Workplace Party Pitfalls and Perils (A Christmas Story)

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

when is a party classed as a workplace event?

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

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

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

SO HOW CAN THINGS GO WRONG?

Some notable mishaps from past Christmas parties include: 

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

how employees can have fun and stay out of trouble

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

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

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

WHAT EMPLOYERS MUST DO

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

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

How to deal with any misconduct 

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

When Gender is Irrelevant: Male-On-Male Workplace Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour can happen to anybody. When most people think about this type of conduct, it is generally in the context of male-to-female harassment or, perhaps more rarely, female-to-male harassment. However, this is simply not the case - sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anybody towards anybody. 

A recent decision of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal of NSW highlights the potential for employees to be victims of sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, regardless of their gender. 

The decision in Kordas v Ruba & Jo Pty Ltd t/a Aztec Hair & Beauty also affirms the entitlement of workers to financial compensation when they have been subjected to sexual harassment. 

Inappropriate behaviour

In Kordas, the worker complained about various instances of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment during his employment as an apprentice hairdresser working for the respondent. 

The behaviour complained of by the worker included:

  • Being told by his employer that workers were similar to racehorses because 'they need a pat on the bum to go faster'.
  • Having his supervisor tell clients that he and the worker were similar to a gay couple and that they were very 'close'. 
  • Being followed into a private area, slapped on the buttocks with a ruler by his trainer and being asked to smack him back because the trainer 'like[d] being slapped on the bum'.
  • Humiliation by the trainer when he threw a hair clip onto the ground, in the worker's opinion, because the employer wanted to see him bend over. 
  • The trainer complaining that the worker had incorrectly clipped a cape onto a client
  • Feeling harassed when the worker asked the trainer if he felt they got along and the response was yes, because 'you're my bitch'. 
  • Upon complaining to his employer and asking why he was referred to as the salon 'bitch', being told 'I used to work in a restaurant. All the boys used to grab me by my boobs'. 
  • Being grabbed around the waist and physically moved by his supervisor instead of being asked to move out of the way. 
  • Having his palm stroked in a flirtatious manner by his employer when he was handed money for errands. 

The worker had initially complained to his boss, who was also the director and owner of the business running the hair salon, about being victimised. But no action was taken, and the worker was ultimately dismissed. 

The history of complaints

The apprentice stated that he had not complained initially about the inappropriate behaviour because he had wanted to keep his job. 

However, in February 2015, the worker finally complained to the employer about various issues he was experiencing, including very low wages, ongoing harassment and feeling that he was being sabotaged. Although the employer initially promised that everything would be sorted out, he then made the above mentioned comment, likening hairdressers to racehorses. 

At this time, the worker demanded changes in his treatment, but the employer denied ever having received any complaints or personally witnessed any harassment. 

The employer then advised the worker that there were no senior staff available to continue his training and dismissed him. The stress and emotions suffered by the worker as a result of this treatment ultimately caused him to leave his chosen profession of hairdressing, working instead as a barber. 

Findings of the tribunal

Upon hearing the complaints, Tribunal Senior Member Scahill and General Member Newman commented that although the harassing behaviour was not the worst they had ever seen, it had clearly impacted upon the apprentice in a very significant way and had caused him to change his future career plans. 

The nature of some of the inappropriate behaviour was found to be sexual harassment, particularly the physical contact and comments regarding being a 'bitch' and a 'gay couple'. Moreover, the significant disparity in power between an employer or senior employee and an apprentice was such that the worker was reasonably and clearly intimidated, humiliated and harassed. 

The employing business was also held vicariously liable for the conduct on the basis that it had failed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and had failed to appropriately respond to the worker's complaints. 

The worker was awarded compensation comprising:

  • $5,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment by the employer
  • $10,000 in damages for the trainer's sexual harassment
  • $15,000 for victimisation

As this case demonstrates sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct can occur in any workplace, and between any gender. If you are concerned about a case of potential harassment at your organisation, contact us for assistance. We offer both supported and full workplace investigation services. 

How Medical Evidence Supports an Unbiased Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 01, 2017

When claims of abuse in care come to light, strong emotions can arise for all concerned. It is not surprising that when an unexplained injury is uncovered, family members, care staff, and employers will want immediate answers. 

However, it is vital that employers maintain clear thinking and remain objective when investigating allegations of abuse in care. 

Engaging an external workplace investigator can be helpful in maintaining neutrality, and conducting a detailed, unbiased investigation. Medical evidence is also highly relevant in these situations as it is collected in a scientific manner, without bias towards a particular party.

zero bias when investigating assaults 

In emotionally charged situations, family and friends may understandably demand immediate answers about the cause of a loved one's unexplained injury. When abuse appears to have occurred against a vulnerable individual, it is a disturbing thought for all involved. 

Workplace investigators understand that despite - or perhaps because of - such high emotions, the investigation must be coordinated and managed with an extremely steady hand. 

An experienced investigator will be acutely aware of the rules of evidence and how important the accurate collection and management of the evidence will become, should the matter be taken on review. Accordingly, from the very start of an investigation, it is understood that all information, statements, workplace documents, interviews and clinical data is to be gathered with a view to fairness, objectivity and clarity.

assessing medical evidence

Family members of the vulnerable person affected by the unexplained injury may not be aware of the detail of the circumstances of the injury. 

Factors such as the site of an unexplained injury, medical history and medications, client age, frailty and demographics, unique aspects of accommodation and access, care routines, staffing variables and medical documentation - to name a few - will all form part of the complex medical evidence matrix when evidence is being assessed. 

Delays in getting the victim medically examined or a delay in reporting incidents can often mean that the medical expert may need to rely on descriptions provided by witnesses or photographs taken of the injury. This will significantly diminish the quality of the medical evidence. Poor quality photographs and descriptions will make it even more difficult to obtain any reliable medical evidence. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the idea that on the balance of probabilities, if a finding is likely to produce grave consequences, the evidence should be of high probative value.

In cases of alleged assaults in care, professional investigators will ensure that all evidence - medical and general - is collected and reported on with utmost care. This approach ensures that irrelevant factors are not given weight. 

When the medical evidence is combined with overall procedural fairness across the investigation, the resulting investigative report into an alleged assault will be of high quality and robust in terms of the weighing of the evidence and findings.

    why an impartial investigation is important

    When investigating abuse in care, the standard of evidence obtained is a crucial factor. By including sound medical evidence, the investigator brings an unbiased and highly detailed viewpoint to the allegations of assault. This expertise can mean the difference between a fair and objective investigative report and one that is tinged by the emotionally charged nature of the situation. 

    Should the matter be taken on review, the court will apply the 'reasonable person test' to the facts and evidence available. If the investigation is not fair, clear and comprehensive, then the court may find the resulting report does not meet this standard. 

    If your organisation requires a workplace investigation into an unexplained injury, our team can assist with either full or supported investigation services. WISE are highly experienced in the complexities of investigating unexplained injuries in care settings, including the assessment of medical evidence.

    '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 Social Media

    Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

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

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

    Types of social media platforms   

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

    positive use of social media in the workplace

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

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

    when is social media use inappropriate?

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

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

    Types of inappropriate social media use may include:

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

    Walking the line

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

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

    why workplaces need social media guidelines

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

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

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

    Codes of Conduct and Different Professions

    Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 04, 2017

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

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

    Why is a code of conduct important?   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Abuse of power

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

    a case in point

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

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

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

    Determining whether a breach has occurred

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

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

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

    Professional Distance and Conflict of Interest at Work

    Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

    breaching professional boundaries   

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

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

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

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

    codes of conduct and different professions 

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

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

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

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

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

    professional distance and social media 

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

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

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

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

    determining grooming, or an error of judgement. 

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

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

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

    Dealing with a breach of boundaries 

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

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

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

    Considering Suspending an Employee? What Should You Know

    Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

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

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

    tHE LEGALITY OF SUSPENSION 

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

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

    The risk assessment should include: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Circumstances leading to suspension 

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

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

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

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

    Appropriate conduct by an employer during a suspension

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

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

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

    Avoiding further legal issues

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

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

    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. 

    What Evidence Should Be in a Workplace Investigation Report?

    Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 23, 2017

    In every workplace, there will eventually be a situation where an investigation needs to be carried out into an employee's compliant or conduct. One of the most crucial aspects of conducting workplace investigations includes preparing an investigation report which can be relied upon for any future purpose, including carrying out and implementing disciplinary action against an employee.

    WHAT IS the purpose of an investigation report?

    An investigation report is intended to provide a 'snapshot' for external entities, such as auditors, judges or tribunal members, or the police; of the allegations made, the likely accuracy of the claims, the background circumstances surrounding the alleged behaviour or occurrence, and the likely consequences imposed once any findings have been made. 

    Broadly, the investigation report is created in order to: 

    • Form the basis of any future action, such as disciplinary proceedings or strategic direction. 
    • Record the conduct of the investigation objectively (in particular to avoid allegations of bias or a lack of procedural fairness)
    • If necessary, be produced in legal investigations, or proceedings. 
    • Record observations and other data surrounding employee attitudes and experiences. 

