Investigating bullying in the staff room

Jodie Fox
March 13, 2019

This coming Friday is 2019 National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence (NDA). This year’s theme is Bullying. No Way! Take action every day. The program encourages schools and students to explore how they can take steps to minimise the impact of bullying on the school community.

Whilst the primary focus of the National Day of Action is students, the day is also a timely reminder to think about the effect of bullying in other areas of schools.

Investigating inappropriate behaviour

Like any workplace, schools have their own particular quirks that can be difficult to manage when investigating poor or inappropriate behaviour by staff. The varying number of stakeholders is an obvious factor – balancing the interests of teachers, staff, students, management and parents is no easy task.

In our experience, a lack of dedicated independent personnel to conduct workplace investigations (for example in smaller school environments) is also a significant hurdle to overcome. We’ve listed below a few key measures schools can take to ensure that the job of investigating a complaint is a little easier.

1. Make sure you have an appropriate anti-bullying policy that applies to teachers and staff.

Whilst this might seem obvious to say, it is surprising how many schools don’t have an anti-bullying policy specifically applying to staff. Clearly while the type of conduct covered is similar, an anti-bullying policy for students is generally not appropriate for staff. Not only do student policies, for example, not contain guidelines for the resolution of the complaint in an employment context, it might even be the case that they do not apply to the employment at all. In that case, you might be forced to try to deal with the alleged conduct under other less specific policies. This creates issues when deciding on how to deal with complaints and what disciplinary measures you can take about proven conduct.

2. Respecting professional boundaries.

Schools are collaborative places where staff, students and parents are encouraged to work together for a common goal. In the context of allegations of poor or inappropriate behaviour by staff members, however, this kind of environment can be a hotbed for gossip between staff and sometimes parents. The sharing of information, which is often second hand, not only affects the quality of the evidence you can collect during your investigation but can unnecessarily damage reputations where facts are distorted as they are shared at school pick up.

In order to ensure that reputations are not unfairly tarnished and that conduct can be investigated in a procedurally fair way, it is important that staff understand the importance of refraining from gossiping about fellow staff members with other staff or parents. One way of attempting to minimise this occurring is to have clear policies about how staff can raise a concern about another staff member, and, of course, communicating those policies and expectations to them.

3. Provide parents with guidelines for making a complaint

It is difficult to avoid parents speaking to each other about school matters but, to avoid damaging gossip, we recommend that parents are provided with appropriate avenues to raise issues or concerns with the school.

The form that avenue takes will depend on the type of issue to be resolved; for example, an issue between students should probably first be raised with the classroom teacher, but an issue with a teacher’s conduct is probably best raised with the school principal or other management.

We also find that it is critical that along with clear direction on how to appropriately raise concerns, it is key that those concerns are followed through and outcomes are communicated back to parents. Another key step is to tell staff that should a parent raise a concern about another teacher with them, they should avoid engaging in that conversation and direct the parent to the school principal to discuss specific issues.

4. Consider your independence

One of the trickier aspects of conducting investigations in a school environment is deciding who is best placed to undertake an investigation into a workplace complaint.

Particularly in small school environment, it is likely that an internal investigator will have a pre-existing relationship with either the complainant or respondent which could lead to concerns about potential bias. In order to combat those concerns, it is important that the investigator remains impartial, follows a procedurally fair investigation process and makes findings only on the basis of the evidence collected during the investigation.

It is generally also recommended that the investigator should not also be the ultimate decision maker about what will happen should the alleged conduct be proven. Where this is not possible or practical, it is again important that you are clear and upfront with the parties that you will take on the role of both investigator and decision maker, but that you will determine the facts first, impartially and independently.

Obviously the more serious the alleged conduct, the more imperative it is that investigations are, and are perceived to be, carried out in a procedurally fair manner. In those situations, it is best to consider appointing an appropriately qualified external investigator.

In cases of reportable conduct, the Commission for Children and Young People recommends that the investigation be carried out by an independent investigator – an independent body or person (who can come from within the organisation) with appropriate qualifications, training or experience to investigate reportable allegations.

About Jodie Fox

Jodie Fox brings to Worklogic a wealth of experience gained working with clients from a diverse range of industries. Previously working as an employment lawyer at a top-tier law firm for almost 10 years, Jodie worked closely with a host of large and small clients.

Worklogic works with employers to resolve workplace complaints and create a positive culture at work. Please contact Jodie for an obligation free consultation via email or call (03) 9981 6558.

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