How to respond to serious incidents in the workplace – best practice guidelines from the federal parliamentary review

Multiple sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints from workers and staffers at Parliament House in Canberra this year have been a cautionary tale for many organisations on how not to handle a serious workplace incident. 

But they have also given NFP organisations a reason to reflect on how well prepared they would be to manage a similar incident in their own workplaces. 

That’s where the mismanagement in Canberra might actually be able to help provide some lessons.

The deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Stephanie Foster was commissioned to review parliament’s systems and identify best practice responses by exploring the approaches of a variety of organisations around the country and internationally.

While not specifically aimed at NFP organisations, Foster’s June 2021 report and it’s recommendations are relevant and valuable to NFPs that want to be prepared should they face the prospect of an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault happening in their workplace.

Here are 14 best-practice recommendations drawn from the Foster report that can help to improve your organisation’s response should a serious work place incident occur in your workplace:

1. First contact is vital – have a plan

How well you manage the first response following the incident is enormously important. If this mishandled, it can severely compound trauma and undermine confidence in the reporting and complaints process. Importantly your organisation should provide:

  • Ideally, a single location and person as a point of contact so a person reporting an incident feels at ease and doesn’t need to tell their story again and again.
  • Multiple options for accessing that contact person, so a staff member can choose the method contact method that suits them – e.g. in-person, by phone, online messaging etc.
  • Counselling and support options that are available when your staff or volunteers might need them.

2. Provide trauma-informed support

Serious workplace incidents can leave people traumatised and struggling in a variety of different ways. These can range from mental and physical health impacts to negative consequences affecting their employment, finances, family and social relationships.

Because trauma can cause confusion and difficulty solving problems, they may also have difficulty with the reporting and complaints process. 

Trauma-informed support helps to avoid further harm from re-traumatisation and should include: 

  • Listening to without judgement; 
  • Enhancing safety, discussing options, respecting the ideas and preferences of the person; 
  • Asking about their needs and concerns; 
  • Acknowledging their story
  • Helping them connect to culturally appropriate and relevant information, services and support.

For more about how your organisation can offer trauma-informed support after a serious incident, download the Mental Health Coordinating Council’s (MHCC) Trauma-informed Care and Practice Organisational Toolkit here.

3. Ensure all parties are empowered with information about the process

Trauma-informed support focuses on giving the person autonomy and choice, which is particularly important in cases of sexual harassment or assault where the person may feel violated or disempowered.

It’s important to provide information about processes and next steps – including the consequences of deciding on different options – and empower and support the person in making their own decisions. 

You should prepare information for someone making a complaint ahead of time, so it’s worth taking the time to map out what the process will look like even if you’ve never had to deal with a complaint before.

4. Create a robust complaint process

It’s crucial to have a complaints process that is independent, confidential, transparent and fair, with a range of proportionate outcomes. This ensures people have confidence in how the system works and its ability to deliver appropriate results. 

Whether you’re starting from scratch or you want to improve the process you have already, the Victorian Ombudsman has a detailed Good Practice Guide for Complaints Management, that can help you develop a complaints management process for serious incidents in your workplace. According to the guide, a good complaints system will:

  • Acknowledge and deal with complaints in a timely way; 
  • Provide transparent information about how complaints are handled; 
  • Protect the privacy of information as far as possible; 
  • Treat everyone involved in a way that is objective, respectful and fair; and 
  • Promote accountability for decisions.

5. Respect confidentiality and be transparent

Confidentiality is critical to the integrity of the process for managing a serious incident. Any complaints should be kept strictly confidential from other staff and volunteers, and from media in more high profile cases.

Confidentiality protects the wellbeing of the person making the complaint, as well as providing natural justice to the subject of the complaint while it’s being investigated. 

Breaching confidentiality undermines trust and can hamper the success of the outcome. 

a) Prioritise the victim if using Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)

While confidentiality is paramount, the use of NDAs is generally considered unhelpful, as it can allow the harasser to continue their behaviour and impact the wellbeing of victims. 

However, sometimes victims may feel safer if they are protected by an NDA, as it may draw a line in the sand for them and help them put the incident behind them. If you decide to use an NDA or confidentiality clause, it’s important to ensure that it prioritises the wishes of the victim and empowers them by giving them choice. 

Good faith agreements are considered best practice. This kind of agreement requires both parties to maintain confidentiality and if they breach that agreement, they may lose access to the complaints mechanism. 

b) Be transparent about confidentiality exceptions

It’s important that the complaints process is transparent about how a complaint will be handled – especially when it comes to exceptions to confidentiality. For example, if an incident is categorised as “notifiable” (e.g. because a person is underage), or where there is an obligation to report because there’s risk of self-harm, this should be clear to the person making the complaint.

6. Ensure accountability

Explicitly classifying serious incidents as workplace health and safety issues and responding to and reporting on them accordingly increases managers’ accountability for these issues. 

Incorporating serious incident reporting into your organisation’s code of conduct places a positive obligation on managers and health and safety representatives to:

  • Initiate preventative measures;
  • Regularly monitor workplace risks; and 
  • Adopt changes to the preventative measures as needed.

7. Don’t limit historical reports

Placing arbitrary limitations on the period in which reports must be received is not recommended. 

People who experience sexual harassment at work can carry the burden of that experience throughout their lives and not everyone feels safe or comfortable enough to report the incident immediately. The ABS reports that over 90% of general offences are reported to police within a year, compared with only 68% of sexual assaults

8. Set expectations around vexatious reports

False allegations of sexual harassment and sexual offences are very rare. However, setting clear expectations in policy and procedures about how vexatious reports will be handled, including taking disciplinary action, is important to maintaining the integrity of your complaints process.

9. Have clarity on sanctions

For your complaints process to be taken seriously by your team members, it’s important that it includes consequences for offenders. It’s equally important to have a range of proportionate penalties available.

This encourages reporting, as your team will feel supported in seeking a resolution and have confidence that misconduct will not continue with impunity. 

Appropriate measures may include:

  • A reprimand;
  • Deductions from or a reduction in salary, or demotion;
  • Re-assignment of duties;
  • Or, in very serious cases, termination of employment.

10. Prioritise the victim’s agency if it comes to a complaint to police

If your complaints process includes mandatory reporting to police (except where legally required), it can discourage people from reporting offences or seeking support. A forced referral may also be re-traumatising and detract from safety and confidence in the process.

The wishes of the victim must be paramount. Best practice is to encourage and facilitate referral of criminal matters to police, while prioritising the impacted person’s control and autonomy at every stage of the process.

11. Allow independent review

Where reviews are conducted by internal staff, there is a perceived lack of independence which can result in concerns about bias, backlash for people making complaints and lack of fairness in the process and outcome. These fears form a barrier to reporting misconduct in the first place. 

Your staff and volunteers will have greater trust in your processes if investigations or reviews are conducted by a specialist independent reviewer. An independent reviewer reduces real and perceived conflicts of interest and can often result in a fairer process and a better outcome for the workplace. 

12. Get a commitment from leadership

Your organisation’s leadership plays an important role in creating an environment where staff feel safe and supported to report serious incidents, and unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated.

Leaders can contribute to a constructive process by communicating a clear commitment to workplace safety and building a healthy organisational culture. 

For more on this, see our post on How to take the lead on preventing sexual harassment: a guide for NFPs.

13. Educate your staff and volunteers

Education is critical to raising awareness – not just awareness of what constitutes problematic behaviour but also of the kinds of behaviour your organisation is not willing to tolerate. 

Education supports staff and volunteers in recognising serious incidents and knowing what support and reporting processes exist to manage them. It also normalises workplace conversations about safe behaviours which helps prevent harm by building a positive organisational culture.

Some lessons from the most successful organisations include:

  • To ensure all staff and volunteers hear a consistent message and have a baseline level of competency, education should be mandatory. 
  • An initial session complemented by a longer term program is most effective because it helps to shift attitudes, knowledge and behaviour over time and avoids a superficial ‘tick and flick’ compliance-based approach. for example, it could be incorporated into an annual session on your organisation’s code of conduct.
  • One-to-one sessions can be helpful for senior or other managers so they can openly discuss challenges they’re facing with a suitably senior person.

14. Reporting

For large organisations, reporting can help to ensure accountability. All data should be anonymised and presented in a sensitive way to senior leadership. 

Best practice requires transparency about the prevalence of bullying and harassment and sexual harassment in your organisation and what you’re doing to eliminate it. This should include what steps were taken to resolve incidents and how long the process took.

Being honest about mistakes and having a plan to improve are essential to building transparency and trust around serious incidents. 

Any effective response to serious incidents needs to take into account the different needs of your specific organisational context. It needs to be flexible enough to accommodate any barriers to reporting or responding that exist in your particular workplace; and it needs to be compliant with legal obligations.

For more information and examples, you can download the full report from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet website here.

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