A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

the nutS and bolts of it

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

what is the extent of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

the need for an anti-bullying culture

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHen employers are accused of bullying 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

how did the fair work COMMISSION view bullying in 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

Case Study 1: The email is mightier than the sword

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

Case Study 2: Lawful adversaries - bullying in law school

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

Case Study 3: A failure to properly investigate

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

Case Study 4: Getting it both right and wrong

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

Case Study 5: Lessons in discourse

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

The take home message

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.  

Navigating the Choppy Waters of Mental Illness at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Mental Illness is highly prevalent in our society - 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 20% will suffer from mental health issues during any given year. 

Given these statistics, employers will likely deal with at least a few employees who have mental health issues annually. 

So, what is expected of an employer in this situation? 

understanding mental illness

The first step is to understand that there are many types of mental illness. Depression and anxiety are very common, and fall into the category of mood disorders. Other types of mental illness include personality disorders or psychotic disorders, amongst others. 

Generally speaking, a person getting appropriate treatment for a mental illness can be an active contributor in the workforce and the community, and the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness do not pose any risk to others. 

A mental illness may develop separately from the workplace, for example due to issues stemming from the sufferer's personal life. However, the average employee loses 3.2 work days per year due to the impact of dealing with workplace stress - so it is clear that the workplace can be a significant contributing factor in mental health issues. 

managing the contributing factors at work

An employer has a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is safe and healthy for employees. Employers need to identify workplace practices or actions which could cause or contribute to mental illness, and eliminate or significantly reduce the risks associated with these. 

This includes preventing bullying or harassing behaviours, ensuring that managerial staff are trained in properly dealing with performance management and with staff who are experiencing mental health issues, and even limiting situations where excessive alcohol use may be encouraged.

supporting workers who disclose a mental illness

Employers should take steps to ensure that those workers who are suffering with their mental health have access to appropriate resources, including flexibility to attend medical appointments, ease in accessing days off when necessary, and perhaps in-house counselling sessions or a mentoring program. 

When dealing with an employee who has reported their mental illness, employers should be prepared to ask questions such as: 

  • How can we help?
  • How can we make you feel more supported?
  • What are your triggers and how can we manage these in the workplace?
  • Are you coping, and if not, what strategies can we implement to help you stay on top of things?

From a legal perspective, an employer is also required to ensure that workers are not discriminated against or subjected to any adverse action because of their mental health status.

what happens if a worker doesn't disclose? 

In developing a strategy for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, employers should consider how they can encourage workers to be comfortable in disclosing their status. This will require members of the HR team to be equipped with the skills to ask the right questions. 

Employers can also inform staff who they suspect may be struggling with their mental health about an option to seek confidential support for an Employer Assistance Program or external professional advisor.

In circumstances where an employer is concerned about a worker who is displaying symptoms of mental illness but has not disclosed any conditions, the supervisor should be appropriately trained and prepared to open a dialogue with the employee. 

Alternatively, an employer could monitor data such as employee workload, unexplained absences or lack of productivity, and seek the employee's consent to obtain medical information. Armed with this information, an employer can create a flexible environment within which each worker can be encouraged to perform at their best. 

protecting all employees

It is incumbent on employers to remember that they must balance the potential risks to all of their employees. 

Although they cannot discuss an employee's mental health status, if the employer is genuinely concerned about the potential impact on colleagues or the business itself, appropriate steps can be taken to performance manage or otherwise discipline the employee. 

However, in taking such action, it is crucial for an employer to ensure that it is poor performance or risky behaviour which is managed or disciplined, and that the worker concerned is not discriminated against on the grounds of their mental health status. 

Employers should also consider developing a mental health policy. This document can be used to demonstrate that all staff are entitled to confidential support free from discrimination, harassment or bullying, regardless of their mental health status. 

It can also be used to demonstrate that staff who are acting inappropriately in the workplace cannot simply rely on their mental illness as an excuse to endanger themselves or others on an ongoing basis. 

Key issues which should be address in the policy include: 

  • Access to confidential support and consultation for all staff
  •  Anti-harassment and bullying protocols
  • Policies and procedures relating to reasonable adjustments which may be required to assist staff with a mental illness
  • Identification of risks in the workplace and strategies for minimising the potential impact on staff if they are exposed to those risks (such as a death, or trauma in the workplace)

How can we help

Navigating your way to a mentally healthy workplace isn't easy. If you'd like assistance in encouraging a supportive work environment in your organisation, including drafting mental health and anti-bullying policies and creating appropriate performance management programs, contact us

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. 

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.  

    Document Examiners: When to Make Use of Them

    Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

    Should the outcome of a workplace investigation be taken on review, the integrity of the evidence, amongst other aspects, will come under scrutiny. 

    In cases where documentary evidence is relevant, it can be valuable to present expert evidence or obtain an opinion from a document examiner. 

    But as a recent NSW case involving document examination demonstrates, it is also essential that the workplace investigation has been conducted and evidence gathered with procedural fairness top of mind. 

    What is document examination?  

    A document examiner is a qualified professional who conducts forensic investigations of documents. This might include the handwriting, the origin of a document (including whether it is an original, a facsimile or a photocopy), and whether entries on a document have been changed or deleted. 

    Although there are many ways in which document examiners can be helpful, they are generally called upon to provide expert evidence in relation to the authenticity and origin of important documents. This can include:

    • Examination of documents to establish whether they are forgeries
    • Comparison of signatures and identifying markers to establish authorship
    • Examination of printing processes (such as determining whether a series of documents originated from one printer or the same type of machine)
    • Reconstructing altered or destroyed documents
    • Determining whether different incidents of graffiti originate from the same writer.  

    How is it done and what are its limitations? 

    Document examination is considered a forensic science, meaning that it is conducted according to verifiable and objective scientific principles. 

    In this regard, a document examiner can be relatively certain when assessing types of ink or paper with a view to determining the origin of a document and whether it is an original or a copied version. This becomes much more difficult in the area of handwriting analysis, which is ultimately an inexact science. Handwriting analysis relies upon the document examiner's individual interpretation of whether two handwriting samples match each other.

    USE IN CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS 

    Although there is substantial use for document examination in the workplace disputes and civil contexts, the science is also extremely important in criminal proceedings. 

    In particular, document examiners might be called upon to determine whether a document is authentic or a forgery, or whether a document has been altered to change its original meaning - for example the alteration of a figure on a cheque, or a fraudulent annexure to a will. 

    Case study

    Bartlett v Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd [2016] NSWCA 30 demonstrates the importance of document examination as well as its limitations. Prephaps even more importantly, the case demonstrates why it is of paramount importance that any workplace investigation process proceeds in accordance with the principles of natural justice. 

    In Bartlett, a former ANZ State Director was awarded an unfair dismissal payout in excess of $100,000. He had been summarily dismissed for alleged serious misconduct, against the background of an allegation that he had altered a confidential, internal email and then forwarded that document to an external party, a journalist. 

    The NSW Court of Appeal determined that it was not relevant whether the bank believed that the director had altered and sent on the document, but the essential ingredient in the dismissal was whether the director had in fact committed the misconduct of which he had been accused. 

    As the employer, the bank carried the onus of proof to demonstrate that the misconduct had occurred and could be proven, however, the handwritten evidence on which the bank relied to prove the misconduct ultimately did not support any such conclusion. 

    Although the bank had utilised the services of a document examiner to assess whether the director's handwriting matched that on the envelope addressed to the journalist, the bank was found to have denied the director natural justice in failing to provide him a copy of the handwriting sample used and therefore effectively denying him the ability to obtain a responding opinion. 

    There were also various other factors, including incorrectly comparing cursive and print writing, which caused the court to determine that the handwriting expert's evidence should not be accepted in any event. 

    The Bartlett case study confirms how essential procedural fairness is in all internal and external workplace investigations. 

    Contact WISE Workplace to undertake investigator skills training, or to arrange to have one of our highly qualified investigators assist you with all aspects of your workplace investigation, including providing advice on whether the services of a document examiner might be helpful. 

    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.