise that require timely answers. One of these will be - who should carry out the investigative process? Less impactful events such as personal differences, disputes or general rumours might naturally fall to an internal workplace investigator. After all, they will have inside knowledge of the culture and dynamics that possibly led to these ripples and allegations. 

Yet when alleged events are more serious in nature and/or the scope of the problem is potentially vast, engaging the expertise of a specialist external workplace investigator can not only relieve the internal workload. It can also mean the difference between smooth resolution of a workplace situation - or the unfortunate escalation of a matter into the costly adversarial realm. The more serious the allegation, the more important it can be to secure professional advice.    

workplace investigations - pitfalls to avoid

Whether internal or external, workplace investigators work hard to carry out investigations fairly and efficiently. In a well-run investigation, all involved will be treated in a professional and objective manner, with no overt bias towards one party or another. 

Yet unfortunately perceived bias can be just as damaging to the final collated report. One pitfall with using an internal investigator is that a perception might arise that one party was favoured over another, due to position, workplace friendship, or longevity within the organisation - just as examples. 

Similarly, if an internal workplace investigation is rushed or not provided with sufficient resources, outcomes can be similarly tarnished. It can be tempting to keep things in-house in order to save money. Yet in the long run, the overall quality of the investigative report can be tarnished, leading to the high likelihood of expensive actions by the aggrieved party.  

the expert investigator 

A further consideration when deciding whether to engage an internal or external investigator is the level of expertise. Invariably, internal investigators have other tasks and roles that take up their time in organisations. 

This is not the case for external workplace investigators. As trained professionals they have the in-depth specialist experience and up-to-date knowledge that is necessary for a fair and impartial investigation. For example, maintaining confidentiality within and across the workplace is a challenging task. An external investigator has the ability to coordinate the process in such a way as to preserve the integrity and confidentiality of all discussions.

The investigator's capability is particularly important when it comes to both the finality and reliability of the investigative report. Should an appeal of the decision eventuate, commissions, tribunals and courts will expect to see a level of thoroughness and objective detail that demonstrates adherence to the principles of procedural fairness throughout. 

In the 2017 matter of Anthony King v The Trustee for Bartlett Family Trust T/A Concept Wire Industries [2017], the Fair Work Commission certainly made it clear that imperfect investigations will be viewed dimly, stating: 'some investigation reports seen by the Commission in this jurisdiction fail to get to the heart of such a situation and rarely undertake a true balancing of the evidence seen by them'. 

Support and expertise

Yet it need not be a black-and-white choice between an internal or external workplace investigator. It is possible to access a supported investigation service. In this framework, the organisation gains assistance from an expert regarding the more complex aspects of the process, while carrying out other tasks internally. 

WISE Workplace is able to offer both full and supported investigation services. If you are concerned about making an error or a lack of knowledge in conducting your own investigation, or would like to train your staff in conducting workplace investigations, contact WISE today.  

Signed Statements vs Affidavits in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 06, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is important that supporting evidence is collected in order to ensure that any decisions can be backed up, particularly in the event of legal proceedings.

We examine the merits of recording evidence in a signed statement versus an affidavit.

WHAt is a signed statement?  

The nature of a signed statement is fairly self-explanatory: this is a document where somebody records information they wish to present.

Unlike an affidavit, it does not necessarily need to be witnessed. If a witness is required, any adult can sign.

Statements are much less rigid documents than affidavits. As such, there are no requirements around the content or the format and the rules of evidence do not apply.

What is an affidavit?

In contrast, an affidavit is a legally recognised document which is considered to be 'sworn' evidence. If the deponent (the person providing the affidavit) does not wish to swear on a Bible or other religious text, an affidavit can be 'affirmed' in a secular fashion.

The signature on an affidavit must be witnessed, and that witness must be authorised to take affidavits. This is usually a qualified Justice of the Peace, or a solicitor or barrister.

Affidavits should only contain statements of fact rather than opinion, and information which the deponent is able to confirm of their own knowledge. For example, a deponent cannot say "I know that Billy swore at Jessica because Cynthia told me".  

The value of statement evidence vs affidavit evidence

Generally, a court or tribunal will make an order or direction as to whether a written statement is sufficient or affidavit evidence is required.

A written statement is usually enough in less serious circumstances. Written statements provide a helpful guide for a court or tribunal to determine what has occurred. But they are informative rather than being considered reliable evidence. This is because there are effectively no penalties for dishonesty in a written statement. If the statement is signed, however, you can challenge the credibility of the witness who gives evidence inconsistent with the contents of their signed statement. 

