Unfortunately, from time to time, organisations can be faced with unexpected and possibly traumatic incidents. These may be events like the death of a client in a residential facility or at a recreational site; the suicide of a staff member; or a significant workplace accident or near-miss.
Your staff will likely feel shocked, shaken and devastated by the incident. It can be difficult to know what to do next and how best to respond in the aftermath, particularly when emotions are raw and there are possibly serious and long-term consequences for the organisation and the individuals involved.
In Worklogic’s experience, there are a number of key questions you need to consider and actions to take to address what has occurred and manage the risks of something like this happening in future. Some of these need to happen immediately, and others in the following months.
1. Manage the immediate response
a. Prioritise the welfare of your staff
Staff who were present when the incident occurred, and those who directly worked in the area or with the person affected, may suffer shock in the immediate aftermath. They may also experience ongoing trauma or blame themselves for what has occurred. In some cases, the incident leads to a crisis of confidence for the staff: they may question whether they should continue to work in the field or for the organisation.
In the first instance, contact a psychologist or your Employee Assistance Pro-gram provider, to seek professional advice in managing your employees’ emotional well-being and responses to the event. You might also engage them directly to come to the workplace to meet with affected staff, individually and collectively.
In some circumstances, staff who were involved or nearby may fear that they have done the wrong thing, or failed to prevent the incident. If it’s apparent from the outset that that those staff will not face any disciplinary outcomes as a result of the incident (for example it’s clear that there was no breach of policy or procedure), tell them straight away. This will be very reassuring for them, and will help alleviate some their anxiety. Also, they will be better able to participate in any review of the incident that you conduct, and respond honestly and openly, when they are not concerned about possible consequences for their employment.
b. Understand your reporting obligations
Depending on the nature of the organisation’s work, whether it is a public institution, and whether there were any OHS consequences for a staff member, client or visitor, the organisation will probably need to report the incident within a specified timeframe to:
- A government body or regulatory authority which is a contract partner or has oversight of service delivery or the industry;
- A state or federal ombudsman, or industry ombudsman;
- WorkSafe (or the equivalent OHS regular in your state) – note that you may be obliged to report to WorkSafe even if a staff member was not injured;
- The police, if the matter involves a potential crime; and
- Other regulators in your industry.
There may be other stakeholders whom you should notify, such as contract partners or unions. To ensure that you’re fully abreast of these reporting obligations, consider seeking legal advice.
c. Manage reputational risk
As part of managing reputational risk, be aware of the possibility of media scrutiny. At this point, it may also be worthwhile considering whether you should engage the services of a specialist communications consultant. Alternatively, if managing the matter internally, appoint one person as the central point of contact and spokesperson, and ensure they are clear on the talking points and what they should and should not say.
d. Secure all relevant evidence
It is essential that in the immediate aftermath of a serious incident that the integrity of all evidence is maintained. If there has been negligence or breach of policies and procedures, people sometimes try to destroy the files or interfere with their content, so that their conduct is hidden or viewed more favourably. Security camera records, emails and swipe card data are good examples of important evidence that can be easily deleted.
It is imperative that you take steps to ensure that this does not occur. Strictly limit access to all relevant records or files, and save copies of digital evidence. You should also secure the site of the incident or a specific piece of machinery.
e. Communicate with your staff about the incident and your expectations of them
It is important that relevant staff members are informed of the incident and what action will follow, for example that there will be an immediate review undertaken into the relevant circumstances. In the absence of information, there’s more scope for there to be speculation and gossip and for anxiety to develop.
If you require strict confidentiality around the incident, make this clear to your staff and explain the reasons for this. For example, to ensure the integrity of the review or investigation process, advise staff of what they can and cannot discuss with each other.
You should also encourage staff to come forward if they have relevant information and advise them of your expectations that they do so to assist with any review.
2. Review or investigate what happened
A crucial part of your response to any critical incident will be ascertaining what actually occurred and then, determining what can be done in future to prevent a reoccurrence.
a. Determine whether the police, coroner or other regulator will be investigating
If an external regulator is going to investigate, they will not want the employer conducting their own investigation first. The regulator will want to conduct the first interview with relevant employees, so their evidence is untainted by suggestions, leading questions or other unconscious or deliberate influence.
