Tackling a Toxic Workplace Culture

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Many people start off each year with a bundle of resolutions - to eat better, to exercise more, to spend more time with the kids... the list goes on. The start of a new calendar year is also a fantastic time for businesses to take stock and reassess. If your workplace culture is getting in the way of your business fulfilling it's potential, make change your top New Year's resolution for 2018.

what is workplace culture? 

Culture is loosely defined as the beliefs and behaviours that govern how people act in an organisation. 

While it is often considered to be a vague concept, how workers interact with each other is an incredibly important part of work life. Good organisational culture is now believed to be a key factor in a business' success or failure. 

If staff feel uncomfortable, unhappy or excluded, they will obviously not enjoy coming to work - which generally means that they will be less motivated, less productive and reluctant to go beyond the call of duty when asked.

how to identify if your workplace culture is bad

Whether a workplace is toxic or not is difficult to define. Generally speaking, if people are unhappy at work more often than not, you are dealing with a poor workplace culture. 

Factors that can contribute to a toxic culture include:

  • Staff not being trusted to take calculated risks or perform their jobs without being micromanaged.
  • Workers constantly being asked to perform under significant pressure and without adequate resources being allocated to assist them.
  • A lack of clarity or top-down direction.
  • Poor leadership behaviour or interaction 

what happens when workplace cultures are toxic

Toxic cultures can breed hostile, pessimistic team members, drive away top talent and prevent organisations from reaching their full potential. 

Some signs and consequences of toxicity include:

  • Increasing staff conflict
  • High staff turnover
  • High levels of absenteeism
  • Presenteeism (where people physically show up at work, but don't perform their duties to the best of their abilities)
  • Increased workers' compensation claims
  • Complaints of bullying or other types of harassment 

HOW to chage a negative workplace culture

In order to address workplace toxicity, employers need to be prepared to tackle issues head-on. 

These 10 steps towards changing workplace culture for the better can help make the task less daunting.

  1. Identify and assess the underlying problems. This is best achieved by issuing a staff survey, conducting exit interviews to determine why staff are leaving, or otherwise encouraging open and honest feedback. 
  2. Establish a concrete company vision. Ensure that all employees are engaged with the vision and understand where the business is headed.
  3. Rinse and repeat - ideally, make sure that surveys and opinion polls are conducted on a regular basis to identify what factors may be improving or worsening the workplace culture.
  4. Encourage consultation and open communication. In addition to helping filter ideas and feedback up to the leadership team, this makes staff feel valued and assists in reducing emotions such as frustration or anger.
  5. Facilitate friendships and encourage team building. If your staff actually like each other, they are much more likely to take additional steps to support co-workers and the business. 
  6. Be consistent and fair. One of the biggest gripes of staff who feel they operate in a toxic environment is that their supervisors seem to change attitudes on a regular basis, or that responses are likely to vary depending on what mood the boss is in. 
  7. Maintain a sense of fun - all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes, and creating a workplace where staff feel at home is much more likely to improve morale. 
  8. Pick your team wisely. When selecting and hiring new staff, consider how they will fit into the team and how they will get on with your other workers.
  9. Be physically present. Although senior staff will doubtless have different hours and regimes to stick to than average workers, it is disheartening to see supervisors roll in regularly at 11am with coffee in hand, head out for long lunches and then leave in the early afternoon. Allow your staff to see that you are working just as hard as they are. 
  10. Recognise the efforts of staff. Whether this is through an employee of the month program, an annual awards dinner or simply ongoing quiet acknowledgement of good performance, ensure that staff know they are appreciated. 

So, start this year the right way - make your workplace somewhere your staff want to be, instead of somewhere they have to be. And if you're having difficultly with a toxic workplace culture, WISE can help, through out investigation, mediation and governance services. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

How Can Employers Assist Workers with Acquired Brain Injury

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A decision by the Queensland Court of Appeal highlights why employers must take into account the needs of workers with an acquired brain injury, in order to avoid being considered to have discriminated against them. 

In Chivers v State of Queensland (Queensland Health), the Court of Appeal heard a case pursued by Ms Chivers, who was employed as a registered nurse with Queensland Health (QH). She had an acquired brain injury from a horse riding accident in 2004. As a result of her accident, she experienced headaches and nausea and was unable to work night shifts. 

