Workplace investigations: being the respondent in a workplace complaint

Being the respondent in a workplace complaint can be stressful. When you find out you’re involved, you’ll likely have a lot of questions: What should I do next? Who can help me? How do I continue to work with someone directly when they’ve made a complaint about me?

Here are some important things you should know as the respondent, to help you clear up any uncertainty and ease the stress.

Know when and how to respond

First, you need to fully understand the complaint before responding. You can request the relevant information and evidence from your human resources department. Make sure you’re given an appropriate amount of time to respond.

You should also have the opportunity to respond at other times through the investigation. For example, you should be allowed to respond to the investigator’s report, findings and proposed actions.

It’s important to put your best foot forward and respond correctly at each stage of the process. The best plan is to seek legal advice straight away, to ensure you’re being treated fairly.

Guard your reputation

As the respondent to an allegation you’ll want to defend your position and protect your reputation. You don’t want this complaint to affect the future of your career.

In one case we worked on, it was clear the confidentiality of the investigation would not be respected. We wrote to the employer requesting they take steps to address the breach of confidentiality and prevent further breaches. This achieved our goal of protecting the reputation of our senior executive client.

Remain professional towards the complainant

Working with the complainant can be difficult, but is often necessary. Be careful about how you communicate with the complainant, as your behaviour during the investigation process can have serious consequences on your employment relationship.

Where possible, try to:

  • limit communications
  • keep all communications strictly work-related and professional
  • have a witness present during all face-to-face communications
  • avoid any inflammatory comments and topics – in particular, never talk about the complaint itself, and
  • speak to your human resources department if you’re concerned about working with the complainant (e.g. if you’re the complainant’s supervisor).

It’s also crucial that you do not talk to your colleagues about the complaint. This can come across as victimising the complainant and may have negative consequences.

Make yourself familiar with grievance policies and possible outcomes

Most large organisations have policies in place that deal with the complaints or grievance process. It’s worth reading through them to make sure you’re being treated with procedural fairness in the workplace.

You should also familiarise yourself with what the outcomes might be, so that you can consider some proactive steps towards a positive resolution.

If you’re found liable, consequences can range from a reprimand to termination of your employment. In a case of low level misconduct, you may be able to propose undertaking some training to show that you’re willing to take positive steps to mend the relationship. This can also be a worthwhile step if you’re cleared of any wrongdoing. We acted for a senior public service official whose subordinate made complaints against her. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, however offered to do some online training as a remedial step. This act of good faith helped to keep the employment relationship in a strong position.

Prioritise your mental health

The stress of having a complaint made against you can take its toll on your health. The complaint will likely impact your day-to-day work, and it may also play on your mind when you’re outside the workplace. Complaint resolutions can sometimes take upwards of 12 months – that’s a long time for a workplace complaint to weigh on your mind and affect your mental health.

It’s important to see your GP and develop a plan for looking after your mental health while the investigation is going on. A GP or psychologist may also be able to help you create some strategies for coping with the ongoing process.

If you do find yourself the respondent in a complaint, make sure you act fast. Don’t wait around hoping for things to fix themselves as this will only prolong the issue.

TOPIC: Employment law

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Alana Heffernan

Maurice Blackburn Sydney
Alana Heffernan is a Senior Associate in Maurice Blackburn's employment department in Sydney. She is listed by the prestigious Doyles Guide as a member of one of the top law firms for employee & trade union representation in NSW in 2017. Alana provides tailored advice and assistance in relation to a broad range of industrial and employment issues including dismissals, discrimination, disputes, issues related to professional registration, adverse action complaints, workplace investigations, disciplinary proceedings and contract issues. She has a comprehensive understanding of the employment and discrimination legal frameworks, and is experienced in appearing before the relevant courts and tribunals, as well as negotiating out-of-court settlements. “There is an inherent imbalance of power in the employment relationship and I enjoy assisting employees to access their rights, entitlements and fairness. I am able to provide creative solutions for issues faced by senior managers and executive clients, including with respect to statutory and common law rights. I have significant experience advocating for my clients, both directly with employers and their lawyers, as well as at relevant tribunals and courts,” says Alana. “I am creative and leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding practical solutions for my clients. From the outset, I work with my clients to develop a strategy for resolution and achieving the best outcome. “I am driven by helping clients achieve fair outcomes that protect their financial and reputational interests. I have worked across many industries and have a deep understanding of the tactics employers use against employees. These tactics vary greatly across industries and employers and I ensure my approach is tailored to the circumstances. I work hard to ensure my clients are in the best position possible to continue in their career, either with their current employer or with a future employer.” Alana has a particular interest in anti-discrimination law and has actively advocated for amendments to anti-discrimination law to include protections for victims of domestic violence. These proposed amendments have been supported and advocated for by various community and legal peak bodies, as well as the Australian Council of Human Rights Agencies. Some of Alana’s other significant achievements include: obtaining court orders preventing an employer from altering her client’s working conditions negotiating agreements that include reinstatement stopping employers from engaging in unlawful discrimination against clients negotiating settlements for clients that not only provide significant compensation, but also protect their professional reputation representing clients in a Royal Commission, and successfully appealing a decision of the Fair Work Commission in relation to allegations of unlawful industrial action. Alana regularly advocates for the rights and entitlements of the LGBTIQ community, and her diverse employment relations experience benefits from having worked for community organisations, unions and the (then) Department of Employment and Industrial Relations.  Memberships & accreditations Law Society of NSW member Industrial Relations Society of NSW member Awards Employment & Workplace Health Safety, Doyle's Guide 2016 Women's Law Association of Queensland Emergent Lawyer of the Year Finalist, 2015 Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Workplace Relations, Employment & Safety winner, 2015  ...

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