Find out if any external regulator intends to investigate (ideally with help from your lawyer, for more serious incidents), and cooperate with their requests.
b. Determine the scope of the review or investigation
It is essential that you establish clear terms of reference around what your review or investigation will cover, and that these terms are documented. The seriousness of the incident and level of risk to the organisation will be determining factors here. The terms of reference ensure that you gather what information you need, and that the review or investigation is focused and efficient.
Contact us if you would like assistance setting the scope of your critical incident reviews – we have significant experience in this.
c. Appoint someone to conduct the review or investigation into the incident
A central initial question is determining who is the most appropriate person to conduct the review. This person must be independent and have sufficient expertise to gather the information which provides you with the fearless and frank assessment of the incident that your organisation requires. In some circumstances, the most appropriate course of action will be to appoint someone external to the organisation, who has no stake in the outcome and who can provide an objective assessment of the facts and factors contributing to the incident.
It may be appropriate an external investigator / reviewer to be engaged through your lawyer, rather than directly, then the information collected and the report can be covered by legal professional privilege.
The review process itself is likely to involve interviews with relevant staff members and a review of all relevant documents such as policies, procedures, client files, emails, log books files notes and records, as well as video footage and phone records. You will need to ensure that you have access to this material and can provide it to the reviewer in a timely manner, so that the review can commence as soon as possible.
When asking staff to participate in interviews, if it’s possible that disciplinary action may be warranted, you must ensure that they are afforded procedural fairness.
3. Follow-up post-review
Once the review has been conducted, we recommend the following:
a. Have an ongoing emphasis on staff well-being
Continue to monitor the impacts on staff. Everyone responds to trauma differently and reactions may be delayed. Make sure that staff are aware of this, and encourage them to use the services or your EAP provider or psychologist to assist them to manage their reactions.
Consider whether there needs to be a debriefing session to allow staff collectively to discuss their responses and feelings to what has occurred. This may need to happen in the time shortly after the incident but also, some time later if you sense that staff are still impacted by what has happened. It may also be helpful for a supervisor or manager to regularly and informally check in with affected staff.
b. Consider and act on the recommendations and learnings
Once the review is completed, take steps to ensure that the recommendations made are seriously considered and where appropriate, adopted in a timely manner.
Document and evaluate improvements that you make as a result of your findings. Even if you do discover some deficiencies in your practices or processes, any external or oversight body will be interested in what you’ve done to identify and act on these. In the long term, you will be exposed to greater risk and possible adverse legal consequences if you have failed to act upon identified risks or to adopt identified preventative measures.
Regularly review your policies, procedures, training and induction processes to ensure that they are current, accurate and effective.
c. Encourage and build a culture which encourages staff to speak up about risks
Work to establish a culture that encourages your staff to speak up if they see any practices or gaps in policy. You should also ensure that your staff feel confident to raise concerns and secure in the knowledge that if they are raised, they’ll be addressed.
This is one of the most powerful and effective way of ensuring that risks are identified and addressed and additionally, retains the confidence of your workers.
A critical incident is a test of your organisation’s skills, values and ability to pull together at a difficult time.
Failure to support staff, gather data and manage risk at this crucial time will make the matter worse. Ensure that you assist staff to manage their reactions, enlist their help to address risks and issues, and cooperate with outside regulators.
Acting promptly and properly after a critical incident will minimise the negative impacts – personal, professional, legal and for health, safety and wellbeing – for the whole organisation. The investments you make at this time are imperative.
If you do experience a critical incident in the workplace and require assistance in responding or reviewing the circumstances, please contact us for advice.
About Louisa Dickinson
Louisa specialises in workplace investigations, mediation and reviews. She has a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of workplace disputes. Louisa brings strong communication and analytical skills, as well as a sensitive and practical approach.
Prior to joining Worklogic in 2014, Louisa worked at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
Subscribe to the Worklogic blog to receive expert advice on resolving workplace complaints and building a positive culture at work direct to your inbox each week!