QH initially accommodated her working requirements. However, despite QH's apparent support of Ms Chivers, her probationary period was extended on three separate occasions, ostensibly to allow an assessment of her ability to work nights. Eventually, after one year, Ms Chivers resigned and claimed that QH had discriminated against her by failing to confirm her employment. 

In its defence, QH argued that working nights was a 'general occupational requirement' for registered nurses who were employed in 24/7 wards, and that Ms Chivers failed to comply. But Ms Chivers presented evidence of other nurses in permanent employment who were not required to work across all shifts, despite being employed in the same 24/7 wards. 

The Court of Appeal held that the ability to work across all shifts was not a genuine occupational requirement. 

Although there can be specific challenges when working with people suffering from an acquired brain injury, this does not mean that they can or should be discriminated against in the workforce - including when it comes to conducting workplace investigations. 

What is an acquired brain injury?

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) is the term used for any brain damage, which is sustained after birth. Causes include physical head trauma, strokes, brain tumours, brain infections, alcohol and drug abuse or neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease. This term is used to describe both permanent and temporary injuries. 

Those suffering from an ABI are likely to experience ongoing difficulties with: 

  • Concentration
  • Processing information at speed
  • Fatigue
  • Memory
  • Problem Solving and lateral thinking
  • Organisation of thoughts and activities 
  • Planning
  • Self-control and monitoring
  • Insight into personal behaviours
  • Emotional lability
  • Restlessness (physical and emotional) 

tips for managers of employees with an abi

Perhaps the greatest potential challenges are difficulties with memory, cognition and communication. When communicating with people with a disability, it is important for managers not to focus on the potential restrictions of their employees, but to consider how to get the best out of their workers. 

In the context of an ABI, this is likely to take the form of:

  • Flexible working arrangements, such as part-time or reduced hours, or the ability to call in sick with short notice. From a recruitment perspective, one of the best ways to ensure that everybody's needs are met is to ask potential employees who have declared an ABI to provide any assessment or medical treatment reports which could provide guidance as to their capacity and daily needs. New employees should be encouraged to undergo a work trial period, during which both employer and employee can consider what tweaks might be necessary to ensure that the arrangement works optimally for both parties. 
  • Developing appropriate risk mitigation strategies. This includes ensuring that both employer and employee are aware exactly what is and might be required of the employee with the ABI, so that their role is clear. Other strategies include making sure that workers compensation and medical leave certificates are appropriately filled in, even if the employee is required to take a lot of sick leave. This will help to ensure that events are well documented in case a dispute arises. 
  • Ensuring that instruction manuals and written directions are easily accessible and clear. People who suffer from an ABI may require frequent reminders and mnemonics to perform their job to their full ability, and facilitating this will help an employer to best unlock an employee's potential. 
  • Implementing a workplace buddy system. A dedicated buddy can not only provide ongoing emotional and personal support, but also assist with simple memory jogging and reminders when needed.

undertaking workplace investigations involVing an ABI

The difficulties inherent in the workforce for people suffering from an ABI are magnified when a workplace investigation needs to be conducted - regardless of whether the employee with an ABI is the victim, the respondent or a witness. 

In order to counter difficulties associated with an ABI, employers engaged in investigative interviewing should consider strategies including: 

  • Prior to conducting an interview with a person with an ABI as part of an investigation, the investigator should make an assessment about the witness' communication, including skills, abilities and whether they use any types of communication aids. 
  • Talk to other staff or human resources to obtain some further information that can assist in understanding how best to work with the employee with an ABI. 
  • Reducing distractions during the interview (for example, make sure the radio is turned off and there are no unnecessary staff sitting in on the interview). 
  • Using short and simple sentences to avoid confusion, especially when putting allegations to the interviewee. This should also include presenting information slowly and one bit at a time.
  • Giving frequent reminders of the next step - this is particularly important from a procedural perspective. From an employer's perspective, this is also important to avoid any allegations of abuse of process or discrimination. 
  • Being prepared to repeat information as often as necessary until the employee clearly understands what is being conveyed. 
  • When the employee is clearly distracted, ensuring that they are brought back to focus on the matter at hand. 

Interviewing an employee with an ABI is challenging and can be very difficult to get right. If you require a highly experienced interviewer to assist with a workplace investigation involving a person with an ABI, or any other disability, contact our investigations team today for expert assistance.

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

Performance Management to Avoid Bullying Complaints

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Staff who are subject to increased employer supervision or performance management may feel that they are being personally victimised, attacked or even bullied.

It may be difficult to distinguish between reasonable performance management and bullying, especially when the worker involved is sensitive by nature, has personal stress factors, fails to acknowledge their own performance shortcomings or is emotionally reactive. This leads to an increased risk of bullying complaints when staff members are being performance managed. 

So how can employers use performance management steps to manage their staff to meet operational requirements without risking censure, criticism or complaints of workplace bullying?

When is performance management reasonable?

The following guidelines apply to reasonable performance management:

  • 'Reasonableness' should be judged objectively, rather than basing it on the worker's perception;
  • Management actions do not need to be perfect or ideal to be considered reasonable;
  • A particular course of action may still be 'reasonable action' even if all the separate steps, when seen in isolation, are not;
  • Consideration may be given to whether the management action was a significant departure from established policies or procedures, and if so, whether the departure was reasonable in the circumstances. 

To guard against the perception of bullying, employers need to ensure that they: 

  • Provide clear instructions, information and training to all employees;
  • Establish that employees are aware of and understand the business' performance and disciplinary policies and procedures;
  • Take management action that is justified and follow a process that is procedurally fair and consistent;
  • Provide timely feedback to staff when the issues arise
  • Document all performance matters and disciplinary steps clearly. 

Even though the process is designed to be cooperative and consultative, employees may still object to performance management and complain that they are being bullied, victimised or harassed.

The Commonwealth at section 789FD Fair Work Act 2009, specifically states that an employer is not bullying their staff if they engage in 'reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.'

In practice, reasonable management (as opposed to bullying) means that:

  • A course of action can be considered reasonable from an objective examination even if an individual step in the process is not.
  • Any action taken must be lawful and not 'irrational, absurd or ridiculous'
  • Management should ensure compliance with policies or procedures that are established and already in place. 

Regardless of how aggrieved the employee feels, or how they perceive their employers actions to be intended, a tribunal will consider the reasonableness of the performance management action objectively.  

WHAT IS A REASONABLE MANNER?

What is 'reasonable' is a question of fact and the test is an objective one. Whether the management action was taken in a reasonable manner will depend on the action, the facts and circumstances giving rise to the requirement for action, the way in which the action impacts upon the worker and the circumstances in which the action was implemented and any other relevant matters. 

This may include consideration of:

  • The particular circumstances of the individual involved
  • Whether anything should have prompted a simple inquiry to uncover further circumstances
  • Whether established policies or procedures were followed, and
  • Whether any investigations were carried out in a timely manner. 

The Role of the performance improvement plan (pip)

When used to its maximum potential, a PIP can: 

  • Identify areas where individual employees are under performing or failing. 
  • Provide suggested methods whereby employees can improve their performance, whether to meet minimum required competency levels or, at the other end of the spectrum, or to assist employees to excel in their roles. 
  • Provide objective evidence in circumstances where an employee's performance is substandard and it is anticipated that their employment may eventually need to be terminated;
  • Help managers and employers observe patterns in employee behaviours and performance to identify factors contributing to poor performance. 

 It is important that PIPs are drafted in accordance with the organisation's workplace behaviour management policy. 

Managers should take the time to:

  • Determine the specific root cause of the poor performance;
  • Communicate with the employee in an open, clear and practical manner;
  • Focus on the problem, not the person; and
  • Set goals in consultation with the employee so that the employee knows what the specific concerns are and how to improve their performance. 

tHE three golden rules for employers

To guard against the increased risk of performance management bullying complaints, employers seeking to implement a performance management regime must ensure that:

1. Each employee has a clear, logical, objective and easily accessible position description according to which they can be measured (and self-measure). 

2. The employer's desired improvement outcomes are objective, have been explained to the employee, and are clearly understood. 

3. The employee is provided with employer, and where appropriate, peer support, and guidance to assist them in achieving the desired performance outcomes. 

Following the three golden rules can help employers avoid unfounded claims of workplace bullying when they are improving the effectiveness of their business through performance management procedures. 

Should you require a workplace investigation to determine whether management action has been reasonable or whether it constitutes bullying, contact WISE Workplace