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. 

Complaints Management Under the NDIS

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was introduced in mid-2013 to facilitate a support system for disabled Australians. In many ways, this has begun to streamline and simplify the process whereby many thousands of Australians under the age of 65, who have sustained a permanent and residual disability, are able to access healthcare services. But what happens when the system goes wrong and complaints need to be made about behaviour occurring within the purview of the scheme?  

REGULATORY FUNCTIONS OF THE NDIS

Broadly, the NDIS is governed by the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 (Cth). It is administered by the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), which holds all funds in a single pool, manages funds, administers access and approves the payment of support packages. The NDIA Board, which is advised by the National Disability Insurance Scheme Independent Advisor Council, ensures the strategic direction and general performance of the NDIA. 

The NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework has been set up to ensure a nationally uniform approach as to how participants of the scheme will be assisted and supported. 

The NDIS Complaints Commissioner, the NDIS Registrar and the Senior Practitioner hold important roles in the complaints process under the NDIS.

Providers who wish to operate within the NDIS must:

  • Comply with all state and federal laws
  • Participate with the NDIS Code of Conduct
  • Engage in the NDIS Resolution Process

mandatory reporting regime

In NSW, the Disability Inclusion Act 2014 requires mandatory reporting for serious incidents of abuse or neglect of the disabled in the supported group accommodation setting. If this is suspected, an investigation must take place. 

Any such serious incidents must be reported to the NSW Ombudsman within 30 days of the incident occurring. 

In Victoria, The Department of Health and Human Services has developed a new Client Incident Management System (CIMS) to improve the safety and wellbeing of clients. In addition, they have recently established a Reportable Conduct Scheme (RCS) under the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 to improve on how organisations prevent and respond to allegations of abuse. This came into effect on 1 July 2017. 

According to the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework (released 9 December 2016), once the NDIS has been rolled out and takes effect, registered providers must notify all 'serious incidents' to the NDIS Complaints Commissioner.

These include: 

  • Fraud-related incidents
  • Alleged physical or sexual assault by an employee against a resident or scheme participant, or by one participant against another while both are in the care of a provider
  • Obvious neglect
  • Serious unexplained injury
  • The death of a scheme participant (This must be notified regardless of how the participant died)
  • Unauthorised use of restrictive practices

It is particularly important for employers to monitor staff to ensure that they are compliant with their obligations under the NDIS, and other legal frameworks.

How the ndis complaints procedure works

Generally speaking, any complaints regarding providers of NDIS-funded support systems go directly to the Commissioner, who triages cases and makes an assessment of who should deal further with the complaint. 

The Commissioner will also:

  • Investigate serious incident reports
  • Review breaches of the NDIS Code of Conduct

In order to undertake this role, the Commissioner has commensurate powers of investigation and information-sharing with appropriate industry bodies. 

In the event that the Commissioner does not wish to hear a matter, the NDIS Registrar is empowered to hear matters related to non-compliance of requisite standards by providers under the NDIS. 

Finally, the Senior Practitioner is entitled to hear matters relating to:  

  • Inappropriate or unauthorised use of a restrictive practice
  • Unmet disability support needs. 
The Commissioner is also entitled to refer matters to such external agencies as considered necessary, including the police, the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Agency (AHPRA) or other relevant regulatory bodies. 

Individual participants of the NDIS who are self-managed can make complaints about providers directly to the Commissioner. This complaint mechanism can be utilised even if the provider is not directly registered with the NDIS. Further, complaints may be made to other industry bodies, such as AHPRA or industry-specific organisations. 

The ability to make a complaint is also not limited to recipients of services under the NDIS - any person can make a complaint about an action taken by a NDIS provider. 

A separate complaint process is required if a scheme participant is concerned about decisions made by the NDIA (as opposed to inappropriate behaviour being engaged in by a service provider). 

WHAT ARE PROVIDERS REQUIRED TO DO?

It is a requirement for NDIS providers to have in place an effective internal complaints management scheme, and they must commit to maintaining a detailed schedule of complaints received and responses proffered, specifically in order to assist the Commissioner if necessary. 

Employees who report inappropriate behaviour or otherwise raise concerns about their workplace to the Commissioner are entitled to whistleblower protections as enshrined in the relevant legislation.

WHAT HAPPENS IF A PROVIDER ISN'T COMPLIANT? 

In the event that employers or providers of NDIS-related services are not complying with the applicable Code of Conduct, the Commissioner, or the Registrar can step in to review the provider's adequacy. 

In addition to assessing providers against adherence to the Code of Conduct, the Commissioner will consider whether providers have duly complied with mandatory reporting requirements, or have otherwise had complaints made against them. 

If either the Registrar or the Commissioner determines that a breach has occurred, the provider may be required to undergo additional education and training, operate subject to various conditions, or in the worst circumstances, be excluded from participation in the NDIS. 

It is essential for providers of services under the NDIS to have a strong complaints management focus in order to ensure ongoing compliance with the requirements of the NDIS and NDIA. If your organisation has received a complaint of disability abuse or other concerns relating to your management and implementation of the NDIS, and you require assistance with a workplace investigation, contact us