    ELEMENTS OF A GOOD INVESTIGATION REPORT

    It is essential that every investigation report: 

    • Is set out in an organised fashion. This includes, for example, ensuring the inclusion of page numbers and an index so that information can be readily sought. 
    • Is internally consistent and can stand-alone, meaning that the report itself makes sense and is complete without having to refer to extraneous documents of information
    • Objectively documents findings and recommended actions, without any bias or undue influence. 
    • Identifies whether allegations were ultimately grounded in fact or were simply unfounded. 
    • Alternatively it may also identify if there is insufficient evidence to make a finding. 

    In areas legislation, regulations or specific policy and procedures particularly with some government departments, the investigation and reporting requirements can be more onerous and prescriptive where there may be higher level oversight.

    In general today, it is increasingly critical to ensure that an investigation report is properly completed - certainly this is to demonstrate that the instructing entities use best practice in all investigation reports created in consultation with employees. 

    The role of briginshaw

    In matters where there could potentially be criminal implications, other serious outcomes, or adverse findings, it is crucial that an investigation report have regard to a legal concept known as the rule of Briginshaw v Briginshaw

    This means that the decision maker must be satisfied that the seriousness of allegations is weighed up against the potential consequences of adverse actions or findings. This highlights the importance of putting only relevant matters into an investigation report. 

    how should an investigation report be set out?

    From a practical perspective, it makes sense to stick to a fairly rigid structure in drafting every investigation report - particularly because this regime will enhance the objectivity of any finished report. 

    This structure should include:  

    • An executive summary - so that the key findings and recommendations are immediately clear and identifiable. In many cases this is the only part read by outsiders, so it is essentially that the key information is contained in the summary in the 'punchiest' way possible.
    • A methodology - in order for the reader to understand what process the author went through to complete the report. 
    • An identification of the standard of proof against which the report has been drafted and the allegations have been assessed. Outside of the criminal world, the civil standard is assessed according to the balance of probabilities: that is, whether it is more likely than not that a certain behaviour or alleged fact took place as claimed. 
    • Key evidence being relied upon in relation to each allegation/particular. 
    • An analysis of the evidence that supports any findings made. 
    • Other issues which may be relevant to the investigation itself or the ultimate determination. 
    • If appropriate, recommendations for future conduct.

    What is the role of evidence in investigation reports?

    Items of evidence which should be contained in an investigation report include:

    • Witness statements and/or transcripts of interviews
    • Physical evidence such as photographs of injuries or the debris of a broken item.
    • Documentary evidence such as incident reports or contemporaneous file notes.
    • Electronic evidence including emails, text messages and CCTV footage.
    • Expert reports such as medical reports
    • Other documentary support evidence such as rosters, timesheets, fuel cards, behaviour support plans, client profiles etc. 

    Crucially, the evidence should be relevant and sufficient to support any findings.

    Relevance may be determined by employing the following assessment, as set out in the decision of Robinson v Goodman [2013] FAC 893

    a) What facts are disputed, and what the collated evidence tends to prove or disprove.

    b) Whether the evidence provided might be indicative of the fact that person will tend to behave in a certain way. When relying on so-called tendency evidence, it is essential that the potential consequences of claiming that somebody has a tendency to behave a certain way are weighed up against the potentially damaging suggestion that a person's past behaviour should dictate whether they have acted in that way again.

    Although workplaces are entitled to maintain confidentiality over investigation reports, in most cases, there are certainly circumstances where the reports may be ordered to be handed over to the complainant or the other party. 

    This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services (July 2014), where the Federal Circuit Court ordered the waiver of legal professional privilege over investigation reports completed by external lawyers. 

    The court's decision to produce the reports was due to the fact that an employee had been dismissed on the basis of information set out in the investigation reports. It was therefore clearly incontestable that the report was not relevant to the outcome complained of by the former worker.  

    potential consequences of a poorly drafted investigation report

    Given that an employee's life can be significantly affected by the conclusions drawn in investigation reports, there is high potential for outcomes to be referred for legal proceedings. 

    As this is a likely possible outcome, it is important to make sure that any workplace investigations are determined according to the minimum standard on which the court will rely. That is, satisfying the court on the balance of probabilities that a reasonable person would consider it more likely than not that events occurred as described by the complainant or the worker. 

    Properly prepared investigation reports are very similar to briefs of evidence prepared by counsel during court proceedings, and can be complicated and challenging documents to create. WISE Workplace provides training designed to assist you with the conduct of workplace investigations and drafting reliable reports. Our team can also conduct investigations for you. Contact us today.