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

- 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

- 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.  

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.

A Perplexing Problem: Protecting Children Overseas

- Thursday, April 20, 2017


Every year billions of Australian dollars are provided to fund aid projects overseas. The money is targeted to assist developing countries with education, housing, health and community projects. Naturally children are a prime target group for these aid programs.  The majority of these organisations are funded by the Australian public via donations and government funding provided to not-for-profit organisations, many of them faith based organisations.

International rules and expectations govern the protocols for handling and responding to allegations related to child protection, however, enforcing these laws is a tricky business often involving multiple jurisdictions and multiple agencies who may disagree around responsibilities and liabilities.

Policies and procedures are not enough to protect children who are by definition amongst the most vulnerable in the world.

Small operations, voluntary management and high dependency on the goodwill of front end service delivery mitigate against strong child protection regimes. Poor oversight due to long distance, remoteness and cultural differences are also key features of this problem.

Funding bodies in Australia are expected to have high quality child protection systems and policies in place to gain government funding but the challenge of enforcing or even providing adequate training in the expectations to the end providers of the service can be beyond reach.

Now that we know that we cannot unquestioningly depend on the nature of goodly people to act without harming children, what cost do we place on the need to provide secure safe environments for children receiving charitable services?

Documents provided to the Guardian relating to the level of abuse within detention centres on Nauru demonstrate the abject failure of outsourced government funded programs. How then do we expect small voluntary projects to be faring against these standards?

It is clear that policies and procedures are woefully inadequate yet how much of the donated money do we want spent on compliance when it comes to protecting children?

WISE Workplace is regularly requested to undertake investigations of allegations made against staff overseas who are working or administering charitable projects. The work requires a high level understanding of the environment, the agency, funding requirements, boards and community management structures, and the local culture and cultural background of staff and service recipients. The work remains some of the most challenging to investigate. Weak employment relationships can lead to inconclusive outcomes and an inability to enforce any restrictions on volunteers in the field.

For those organisations with managers in Australia trying to manage complaints or allegations arising from activities overseas, using the support of experienced investigators can be a godsend melding the investigative skills of experienced child protection investigators with the cultural and service delivery expertise of the coordinators working for the agency.

Our top 10 list of must do’s if you are a coordinator of a charity funded project overseas:

  1. Nominate a single contact person with responsibility for dealing with complaints related to child protection within your agency

  2. Have clearly articulated Child Protection Standards and Guidelines

  3. Have clearly articulated procedures for dealing with complaints

  4. Understand the criminal law in the country of service delivery

  5. Understand the employee relationship between the funding body and the service providers on the ground

  6. Know your legal obligations under your primary funding agency agreement

  7. Respond quickly to complaints

  8. Conduct a risk assessment and take protective action if necessary

  9. Identify a suitable contact person on the ground in the foreign country to be a liaison pain

  10. Seek specialist help when complaints are serious or complex to investigate.

WISE Workplace runs regular training programs on the principles of undertaking workplace investigations. Our facilitators have extensive experience and expertise in managing all kinds of challenging investigations including running operations overseas via Skype using local contacts. Our unique Investigating Abuse in Care course provides valuable skills in how to assess complaints, reporting obligations, drafting allegations, interviewing victims and respondents, making decisions and maintaining procedural fairness. Book now for courses in May 2017.

Bullying: What's the Role of Leadership?

- Wednesday, April 05, 2017


Workplace bullying is somewhat of a scourge in modern society. Broadly categorised by Reach Out Australia as any behaviour which is physically, mentally or socially threatening and takes place in the employment context, it can have an enormous impact on staff effectiveness, employee retention, the number and type of worker's compensation claims and, of course, employee happiness.

Legally, employers have a responsibility to ensure that all workplaces are safe for their staff, including preventing workplace bullying. So what are the key things business leaders should be doing to tackle this problem?

1. PREVENTION IS THE BEST CURE

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with workplace bullying is to try and ensure that it does not happen. As suggested by Safework Australia, workplace bullying can best be prevented by the leadership team identifying potential risk factors within the organisation for bullying.

