Bulletin 33 - Difficult interviews and related issues
Legal Issues Bulletin 33 - Difficult interviews and related issues
Legal Issues Bulletin 33 - Difficult interviews and related issues
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The following advice is intended to help staff to deal with a range of situations involving interaction with members of the public. The strategies suggested here are based on the department’s experience of legal cases that have arisen out of difficult encounters. Our experience suggests that the application of good practice will diminish the likelihood of litigation.
Legal Services is grateful for the assistance provided by Stephen Allnutt and Kevin Corcoran of Threat Management Solutions Pty Ltd in the development of this bulletin.
Staff, particularly principals, often interview parents, caregivers, other staff and students. Any staff member who conducts an interview for any reason should ensure that:
Occasionally interviews will be difficult because they involve sensitive issues or because people are in an emotional, agitated or angry state. When conducting difficult interviews, a number of different strategies can be implemented to minimise the risk of further problems arising after the interview. Depending on the circumstances, consideration can be given to any or all of the following:
When providing copies of summaries to people, principals should ensure they are personally delivered, sent by certified mail, e-mailed or faxed rather than sent by ordinary post so that there is a record of delivery.
Copies of all relevant documents, including any original notes taken, should be retained. When making notes of any meeting held, staff should remember that the notes will be regarded as departmental records and may be accessible to people under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.
If people become agitated and emotional during the course of an interview, staff should remain calm at all times and adopt a reasonably flexible and, if need be, assertive (but not aggressive) approach.
Avoid taking a defensive stance. It is better to acknowledge that you perceive the person’s distress and respect for his or her concerns.
The department does not, however, expect its staff to accept any abusive or indecent language, threats, menacing behaviour, or threats of physical violence or actual physical violence.
If this happens, the person should be politely told the behaviour is unacceptable and requested not to behave in that way. If a person attending an interview continues to behave in an unacceptable manner after being requested not to do so, the interviewer should politely terminate the interview. Depending on the circumstances, it may be helpful to minimise the tension by suggesting another meeting at another time.
If any threat persists the person should be asked to leave the premises. If possible, this should preferably occur when other staff are present.
In such circumstances, you should act in accordance with your misgivings. Sometimes in situations provoking fear people will notice the “hair on the back of their head standing up” or a “shiver down their spines”. These are important physiological warnings and should be acted upon. That is, if you feel this happening, get out of the situation, despite any concern that it may be perceived as impolite.
In relation to students, further action in accordance with the relevant student discipline policy may be appropriate.
If it is anticipated that an interview may result in a person behaving in an unacceptable manner, one or more of the following strategies can be implemented prior to and/or during the interview:
In any interview with persons who are not behaving calmly or rationally, it is crucial that staff do not allow themselves to engage in any verbal or physical fights. Staff should at all times maintain a professional and non-aggressive approach when dealing with such persons. It is also important to avoid using any confrontational body language. In particular:
If you have genuine reasons to consider that the person will not just exhibit unacceptable behaviour, but behave in a dangerous manner, you should not conduct the interview but contact the department’s Safety and Security directorate, Work Health and Safety directorate or Legal Services for advice and assistance.
If it is necessary to terminate an interview and the person refuses to leave, he or she should be advised that failure to leave may result in police or security being called. Except in cases of actual or threatened physical violence, any decision to call police or security should be a last resort. For the procedures on how to deal with such issues, staff should refer to legal issues bulletin 58 – Unauthorised Entry onto departmental Premises with regard to the Inclosed Lands Act.
Steps should also be taken prior to any meeting to clarify the role of any support person who attends with the interviewee. The role of a support person is not to act as an advocate for the interviewee or to become actively involved in any discussion which may take place. The form of support and assistance may vary according to the circumstances and could include the taking of notes, provision of advice on rights, suggesting a temporary pause in a meeting or suggesting seeking further advice.
A support person should also be mindful of any potential conflict of interest that may arise and should not accept the role if such a conflict does arise. For example, such a conflict might arise, depending on the issue, if the support person is a staff member.
Principals should also give due consideration as to whether an interpreter will be required to enable the interview to be successfully undertaken.
Yes provided they act as a support person and not an advocate. The mere fact a proposed support person is a solicitor or otherwise legally qualified does not prevent him or her undertaking the role. As with all support persons, the precise nature of their role should be clarified prior to the commencement of any interview.
Principals may be required to deal with people who persistently write letters, send emails, telephone or ask for information from the school. Persons affected by decisions made by schools have a right to discuss or complain about those decisions. Similarly, people also have a right to seek clarification of, confirmation of and reasons for decisions made.
However, there may be times when a person, through continuous letter writing, emails, telephone conversations or personal contact, will continue to make unreasonable demands on time and resources about a particular issue or issues.
Depending on the circumstances, principals may consider any or all of the following strategies to deal with this situation. Note however that in relation to the first and second strategies, principals must also consult with and obtain approval from the school education director:
The adoption of any of the above strategies must only occur after attempts to otherwise resolve the issue have failed. Care should be taken to ensure that if such a policy is adopted, it only relates to existing issues. A blanket policy of not dealing with a person, no matter what issue they raise, should not be adopted.
If a decision is made to terminate any future contact with a person and the person continues to disregard any advice about that decision, principals may contact the department’s Legal Services to discuss what further action, if any, may be taken to resolve the issue.