To investigate or not to investigate? Allegations in the workplace

Hamlet was fortunate not to be an employment lawyer or human resources professional. Following a recent Queensland case, the question of whether or not to investigate employee misconduct is more vexed than ever.

Public and private sector employers now find themselves walking a tightrope where a misstep in either direction can lead to litigation and liability.

In late September, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission delivered judgment in East Coast Pipeline Pty Ltd v Workers’ Compensation Regulator. The case involved a workplace investigation into complaints of sexual harassment and bullying. The accused employee allegedly told a colleague that “flavoured condoms were on sale, and that maybe that would give her something to do in the lunch break”, suggested that his colleague was a lesbian because she received flowers from a female friend, made lewd comments about her skirt, and demeaned and swore at other colleagues.

Upon hearing these allegations, the employer initiated a formal investigation into the employee’s behaviour. The employer requested the complainants make their complaints formal, conducted interviews, kept meticulous records, required all participants to sign and endorse interview minutes, suspended the accused employee and sent home the complainants.

To most, the approach adopted by the employer in this case is uncontroversial. Bullying and sexual harassment are serious matters. Employers can be vicariously liable for the sexual harassment of an employee, and the potential for substantial awards of compensation has increased dramatically following the landmark 2014 case of Oracle v Richardson. Being complacent to sexual harassment in the workplace is now a potentially expensive exercise, and for some the decisive action of East Coast Pipelines may resemble best practice.

However, in the present case, the employee under investigation subsequently lodged a workers’ compensation application, claiming that the unreasonable actions of his employer were major contributing factors to a psychological injury he suffered. Despite his employer mounting a vigorous defence, the claim was accepted by WorkCover and then upheld by the Industrial Relations Commission. Both found that East Coast Pipelines had contributed to the employee’s mental health injury by proceeding straight to a formal investigation, and that the employer’s approach did not constitute reasonable management action. Read More.

First published in The Mandarin.