Social media case

Social media case – Recently at the Fair Work Commission in the case of Renton v Bendigo Health Care Group [2016] FWC 9089, it was highlighted that employers need to consider the appropriateness of penalties and having policies in place when considering a decision to terminate employees for misconduct and is a reminder about the use and abuse of social media in the workplace

Link to case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2016fwc9089.htm

In the Renton case, an employee of Bendigo Health Care Group was found to have been unfairly dismissed despite ‘tagging’ two of his colleagues in an offensive and sexually explicit video post on Facebook and on the same day had also left blobs of sorbolene cream and tissues on the desk of a colleague tagged in the video.

That colleague complained about the two incidents and the employer dismissed the employee for serious misconduct.

Commissioner Bissett found that the employee had:

  • negatively affected the health and safety of colleagues
  • engaged in conduct that had the potential to damage the employer’s reputation
  • exposed his colleagues to humiliation and ridicule at work.

The Commissioner stated,

“Whilst Mr Renton is apologetic, he has displayed a lack of insight into the effect of his post on his colleagues – even at the hearing of his application he failed to appreciate that it caused real offence. To this extent, I am not sure the basis of his apologies. He compounded his Facebook misdeed by placing blobs of sorbolene cream on Mr Christie’s desk. That act was boorish.

Having said this, however, I consider, on fine balance, that the decision to terminate Mr Renton’s employment was harsh in that it was disproportionate to the gravity of the misconduct.”

Mr Renton has no history of misconduct at work. Whilst it is apparent he and Mr Christie have exchanged ‘jokes’ in the past, not dissimilar to the sorbolene incident, this has gone unremarked by either of them, their colleagues or management (if it was aware of these ‘jokes’). Further, the Facebook posting and its naming of work colleagues and ‘work’ is a one-off incident. Mr Renton had not drawn such connections in the past. Whilst Mr Renton’s insight into the incident may be questioned it can only be hoped he has learnt from his conduct. Further, there was no suggestion that the incident had any adverse effect on any other aspect of Mr Renton’s work.

Commissioner Bissett held that the behaviour was a one-off nature and that there had been a lack of previous misconduct. Having found the dismissal of the employee to be harsh and as a result Mr Renton was unfairly dismissed.

Commissioner Bissett considered that the incident was an isolated one and his employment history was otherwise spotless.

Getting termination right.

This decision suggests that employers must consider a number of issues when deciding to terminate an employee such as:

  1. The nature of the incident
  2. Past behaviours and employment history, including length of service
  3. If policies are in place and did the behaviour breach the policy
  4. Are options other than termination more appropriate.
  5. Does the punishment fit the crime, as matter also addressed in Dawson v Qantas Airways Limited (2016) FWC 8249 – http://awpti.com.au/fwc-unfair-dismissal/

It is recommended that employers have in place

  1. A clearly written social media policy
  2. Training that clearly outlines the contents of the policy so that employees understand the behavioural expectations of the employer
  3. Investigate matters of this nature thoroughly and impartially before making final decisions.

AWPTI – workplace investigations Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Workplace investigations misconduct, bullying, harassment & sexual harassment investigations

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations into bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and other forms of misconduct.

You can contact me on 02 9674 4279 or phil@awpti.com.au

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigator

Vicarious liability under Australian law

The doctrine of vicarious liability effectively serves to render employers liable for the wrongful acts of their employees in so far as those acts are committed in the course or scope of their employment. Generally, if it can be said that the employment relationship created both the “opportunity” and the “occasion” for a wrongful act to take place, the employer will be held liable. This was recently discussed in the High Court in the matter of  Prince Alfred College Incorporated v ADC [2016] HCA 37 a matter involving sexual assault

Previous cases have also been decided by reference to the sufficiency of connection between the wrongdoing and the responsibilities of the employee and by the identification of material circumstances or “features” common to certain kinds of cases.

The courts’ focus has generally been to look at the extent to which the employment relationship enabled or facilitated the commission of the wrongdoing.