In contrast, an affidavit is a written version of verbal evidence. This means that providing false evidence in an affidavit is to all intent and purposes lying under oath, which could result in perjury charges being laid.

Should professional assistance be enlisted?

Writing affidavits can be a complicated process, and there is a risk that a court will refuse to allow some or all of the evidence contained in  an incorrectly drafted one. As noted, the consequences of giving false evidence in an affidavit are potentially very serious, and it is essential that anybody who has been asked to provide affidavit evidence is fully aware of the ramifications.

While there are resources that can help in drafting affidavits, professional assistance may be required, particularly if the investigation could potentially result in litigation or police intervention.

At WISE, our experienced team can assist you in conducting an unbiased and rigorous workplace investigation, including advising on whether witness statements will be sufficient or affidavit evidence will likely be required.

Why Counter Allegations Must Be Investigated

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

In the usual course of workplace investigations, it is often one person's word against another's. This is particularly the case when a serious allegation such as sexual misconduct has been made, and there are unlikely to be any witnesses to the event. 

When a serious allegation has been made, often the 'accused' then makes their own claims against the accuser, resulting in cross and counter-allegations.

the difficulty this causes for investigators

Occasionally, counter allegations are made immediately after the investigation is made known to the respondent, and this can make it more difficult for even the most experienced investigator to determine the true course of events leading up to that point. Counter-allegations also sometimes surface once an investigation is already in progress, making it harder for investigators to discern whether they are legitimate or simply made with the objective of revenge. 

The most important thing is that each allegation should be investigated independently. 

the danger of not investigating counter complaints 

A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission demonstrates the importance of ensuring that all allegations are thoroughly and independently investigated, regardless of the circumstances in which they are made. 

In the decision of Watts v Ramsay Health Care it was determined that an employer's failure to investigate complaints of bullying was in itself a form of bullying. 

In these circumstances, Ms Watts repeatedly advised her employer that she was feeling harassed and bullied by her peers, including her co-workers making accusations of Ms Watts smoking cigarettes past her allocated break, smelling of alcohol and failing to perform her duties adequately. 

Ms Watts raised those concerns in the context of a formal investigation by her employers into her own conduct. 

However, her employers failed to investigate Ms Watts' counter complaints on the basis that there was insufficient information and evidence to support Ms Watts' allegations, against a background where she did not name the offenders. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined the failure to investigate the bullying investigations was an inappropriate and unreasonable management decision, and a breach of the employer's own discrimination, bullying and harassment policy.

what are the key lessons?

Perhaps the most important aspect of undertaking fair workplace investigations is ensuring that internal policies are followed, in particular focusing on:

  • Determining and implementing the threshold requirement for commencing an investigation, for instance requiring a formal written complaint before management action can be taken;
  • Being flexible in interpreting the information provided and not imposing arbitrary minimum standards, for instance requiring direct evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Taking into account the context surrounding the making of the allegations. 

 Employers and management should also ensure that they do not make early judgments or allow themselves to be biased in the context in which the allegations are made. In the case of Ms Watts, for example, her employers appear to have judged her allegations on the basis that they were made during the course of her own performance management process. 

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, or formal qualifications such as Certificate IV and Diploma in Government Investigations.

Putting the 'Reasonable Person' to the Test

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

When determining what led to a certain set of events or making an important decision, it is essential for investigators and decision makers to have regard to an objective standard. 

In trying to get to the bottom of a situation or establishing an appropriate course of action, relying on the 'reasonable person' ensures that a broader perspective is taken. 

We look at exactly what this involves and how it can assist in achieving a fair and balanced outcome.  

What is the reasonable person test?

In Australian law, the reasonable person has been characterised as "the man on the Bondi tram" - an average member of society, who has various generalised attributes including risk aversion, sound judgment and a sense of self-preservation, which prevents them from walking blindly into danger. 

This reasonable person standard can be used to put a situation in context and to ensure that the decision maker does not rely on his own, perhaps limited or skewed, perspective. 

In a workplace investigation, taking the reasonable person test into account will assist an investigator in determining whether a respondent's conduct is reasonable or appropriate in the specific circumstances, and whether the complainant is being reasonable in their response or in feeling affronted or aggrieved.

a practical application of the test

One circumstance in which the reasonable person test was applied was in the Fair Work Commission's judgment in CFMEU v MSS Strategic Medical Pty Ltd; MSS Security Pty Ltd. In that case, the worker objected to the discipline imposed on her in relation to a number of performance issues, including: 

  • Breaching safety procedures by climbing on top of a water tank.
  • Slamming a refrigerator door.
  • Unsafely removing a splinter.
  • Not going home when she was unwell at work.
  • Acting inappropriately during an emergency response debrief.
  • Proving an incorrect response in relation to an eye treatment test.
  • Removing statistical information without authority and lying about it.
  • Being disrespectful to a colleague.  

