A more supportive stance on workplace meetings

New guidelines negotiated by unions promote greater procedural fairness in meetings between employees and management, writes Industrial Officer Mick McCarthy

A fact of working life is that just about everyone at some stage is going to have to deal with a formally convened meeting with a manager over a difficult issue, sometimes at short notice. Teachers and other educators are no different.

Such meetings might be about already documented underperformance or inability but more likely in our setting, they will be about a workplace incident or allegations that have been made against an employee.

In such situations, it has been common for managers to overlook important legal protections for employees, such as the right to have a support person present at such a meeting. This has not been helped by the failure of NT public sector agencies to develop a common policy framework about what exactly a support person is and what their role consists of.

New guidance for NTPS employees and managers has recently been issued, following extensive consultation with unions. The “Commissioner’s Guideline – Role of a Support Person” gives union members (and those seeking to assist them) clarity about how meetings relating to matters such as performance and discipline should be conducted and allow members under scrutiny to access appropriate support. This is an essential element of ensuring natural justice and procedural fairness in any matter, large or small.

Key elements of the guideline include:

  • Employees summoned to meetings with management must be provided the opportunity to bring a support person.
  • A recommended notice period for meetings of at least 48 hours.
  • Employees should be advised in advance of all attendees to the meeting.
  • Similarly, an agenda or the specific purpose for the meeting should be provided in advance.
  • Recognition that a support person need not be a “silent witness” and detailed information about what can and can’t be done in the role.
  • Meeting notes should be provided after the meeting is concluded.

The AEU NT expects these principles will be followed by principals and managers in most cases, and only in unusual and/or heightened circumstances should the process vary. An example is an employee facing immediate suspension over serious misconduct allegations – in this instance it would not be appropriate to provide 48 hours’ notice of a meeting. However, even in this situation every effort should be made to offer the employee choice of a suitable support person to accompany them.

The guideline provides parameters about the role of a support person. For example, a support person should not advocate or “story tell” for the employee they are supporting. In this respect, the role is different to an elected union rep or union official who is explicitly acting on behalf of a member and it is important that the capacity a person is acting in is established at the outset.

The introduction of these guidelines in no way detracts from union representatives and officers’ ability to advocate on behalf of members. However, in certain circumstances, acting as a support person may be all that is required in the moment, with advocacy to follow.

In some cases, sub-branch reps may not be confident to act as an advocate, however reps have an important role to play in supporting colleagues by offering to be a support person, and liaising with the union office, which can provide expert advice.

Further, the limited support person role only applies when managers call meetings, not when union officers request a meeting with management. Thus, if AEU reps and officers believe there needs to be active advocacy on a particular matter, we will make this clear in advance, so that the nature of the meeting and the roles of those present are clear.

Sub-branch reps in particular are advised to familiarise themselves with the guideline, and also to share the information with members. Feel free to contact the office for advice and tips.

This article was also published in the Semester 1, 2021 edition of the Territory Educator magazine.

Download the Commissioner’s Guideline – Role of a Support Person