The “relevant approach”

Drawing from previous judgements, the High Court prescribed the adoption of what it described as “the relevant approach”. According to the relevant approach, the court must consider any special role that the employer has assigned to the employee and the position in which the employee is thereby placed in relation to the victim.

The HCA then went on to state that in determining whether the apparent performance of such a role may be said to give the occasion for the wrongful act, particular features may be taken into account. Clearly contemplating crimes of a sexual nature, it asserted that such features include authority, power, trust, control and the ability to achieve intimacy with the victim.

Applying the relevant approach to the case before it, the HCA stated the appropriate enquiry was whether the employees role as housemaster placed him in a position of power and intimacy in relation to the victim, such that his apparent performance of his role as housemaster gave the occasion for the wrongful acts, and that because he misused or took advantage of his position, the wrongful acts could be regarded as having been committed in the course or scope of his employment.

Significance of the case

This case offers a crucial lesson to employers who might not otherwise realise that they may be held liable for the unlawful acts of their employees, even where they themselves are not at fault.

The HCA has affirmed that each case must be determined on its individual facts and merits. The consequence is that considerable uncertainty and expensive litigation is certain to ensue in cases of this kind.

Employers should ensure that the parameters of their employees’ roles are well defined to minimise the risk of liability arising for acts said to occur in the course of an employee’s duties.

The types of scenarios where employers may be particularly vulnerable to a claim of vicarious liability include schools (and especially boarding houses), hospitals, care facilities, disability clinics and many more (keeping in mind the fact that such claims are not limited to circumstances involving sexual assault or even criminal activity in general).

In order to try and minimise their risk, employers should check:

  1. that their policies and employment agreements, including codes of conduct, specifically prohibit sexual harassment; and
  2. that appropriate training is conducted
  3. Have a trust reported mechanism in place and investigate matter thoroughly when reported.
  4. Have a proactive investigation mechanism in place when matters or suspicions come to light.

AWPTI can provide you with training and investigation services to help protect you business

AWPTI – workplace investigations in Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Workplace investigations misconduct, bullying, harassment & sexual harassment investigations

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
http://awpti.com.au/training/

Details of the case – http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/sa/SASCFC/2015/161.html

Sexual harassment – Busting the myths

Despite a number of matters in courts and tribunals sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be an issue.

As a workplace investigator and trainer I come across many opinion, beliefs and myths about what is and what is not sexual harassment and where is the line drawn?

Some of the most common myths around sexual harassment

Myth: I can’t report sexual harassment as no one will believe me

Fact: In many cases sexual harassers are serial offenders, known as the office sleaze, the person to keep away from. Many people especially young women are told early on “look out for him he’s a real sleaze” or similar.

Management and HR are in a much better position to take action if they have information to act upon.

The best way to help stop these people is take a stand, refuse to be the victim and report it HR or management. Not allowing yourself to be a victim is courageous and empowering.

 

Myth: As a HR professional or manager I can’t do anything about sexual harassment unless someone makes a complaint.

Fact: If you see it, hear about it, know about it or suspect that sexual harassment is occurring you should/must take some action.

You have a duty of care to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Don’t make excuses, they may come back to bite you.

 

Myth: It’s not sexual harassment if “I didn’t mean anything by it” or “I was only joking”

Fact: Most, if not all harasses are well aware of what they are doing, do not accept this excuse, especially if the harasser has been told that the behaviour or comment are not acceptable or has been told to stop.

 

Myth: If I ask a co-worker out on a date she/he can claim that it is sexual harassment

Fact: It is not sexual harassment to ask a co-worker out on a date; HOWEVER if you are asking a co-worker out on a date after being previously refused, ignored or not receiving a definitive answer YES – it can be sexual harassment.

 

Myth: If I have already dated a co-worker she/he cannot claim that it is sexual harassment if I keep asking them out.

Fact:  Once again it may not be sexual harassment if they consent but it is sexual harassment if they decline further dates, no matter how many you have been on.

