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. 

Natural Justice - Privacy and Reliance on Covert Workplace Surveillance

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

In a recent decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC), a nurse has been reinstated following her termination in circumstances where covert video surveillance was the 'sole foundation' of allegations against her. The FWC also found that her employer's human resources department acted incorrectly and inappropriately in the circumstances surrounding her dismissal.

facts of the case

Ms Tavassoli, an Iranian refugee, was employed as a nurse at a Bupa Aged Care Australia Pty Ltd nursing home located in Mosman, NSW. 

In Tavassoli v Bupa Aged Care Mosman [2017] FWC 3200, she claimed that she had been constructively dismissed after being falsely accused of serious misconduct by her employer. 

A colleague of Ms Tavassoli's had secretly recorded her on a personal mobile phone, which allegedly showed Ms Tavassoli:    

  • Making fun of a resident
  • Singing select, mocking lyrics from a musical including "Anything you can do, I can do better."
  • Continuing to drink tea with another co-worker while residents were calling for help.
  • Laughingly telling a colleague that she was lucky to have swapped a shift during which two patients passed away. 

Ms Tavassoli's colleague took the footage to the facility's acting general manager and care manager. 

In response, the very next morning, the general manager took Ms Tavassoli, off-site for a disciplinary hearing. Despite pulling Ms Tavassoli out of a training session the general manager did not inform her what allegations had been made against her, and caused her to wait for two hours before the meeting actually took place. 

During that time, Ms Tavassoli thought about what accusations may have been made against her and became concerned that she would be accused of theft after a patient had gifted her with some beer. Accordingly, Ms Tavassoli drafted a resignation letter. 

When the meeting finally took place, Ms Tavassoli was accused of various types of misconduct. Although she didn't fully understand the accusations against her, Ms Tavassoli tendered her resignation, providing four weeks' notice. However, the general manager advised her that the resignation would be effective immediately, and requested that Ms Tavassoli amend the resignation letter to remove the reference to a four-week notice period. 

Ms Tavassoli attempted to withdraw her resignation only two days later but was denied this right. 

decision of the commission

In deciding to order that Ms Tavassoli be reinstated to her former position, Commissioner Riordan determined that:

  • Ms Tavassoli had been constructively dismissed
  • The general manager acted without due procedural fairness when he refused to permit Ms Tavassoli to withdraw her resignation and return to her former position. 

A particular factor taken into account by Commissioner Riordan was that Bupa is a large organisation, with considerable resources. As a result, he concluded that the human resources department should have followed appropriate processes in dealing with Ms Tavassoli, and crucially should have shown Ms Tavassoli the video evidence collected against her. This was heightened by the employer's knowledge that Ms Tavassoli's English skills were poor. 

The decision not to show the footage was considered to deny Ms Tavassoli the right to know what case she had to answer. Indeed, Commissioner Riordan went so far as to suggest that the human resources department failed in their obligations to Ms Tavassoli and committed 'a form of entrapment' by not showing her exactly what information had been gathered against her. 

He found that the employer had made a determination of Ms Tavassoli's guilt immediately upon seeing the footage, and had failed to undertake any proper investigation as to the circumstances surrounding the behaviour. 

Commissioner Riordan further noted that, by requesting that Ms Tavassoli amend the terms contained in her resignation letter, the general manager effectively 'took over' the termination, which supported a finding of constructive dismissal. 

He was also highly critical of Ms Tavassoli's colleague who had taken the recordings, but accepted that the Commission did not have any rights to proceed against the colleague.

Against this background, Commissioner Riordan ordered that Ms Tavassoli be returned to her former role. 

Legality of secret recordings

Perhaps the most crucial factor in Commissioner Riordan's decision was his concern that the video recordings breached the Workplace Video Surveillance Act 1998 (NSW)

According to the Act, any surveillance conducted by an employer in the workplace is considered 'covert' unless the employee:  

  • Is notified in writing, before the intended surveillance, that it will take place.
  • The surveillance devices are clearly visible.
  • Signs are clearly noticeable at each entrance which point out that employees may be recorded in the workplace. 

Even though the employer did not take the footage in this case - with the recordings instead being made by a colleague of Ms Tavassoli - the fact that the employer relied upon the footage to discipline Ms Tavassoli was considered by Commissioner Riordan to be a sufficient breach of her privacy to run afoul of the Act. 

The Key message FOR EMPLOYERS

The takeaway message for employers here is twofold. Firstly, it is always essential that employees have the opportunity to respond, in detail, to allegations which are made against them, as well as being presented all the evidence which is being relied upon to support the allegations. Secondly, employers must be careful not to rely upon inappropriately obtained evidence which contravenes privacy legislation or any other relevant laws. Employers must comply with any applicable surveillance laws when relying on such evidence.   

Should you require an external workplace investigation into allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace