Why do some councils find it so hard to carry out a speedy and competent investigation of performance or disciplinary questions?

The hopeless investigation at Gosford, and the biting criticisms made by IRC President Justice Boland, are a timely reminder that some councils find it almost impossible.

In 2006 we represented a member in an investigation at Campbelltown. It was clear very early on that their "Workplace Investigations" policy did not provide an acceptable process and we filed a dispute to develop one.  The Council got Marsdens involved and allocated the investigation to a couple of the directors who showed little interest in complying with their obligation under the award to "properly conduct and speedily conclude” investigations. One of them now manages members of ours at another Council (oh oh) and the other one, for all we know, may still be busily rolling her eyes at Campbelltown.

In the end, the member had nothing really to answer. But the Council did because they committed to reviewing their policy.  In fact, they committed, over and over again, to review their policy. Our member left the Council and we lost interest. There is a limit to how much time you can spend dealing with hopeless people.

And, you know what, five years later they still haven't got one!

Last year we had the clumsy investigation at Taree where a director "ambushed" members with an interrogation by luring them into a meeting about something else. Again, a hopeless process with people flailing around with obviously no real idea what to do. And panic, did we mention panic?

And now Gosford, where it took them six weeks until an employee was told a complaint had been made, where they chose not provide a copy of the complaint for the employee to respond to, where an investigation meeting was described as a "disciplinary" meeting, then that was withdrawn because it wasn't but without an apology and where time simply went on and on and on.

And underpinning all of these hopeless complaints is the threat to the employees concerned that the investigation is "confidential" - dignifying an invariably amateurish and ham-fisted investigation and denying the employee the right to emotional or other support. 

Confidential is fine if questions still need to be asked of other people, but it is not fine if all it does is to bully and isolate the employee concerned.

And not every allegation being investigated need also be referred to as a breach of the Code of Conduct - like you’re trying to dress up an allegation of bad behaviour by making it sound even worse.

Hey councils and hapless HR flunkies, this is how to do it:

When you receive a complaint, review it to check whether it can be immediately quashed because it is factually incorrect. This is what Gosford should have done.

  • Read clause 32 Disciplinary Procedures of the Local Government (State) Award and comply with it.
  • Provide a copy of the complaint to the employee with any deletions to protect others.
  • Allow the employee time to respond, time to get witnesses and review documents.
  • Meet with the employee and the union representatives (tough luck if you’re not a union member) and consider the response.
  • Make a decision quickly (remembering your obligation under the Award to "properly conduct and speedily conclude" an investigation) and make a decision based on the presumption of innocence and the evidence.
  • And do it quickly to minimise difficulties and discomfort in the workplace and to reduce the pressure and anxiety on the employee concerned.
  • And only threaten employees that it is "confidential" if it really needs to be confidential.

Phillip Motbey
Keep up the good work Ian.

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