Just because they went out with you once, twice or many times does not mean they do not have the right for future refusal.

 

Myth: It is not sexual harassment if they don’t really say ‘no’ when I keep asking them out or making those sort of suggestions.

Fact: Often the recipient of the request may feel awkward in saying no and may change the subject or avoid answering the question or say something like “I don’t know if I’m free, I’ll get back to you.”

If there is a power imbalance, for example manager and direct report, or manager and other staff member again the recipient of the request/s could be fearful that a direct refusal may harm their career or position in the company.

The golden rule is if they don’t say a clear unambiguous YES then it’s a NO.

 

Myth: It is not sexual harassment if I am only texting.

Fact: Sexually harassing someone via text, Facebook or any other social media or carriage is still sexual harassment.

 

Myth: It is not necessarily sexual harassment for a boss or manager to ask a co-worker out on a date.

Fact: It’s not, but using your power or seniority to coerce a co-worker into going out with you – bit of no brainer there YES of course it is (You would be amazed that the complaints of that nature I have investigated).

 

Myth: Making a comment about how someone looks is not sexual harassment

Fact:  Commenting   “You look nice today” in a neutral friendly manner, is not sexual harassment.

Commenting   “You look nice today” in a leering looking up and down suggestive or sleazy manner, YES that is sexual harassment.

 

Myth: I am a tactile person so touching is not sexual harassment

Fact: Seriously, (and yes I have heard that excuse) here is a simple rule, respect other people’s personal space, don’t do it, don’t touch unless clearly invited to do so.

 

Myth: Sending or giving a co-worker gifts or tokens of your affection is not sexual harassment

Fact: I have dealt with many complaints where this happens after an initial indication that the attention is unwelcome.

In this case YES this can be construed as sexual harassment.  Remember unless it is a definite YES then assume it’s a NO. In this case persistence is not a virtue

 

Myth: In the past we have had mutually acceptable sexual conversations and/or a consensual sexual relationship so wanting to continue is not sexual harassment

Fact: These are examples of behaviour that is not generally regarded sexual harassment due to the consensual nature.

 

HOWEVER should one party decide not to continue the relationship or conversational banter, when the other party is made aware of this should they desist immediately as continuing past this point may constitute sexual harassment.

 

Myth: I really don’t know what is classed as sexual harassment.

Fact: Here are some examples of sexual harassment that might be helpful to assist in understanding:

  • Staring, leering or unwelcome touching
  • Suggestive comments or jokes
  • Coercive behaviour that is intended to be sexual in nature
  • Sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
  • Repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates
  • Intrusive questions about a person’s private life
  • Requests for sex
  • Displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of a sexual nature
  • Inappropriate advances on social networking sites
  • Accessing sexually explicit internet sites
  • Behaviour that may also be considered to be an offence under criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications

 

 Myth: As a business or employer sexual harassment is a matter between the two parties, it’s not a workplace issue.

Fact: Ponder these court cases that clearly illustrate the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace on businesses and employers:

Collins v Smith (Human Rights)[2015] VCAT awarded more than $330,000 as compensation to Ms Collins, an employee who had been repeatedly sexually harassed by her employer, Mr Smith, the owner and manager of the Geelong West Licensed Post Office.

Tan v Xenos (No 3) [2008] VCAT 584 – a sexual harassment case where Ms Tan was awarded general damages of $100,000

Poniatowska v Hickinbotham [2009] FCA 680, a sexual harassment case where the complainant was awarded $90,000 general damages in a total award of $466,000

Ewin v Vergara (No 3) [2013] FCA 1311 – a sexual harassment case where Ms Ewin was awarded $110,000 in general damages and $293,000 for loss of past earning capacity

GLS v PLP [2013] VCAT 221 – a sexual harassment case where a general damages award of $100,000 was made

Richardson v Oracle [2014] FCAFC 82 – a sexual harassment case where Ms Richardson was awarded general damages of $100,000 in a total award of $130,000.