In addition to ensuring that new staff, wherever possible, are likely to mesh with other employees and not experience personality clashes, this process should also involve regular consultation with employees as to their levels of job satisfaction and the quality of interaction with co-workers, conducting exit interviews with departing employees, obtaining regular feedback and ensuring that there are detailed incident reports recording complaints and other potential instances of workplace bullying behaviour.

Being aware of possible triggers for workplace bullying can also be an effective strategy, for example, awareness of the various leadership styles in the organisation. Ensuring adequate communication between management and employees and requesting forthright feedback on work styles and interactions can help to reduce the risk of workplace bullying significantly.

2. LISTEN TO THE ALLEGED VICTIM - AND THE ALLEGED PERPETRATOR

It is important for leaders to be empathetic and open when speaking with a claimed victim of workplace bullying. Remember that the person alleging bullying, whether this has actually taken place or not, is already harbouring strong negative feelings about the workplace, or at the very least certain people in the workplace.

A heavy-handed or suspicious approach by the employer is likely to further upset the employee and worsen the ongoing impact and consequences of the bullying. At the same time, a leader investigating a workplace bullying claim does not need to blindly accept everything put forward by the apparent victim.

Both the "bully" and the "victim" are the employer's responsibility, and both are therefore entitled to have their full version of events listened to and acted upon appropriately.

3. TAKE DETAILED CONTEMPORANEOUS NOTES 

In the worst case scenario, an employee's bullying allegations may become the subject of legal proceedings.

This means a record of conversations and interactions between senior staff and claimed victims of workplace bullying may become essential evidence. In any event, regardless of the possible outcome, it is always best practice to ensure that all conversations with management are properly recorded, not least to make sure that further claims of workplace bullying are not levelled against management!

4. ENSURE IMPARTIALITY 

Depending on the size and type of your workplace, ensuring that investigations are conducted impartially may be difficult. In certain cases, it may be more appropriate to engage external workplace investigators to review workplace bullying complaints.

However, if employers choose to keep investigations in-house, prejudgement of the ‘facts’ or a bias toward one side or the other must be avoided. Where possible, it can be helpful to task someone who doesn’t work directly with either party with the investigation.

Negotiating the many tricky aspects of investigating workplace bullying complaints can be very stressful. At Wise Workplace, we provide advanced training courses in conducting workplace investigations, to make you and your leadership team as self-sufficient as possible. Register for an upcoming course date now.

Unpacking the Concept of Reasonableness

- Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Across all Australian workplaces the phenomenon of bullying is without doubt a front-and-centre topic. And as a result, overt instances of bullying in the workplace now tend to be more readily identified than ever before. 

One challenging idea for all concerned however is this; is it possible that management action that is entirely reasonable could be misconstrued by a worker as an act of bullying? In both workers’ compensation matters and industrial relations more broadly, the linked concepts of ‘reasonable management action’ carried out in a ‘reasonable manner’ have certainly been difficult to pin down. 

We take this opportunity to explore the complex concept of reasonableness as it related specifically to management action and workplace bullying. 

Workplace bullying - the basics

When proposals arose to include bullying within Fair Work’s mandate, employers were understandably uncertain. ‘Bullying’ has a very broad and subjective interpretation among the general public; surely one person’s harmless banter could be another person’s bullying?

Yet when changes to the Fair Work Act were made and the commission explained the new initiative to stakeholders, it was clear that the definition under 789FD(1)contained certain helpful boundaries. Significantly, the unreasonable behaviour needed to be repeated and not just a one-off incident. Further, the activity needed to cause a demonstrable risk to workplace health and safety. The description of particular unacceptable behaviours – such as belittling, humiliating, spreading rumours and having unrealistic expectations – also went some way to assisting employers in the creation of sound anti-bullying mechanisms.

Reasonable management action…

Yet what about business-as-usual management? – for example when a worker needs constant reminders and oversight by management in order to fulfil their role? Could this type of standard management action actually be construed as ‘bullying’? 

The commission foresaw this potential for definitional constraints to disrupt the operational needs of many businesses. Consequently, garden-variety management action such as performance management, work monitoring, instruction, direction and disciplinary action are generally outside of the definition of bullying. These actions are simply the core of most management roles. However, the analysis doesn’t end there.