Applying the reasonable person test, Commissioner Gregory found that the issues complained of were trivial, not worthy of discipline, and most importantly a reasonable person would not have responded with the same level of discipline in the same circumstances.

WHAT can we learn from this?

The reasonable person test has significant utility in the workplace context and it is important to remember that its application differs depending on the circumstances. 

For example, the response of a 'reasonable person' in a Chief Surgeon's position to any given situation is likely to differ substantially to that of an Assistant in Nursing. The question is: What would a reasonable Chief Surgeon in those circumstances have done? 

Similarly, higher standards of reasonable behaviour must necessarily be applied to those in more senior roles or with greater levels of responsibility. 

obtaining assistance with investigations 

When allegations of misconduct arise, the possibilities for distress to workers are extensive. 

If you are conducting an investigation, are unsure of what standard to apply, and are hoping to avoid a costly mistake, contact WISE today. We can conduct a full investigation or alternatively support your organisation in the investigation process.    

Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 07, 2018

When conducting investigations or otherwise making determinations in the workplace, it is essential to avoid bias, whether conscious or unconscious. It is equally important to avoid a situation where co-workers believe decisions made in the workplace are biased - whether real or perceived.

What is unconscious bias? 

Unconscious bias may take a number of different forms, including:

  • Preferring or tending to support people who are similar to us (for example, people who attended the same high school, or who share the same ethnic background or sexual preference)
  • 'The beer test', also known as the 'in group' versus the 'out group' - having a bias in favour of people you would enjoy spending time with yourself.
  • The halo effect - where a specific characteristic or attribute of a person dominates impressions formed about that person. For example, if somebody is physically attractive this may increase their inherent like-ability, without merit. 
  • Confirmation bias - effectively, making judgements which support existing, previously held beliefs. 

For investigators, objectivity and drawing reasonable and unbiased conclusions is an essential component of a fair investigation. This doesn't alter the fact that everybody has unconscious biases. In order to remain neutral, investigators should take careful stock of what those biases may be for them specifically and ensure that they do not allow bias to influence their analysis of a party's credibility or their ultimate conclusions.

the effects of bias 

From an investigator's perspective, a failure to be objective may mean that they have subconsciously drawn premature conclusions about the outcome of the investigation. 

A common example involves a situation where a senior executive has been accused of serious wrongdoing, and the investigator understands that the removal or significant disciplining of the executive is likely to result in immediate negative effects for the business. 

Against that background, the investigator may be more likely to conduct the investigation in such a way that it justifies a decision which has already been made - namely that the executive will not be terminated or otherwise harshly disciplined. 

It is incumbent on impartial investigators to seek to uncover all facts that will help them determine the credibility of the parties involved, and assist in reaching a fair conclusion. It is equally important for investigators to remember that all evidence (however unpalatable) uncovered during an investigation must be taken into account in making a final determination, regardless of whether the information supports or contradicts the allegations. 

what is best practice?

Forming an inherent bias is a completely natural human response. It is important to ensure, however, that it does not lead or alter the outcome of an investigation. To this end, strategies for preventing inherent bias include:

  • Scheduling 'interrupters' - these are regular pauses in the process which are designed to force a decision-maker to step back and take an overview of how they have progressed with the investigation, as well as consciously consider whether they are being influenced by bias or not. 
  • Ensuring that the investigator's approach is as transparent as possible, and ideally an investigator should not be required to investigate people with whom they have ties. 

what can employers do?

Employers need to facilitate open and honest communication about the potential of bias affecting a decision-making process. This includes ensuring that all staff who are likely to conduct investigations or make sensitive decisions are aware of the potential impacts of bias, and take steps to avoid it. 

Another important stratagem is to ensure that investigators are not required to conduct investigations involving those with whom they have a prior relationship, to avoid any perception of bias. 

Investigations are an important tool for companies dealing with breaches of policy misconduct. If an employee views a process as fair and unbiased they will be more likely to report concerns. If you think there is an issue in your workplace and are concerned about potential or perceived bias, WISE can conduct independent and unbiased investigations. Contact us today for an obligation-free cost estimate.