The best way to avoid confusion and to make sure you have complied with your responsibilities is to train your staff. The money you spend on training may save you in the long run, should things ever go wrong.

If you receive a complaint and are unsure about the process it pays to call in an expert.

AWPTI – workplace investigations in Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Workplace investigations misconduct, bullying, harassment & sexual harassment investigations

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations and provide you and your employees with up to date a relevant training in the areas of sexual harassment, misconduct, bullying & harassment and other issues facing employers and workplaces.

If you would like to know about tailored training session for your employees and managers including the popular 60 – 90 minute lunch and learn sessions please contact me.

Vicarious Liability – employers be aware of duty of care

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that they take all reasonable steps to ensure that there is nothing in the workplace that could cause an employee to suffer an injury or to contract an illness this includes taking reasonable steps to eliminate and/or respond to workplace bullying, harassment and sexual harassment failure to do that can result in an an action in negligence and a Vicarious Liability claim.

Organisations must be aware that they may found to be vicariously liable for the bullying behaviours of one employee toward another employee.

Business owners, employers and managers must ensure that they do all that they can to ensure that the duty of care is not breached as it can have serious consequences for employees and expensive consequences for employers.

The case of Eaton v TriCare (Country) Pty Ltd [2016] QCA 139 illustrates a breach of duty of care in a workplace bullying matter.

The Queensland Court of Appeal found that an aged care facility had breached its non-delegable duty by failing to take steps to minimise the risk of a former employee developing a psychiatric illness due to managerial pressure.

A former employee of the nursing home claimed that she developed depression and anxiety as a result of her excessive workload and the conduct of her manager. She claimed that, from 2009 when the particular manager joined the facility, she was subject to offensive, intimidating and humiliating behaviour causing her to become withdrawn, preoccupied, worried and noticeably depressed within the workplace.

The former employee claimed damages for loss of earnings as a result of her inability to work due to her psychiatric illness.

Being overworked, of itself, would not have been sufficient to establish breach. However, the manager’s constant belittling, yelling, aggression and general disregard for the former employee, coupled with the excessive workload, was sufficient to amount to breach.

There was evidence to suggest that the manager (and therefore the facility) should have foreseen the former employee’s particular vulnerability and her risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. Awarded over $430,000.00 in damages as a result of Vicarious Liability

Lessons for employers:

1.   Ensure that you have policies and training in regard to employee behavioural expectations, we can help – http://awpti.com.au/backup/training/

2.   Have a trusted misconduct reporting process in place.

3.   Ensure that your managers are aware of their duty of care to employees and understand the difference between management and bullying.

4.   Investigate complaints of this nature thoroughly and in a timely manner. http://awpti.com.au/backup/investigations/

5.   If in doubt call an expert

AWPTI – workplace investigations Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Workplace investigations misconduct, bullying, harassment & sexual harassment investigations

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

Vicarious Liability - employers beware

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations and provide you and your employees with up to date a relevant training in the areas of misconduct, investigations, procedural fairness, reasonable management action, performance management, bullying & harassment and other issues facing employers and workplaces.

Employee Investigation

What if the employee does not want an investigation into their complaint?

Employee investigation – This is a common question that I am asked and one that many HR professional are face with when an employee does not want an investigation into a complaint that they have made to you.

Remember people change their minds, people listen to other people and have their minds changed

In some circumstances, an employee may raise a workplace issue with their employer or make an “informal” complaint but does not wish for any formal action to be taken, as was the case in Swan v Monash Law Book Co-operative (Swan v Monash).

Remember that it is the responsibility (duty of care) of the employer to protect its employees against unlawful behaviour and conduct in the workplace.

As a result, sometimes irrespective of an employee’s views on how their workplace issue should be managed, once an employer or HR professional becomes aware of an issue, it is imperative that the employer considers the potential risks arising from the complaint, and makes an assessment about the extent to which the issue should be investigated and the process for doing so.

Time for a shift in thinking

Think about it this way, once an employee has made a complaint the ownership of that complaint now rests with the HR professional or manager who received the complaint. What happens with or to the complaint will rest with you as will the consequences of not doing anything.