Carried out in a reasonable manner

A full understanding of the interplay between alleged bullying and reasonable management action requires that employers be aware of the crucial third element of the equation – was the reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner? This might seem like splitting definitional hairs, but it is this particular nuance that sometimes gets overlooked. Let’s take an example:

The employer receives notification of a bullying claim from the FWC, made against a manager by a worker. The action in question appears to be quite reasonable management action – let’s say a routine performance management process has been commenced. HR assisted with documentation and there was clear objective evidence of the worker’s underperformance. This was clearly – in and of itself – reasonable management action on the part of the manager.

However, what can lead to difficulties for any employer is when the management action is not carried out in a reasonable manner. If the manner is found to be oppressive, aggressive, belittling and/or with completely unrelenting expectations regarding outputs – then there is a high likelihood that a bullying claim can be substantiated. In other words, all the good work involved in reasonable management action can come undone if it is administered in a bullying manner.

Train for reasonable management action

Most employers have become adept at the creation of healthy and safe workplaces. Layout and resource issues are quickly dealt with and the corporate culture is usually a point of workplace pride. 

It pays however to ensure that the less-obvious hazards are still kept in focus. While employees might generally be monitored to prevent bullying issues, it is the manner in which managers carry on their tasks that also has ramifications for employers. 

Our consultants have over 10 years of experience in determining what is and what is not ‘reasonable management action’ so if you have a matter where you need clarification or an investigation, talk to one of our consultants for advice on 1300 580 685. 

If you think your managers could benefit from toolbox training on successful performance management, managing bullying complaints or ‘bullying, harassment and discrimination’ awareness, talk to one of our training consultants about our HR Pop-Up Professional Development initiatives and toolbox training.


Common Characteristics of Mental Illness in the Workplace

- Wednesday, July 27, 2016

We’re aware that for all business owners, the majority of days – and plenty of nights as well –  will be spent juggling multiple balls connected to customers, products, services, payroll, health and safety, suppliers, marketing… the list goes on! And even with the best systems in place, we have all experienced what can happen when one or more of those balls hits the shop floor.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of business is in fact the human element. In particular with employees coming in all shapes, sizes and personalities it is inevitable that moods and quirks such as annoyance, closing ranks, rumour-mongering, impatience, loud jokiness and virtual invisibility will be on display at various times amid your staff. But what if these ‘quirks’ represent symptoms of mental illness in particular staff, such as depression, anxiety or mood disorders? And further - how do we gauge if the presence of mental illness has any connection to a workplace bullying situation?

We provide some guidance below on how to sensitively identify some basic characteristics of mental illness in the workplace. Once you have some certainty around this development, you might also uncover meaningful connections between the illness suffered and pockets of workplace bullying.

Match Symptoms with Time

Most workplaces thrive on some version of cyclical ‘peaks and troughs’, with outputs tied to the passage of regular events. Take many retailers, conference venues, primary producers and accountancy firms as examples. For them Christmas, show-time, harvest and tax requirements can all mark moments when staff develop various excited, irritable, demanding and adrenalin-fuelled bursts of energy - plus the inevitable depressive lag in the aftermath! And in the majority of cases there is no cause for concern with the development of these very human characteristics at work.

But the time to be aware of something ‘more’ occurring for a staff member is when their mood or behaviour doesn’t match with any time-related situation that you are aware of. In a seeming lull for the business, mental illness in an employee might manifest in social withdrawal, absenteeism/ presenteeism, uncharacteristic productivity changes, personality shifts, crying or deep irritation with others. Most medical diagnoses require a period of some weeks with symptoms before a mental illness such as anxiety, depression or a mood disorder can be found. We all have bad days. But by matching time with symptom development over 1-3 weeks business owners can start to gauge if mental illness might be involved.

Monitor Sectional Changes

Another key way to detect characteristics of mental illness in the workplace is to regularly undertake a psychological ‘temperature’ test in all divisions in the company. By this we mean taking the time to gauge the general cooperation, enjoyment, productivity, communication and team cohesion that exists in each section and/or team. This crucial element of workplace health can be investigated by trained workplace professionals or – if you have the time and skills – by personally walking the floor on an ongoing basis. Keep in mind however that those experiencing or causing mental illness symptoms way be unlikely to share personal information with the boss!

Interestingly, this business-wide mental health monitoring can often reveal potential bullying cases. The cliché can exist of the depressed low-level worker crying because s/he is ‘depressed’ about work. But increasingly, unwell managers who are left unchecked and unassisted in their own mental distress can cause bullying-related damage to those around them – as well as complex injury claims. Manifestations of chronic anxiety as well as hyper/hypomania on the spectrum of bipolarity can include extraordinary energy, feelings of superiority, fast and confident speech, delusions of grandeur and savage irritability when annoyed, to name just some of the characteristics of these harsh and unforgiving mental conditions. The quietly weeping worker might indeed be suffering depression; yet so might the demanding, manic, laughing, busy, insufferable manager with the timid and miserable staff beneath her.

Making wellness your business

And we know that at the end of the day, injury caused in the work context isn’t a matter of blaming the worker who manifested mental illness. Bullying coming off the back of a mental illness that has gone unnoticed will still be a problem for business owners themselves to rectify. Whether via professional investigation or internal monitoring, take the time to carefully deduce if a worker is simply having an ‘off day’ – or if something more complex is involved. At Wise Workplace we can help you investigate possible workplace bullying, plus provide you with positive strategies for monitoring the overall mental health of your workplace.

Intent to Harm: Does it Matter in Workplace Bullying Cases?

- Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Intent to Harm: Does it Matter in Workplace Bullying Cases?

We understand that it can seem unfair when the label ‘bully’ crops up in the workplace – particularly when no harm was ever actually intended. We’re all aware of the importance of intent when we look at matters in the criminal space; without identifiable intent, any prosecution team certainly faces an uphill battle. 

However in the civil sphere where workplace law resides, intent is generally not an issue. With some understanding of the risks of running a business, the law aims to provide a relatively even-handed method for sorting out accidents, injuries and mistakes at work. Intention to cause harm tends to go on the backburner in these situations.

Various forms of harm

In the case of bullying claims, it can come as a surprise for many employers that innocent slip-ups and unpopular leadership methods on the part of management can nevertheless be construed as bullying. The recent matter of Carroll v Karingal Inc [2016] FWC 3709 (8 June 2016) demonstrates that even though no harm might be intended, the words and actions of managers and employees can certainly lead to a successful claim of bullying. 

In this matter, Commissioner Tanya Cirkovic heard numerous reports from staff about unfair process requirements, micromanagement and inappropriate comments that accompanied the appointment of the business’s audit and risk manager in 2013. His staff pointed to a manager who ‘said all the right things’ yet embarked on a process of markedly inefficient changes, unrealistic expectations for the team and troublingly racist remarks directed towards a team member.

Inappropriate behaviour and humour

Significant issues identified by Commissioner Cirkovic included the introduction of an inefficient system that resulted in double-handling and a demoralising spate of under-performance for the team. Further, inappropriate remarks and behaviour included laughing at an employee’s accent and remarking on her “Checklish” – a comment on her Czech heritage.

Crucial – avoiding micromanagement

Most significantly, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) took note of the manager’s relentless micromanagement of the employees under his supervision. Ultimately, faced with a sub-standard new system and a supervisor who both demanded compliance and monitored staff with excessive attention to detail, two staff members were able to successfully establish that workplace bullying had occurred.

A cumulative effect

Interestingly, the FWC noted that in all probability the manager had not intended to cause harm through his behaviour. His endeavours to please the employer and provide strong leadership were clear in the evidence produced. However, his seemingly innocent and even industrious intentions were irrelevant to the finding of bullying. The cumulative nature of his indiscretions was also key. 

"I am satisfied that the cumulative effect of his conduct and behaviours was one of significant and systematic micromanaging," Commissioner Cirkovic said.

Bullying – reducing the risks

Carroll v Karingal Inc provides a salutary example of the complex realm of workplace bullying claims. For employers, it pays to understand which behaviours within the team could be seen as bullying – no matter how well intentioned. Nuanced training regarding appropriate behaviour and potential bullying in supervisory roles should be provided throughout the organisation. 

Workplace bullying can be a subtle situation of human interaction gone wrong, and should be front-of-mind in any analysis of potential risks in the workplace. 

If you need to address bullying issues at your organisation, Wise Workplace can provide risk analysis and tailored training. Contact us to find out how.

Uncovering Key Causes of Work-Related Psychological Injury

- Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Uncovering Key Causes of Work-Related Psychological Injury

We know that for many employers, it can be rather challenging to face the complexities of work-related psychological injury claims. 

For decades, trip and fall incidents, burns, bending and other visible physical injuries all tended to dominate workplace safety concerns for both employers and insurers alike. Now, with medical advances drawing solid links between employment issues and psychological conditions, claims for work-related injuries have grown exponentially in this area. 

We examine the key causes of many work-related psychological injuries.

Sources of injury

As described by Comcare, the two greatest contributors to the development of these injuries are the combined forces of work pressure and workplace bullying and harassment. These factors together comprise a startling 75% of all work-related psychological injury claims, with other issues such as witnessing violence or experiencing traumatic events at work being significantly less relevant to claims for psychological injury.

Distilling the key causes

We understand that it can be somewhat overwhelming to consider and address the many possible ways in which workers could sustain a psychological injury at work. Yet understanding the causes and risk mitigation strategies relevant to psychological injuries can be crucial for the modern employer. 

While claim numbers for psychological injury are relatively small in number across Australian jurisdictions, their complexity and ultimate cost to insurers and employers is truly phenomenal. To understand the many possibilities for psychological harm in the workplace, we can consider causes within the broad categories of work context and work content.

Work context as contributor

The people, environment and methods of communication that ‘come with the job’ can have a profound effect on workers. As a rather communal species, humans can be strongly affected by the treatment of others, including the way that we are spoken to, included (or excluded) and generally dealt with in the workplace. Poor communication, ambiguous role descriptions and ineffective personal career development opportunities are all examples of detrimental contexts that can surround the core work itself. 

Uncertainty, isolation and bullying – subtle or otherwise – can also be extremely damaging risk factors in the context of psychological health and safety. Couple these negative phenomena with a job that demands up-beat client care and service, and employers may well find themselves with the key ingredients for a work-related psychological injury.

Stress and the content of work

So we have looked at the contextual factors of workplace stress. Yet are there aspects of the work itself – the content – that can lead to the development of work-related psychological injury? Absolutely. How and when work must be completed can have a demonstrable effect on worker psychological health. 

Shift work, fragmentation of work and hours, plus unremittingly meaningless work can also create the perfect storm for psychological injuries. Being required to produce high-quality outputs – fast – in the face of inappropriate facilities and/ or sub-standard equipment can also produce the type of work-related stress that can eventually devolve into a psychological injury.

Just toughen up?

For some employers, it might be tempting to dismiss these facts as simply an inability for employees to toughen up to the realities of work. Yet for better or worse, the medical evidence pointing to the link between psychological injury and some workplace issues is powerful – and continues to grow. The content of the work itself, as well as the context in which that work takes place, can both have strong implications for psychological health in the workforce.

Assessing the risk factors

Tackling the risk management of work-related psychological injuries can certainly take significant time and energy for most employers. For some, a comprehensive psychological risk audit designed to locate and address potential problem areas can be a sensible starting point. Yet it can certainly prove difficult to track down the source of more insidious undercurrents, such as bullying and harassment in the workplace. In these cases, engaging a skilled workplace investigator will ensure that your findings accurately represent the psychological reality of your particular workplace. 

However tackled, the effort to develop a resilient workplace with strong preventative strategies for psychological wellness can certainly pay dividends into the future – for the organisation and for workers alike. Understanding the key causes of psychological injury can be a valuable starting point for mitigating any potentially damaging features within the workplace.  

WISE Workplace provides a suite of courses from 2 hours to 1 day that can help educate and skill employees around bullying and harassment and equip managers in early intervention and prevention strategies to help your workplace remain bully free.  For more information on how WISE Workplace can help you please contact Harriet on 1300 580 685 or visit our website www.wiseworkplace.com.au