The case of Swan v Legibook – Supreme Court of Victoria – 26 June 2013 illustrates what can happen and can result in a breach of duty of care due to a failure to investigate a bullying complaint.

The applicant made complaints of workplace bullying in 2003 (the informal complaint) and formal complaints in 2005, she left Legibook in 2007 had not worked since.

The employer in Swan v Monash failed to promptly act on the employee’s workplace bullying complaint because when the issue was first raised by the employee, the employee did not wish for any formal action to be taken.

This delay (and of course the underlying conduct complained of) ultimately resulted in the employer being ordered to pay damages to the employee for the severe psychological injuries that she suffered

The applicant claimed anxiety, depression, and other physical conditions, she was awarded $600,000.00

Lessons for employers;

  1. In matters of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination you have to make a decision to investigate, consider the risks to the business, YOU own the complaint now.
    (If you are not sure contact me for a copy of the AWPTI Risk Assessment Chart and Complaint Analysis Chart.)
  2. If things hit the fan, the buck stops with YOU.
  3. Just like pass the parcel, when you are holding the complaint and the music stops if you haven’t done anything about it you may be out.
  4. Just because an employee says I don’t want anything done it doesn’t mean that they won’t change their mind.
  5. Ensure that your managers are aware of their duty of care to employees and understand the need to investigate complaint matters.
  6. Investigate complaints of this nature thoroughly and in a timely manner.
  7. If in doubt call an expert

Don’t be caught out, for assistance with complaint investigation contact us www.awpti.com.au/investigation  or training www.awpti.com.au/training

AWPTI – workplace investigations Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Workplace investigations misconduct, bullying, harassment & sexual harassment investigations

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations and provide you and your employees with up to date a relevant training in the areas of misconduct, investigations, procedural fairness, reasonable management action, performance management, bullying & harassment and other issues facing employers and workplaces.

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigator.

 

 

 

Beware of vicarious liability

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that they take all reasonable steps to ensure that there is nothing in the workplace that could cause an employee to suffer an injury or to contract an illness this includes taking reasonable steps to eliminate and/or respond to workplace bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. Failing to do so could mean that employers may be vicarious liability  for the bullying behaviours of an employee toward another employee.

vicarious liability as a result of a breach of  the duty of care can have serious consequences for employees and expensive consequences for employers.

The case of Eaton v TriCare (Country) Pty Ltd [2016] QCA 139 illustrates a breach of duty of care in a workplace bullying matter. The Qld Court of Appeal found that an aged care facility had breached its non-delegable duty by failing to take steps to minimise the risk of a former employee developing a psychiatric illness due to managerial pressure.

A former employee of the nursing home claimed that she developed depression and anxiety as a result of her excessive workload and the conduct of her manager. She claimed that, from 2009 when the particular manager joined the facility, she was subject to offensive, intimidating and humiliating behaviour causing her to become withdrawn, preoccupied, worried and noticeably depressed within the workplace.

The former employee claimed damages for loss of earnings as a result of her inability to work due to her psychiatric illness.

Being overworked, of itself, would not have been sufficient to establish breach. However, the manager’s constant belittling, yelling, aggression and general disregard for the former employee, coupled with the excessive workload, was sufficient to amount to breach.

There was evidence to suggest that the manager (and therefore the facility) should have foreseen the former employee’s particular vulnerability and her risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. Awarded over $430,000.00 in damages

 

Lessons for employers:

  1. Ensure that your managers are aware of their duty of care to employees and understand the difference between management and bullying.
  2. Don’t ignore complaints or reasonably foreseeable situations
  3. Investigate complaints of this nature thoroughly and in a timely manner.
  4. If in doubt call an expert

 

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations and provide you and your employees with up to date a relevant training in the areas of misconduct, investigations, procedural fairness, reasonable management action, performance management, bullying & harassment and other issues facing employers and workplaces.

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from a suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigator.