The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (the Commission) is committed to being accessible and responsive when dealing with the public and providing our services to the community, which include:
- a free telephone Enquiry Line
- a free, fair and timely dispute resolution service
- information about equal opportunity, racial and religious vilification and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (the Charter)
- education, training and consultancy services.
Our vision is for a fair, safe and inclusive Victoria where every person is respected and treated with dignity. We expect our staff to be respectful, provide clear and reasoned information to the public; and we recognise that people accessing our enquiries and complaints services may be stressed, frustrated or upset. We also recognise that people who contact the Commission have diverse backgrounds and needs.
However, we do not tolerate behaviour that is offensive, abusive, threatening or consumes disproportionate resources. Where this is the case, we may take steps to reduce any detrimental impact of such behaviour on our staff, the Commission’s productivity and resources. This policy sets out how we deal with challenging behaviours in a way that is fair and balances the interests of individuals seeking access to our services, our officers, our organisation and the public.
Commission staff provide services to clients who may exhibit behaviour that risks the health and safety of staff and other members of the community, or the Commission’s ability to carry out its functions. This type of behaviour, while inappropriate, does not preclude an individual from receiving our services. However, we must balance the right of staff to work in an environment that is safe and free from abuse against the right of individuals to access our services. As such, the objectives of this policy are to:
- balance the safety and wellbeing of Commission staff against the right of individuals to access our services, and to implement appropriate strategies that may include adjustments and arrangements regarding the ways an individual interacts with the Commission
- ensure fairness and equality for all individuals accessing our services by using a consistent approach across the Commission
- ensure the Commission complies with relevant legal and public sector obligations, including the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, the Charter and the VPS Code of Conduct.
What is ‘challenging behaviour’?
- ‘Challenging behaviour’, in the context of service delivery, is any behaviour that a Commission employee finds to be challenging to deal with or respond to. Different behaviour by individuals will affect Commission employees in different ways.
- The phrase ‘challenging behaviour’ encourages Commission staff to identify the sorts of behaviour that they find challenging, and to use strategies to effectively deal with such behaviour where they arise in the course of their work.
- There is a wide spectrum of potentially challenging behaviour. Most types of challenging behaviour can be dealt with by using preventive and responsive strategies, which de-escalates conflict and re-focuses the interaction on the issue at hand. However, some types of challenging behaviour – such as verbal abuse, personal insults, threats and violence – are unreasonable, in expression and degree, and are therefore never acceptable.
What is ‘unreasonable behaviour’?
- ‘Unreasonable behaviour’ means any behaviour by a member of the public that, because of its nature or frequency, raises health, safety, resource or equity issues for an organisation, its staff and other service users. The focus here is on the behaviour, rather than the member of the public who is demonstrating it.
- Unreasonable behaviour can include:
- repeated contact by an individual after we have comprehensively considered and finalised an enquiry they have made, or a complaint they have lodged
- persistent demands by an individual on how the Commission should handle an enquiry or complaint, the priority it should be given, or the outcome that should be achieved
- constant and repeated arguments by individuals that are not based on reason or logic, that are incomprehensible, false, inflammatory, trivial or outside the scope of the Commission’s functions and services
- acts of aggression, personal insults and other verbal abuse, threats, derogatory, discriminatory or defamatory remarks.
- Unreasonable behaviour is not limited to telephone communications, email, webchat or face-to-face interactions. It can occur over the internet, on social media, in public locations or in written correspondence.
- Unreasonable behaviour includes behaviour:
- by a current or former party to a complaint or enquiry
- that occurs only once, several times or frequently
- that raises a substantial health, safety, resource or equity issue for Commission staff and other service users.
Why do we need strategies to deal with challenging behaviour?
- The Commission serves the public interest and assists members of the public to exercise their rights under the Equal Opportunity Act, the Charter, and the Racial and Religious tolerance Act 2001. It is imperative that we be accountable and accessible to members of the public who wish to access our enquiry and complaint services.
- While having regard for the rights of those who access our services, the Commission does not expect its officers to tolerate behaviour that is offensive, abusive, threatening, or consumes disproportionate resources.
- We value good communication and assist members of the public where their enquiry or complaint falls within the scope of our functions under the Equal Opportunity Act, the Charter and the Racial and Religious tolerance Act. Our frontline staff are skilled in dealing with complex issues and taking preventative measures when individuals display challenging behaviour, before escalating the issue to more senior staff within the Commission.
- The Commission is not an emergency, counselling or crisis service, and our staff do not offer specialised counselling or crisis support, or legal advice. In responding to members of the public, our expertise is in the provision of information and education about equal opportunity, racial and religious vilification and the Charter, and resolving complaints through a free, fair and timely dispute resolution service. When possible, the Commission will also refer individuals to alternative agencies that can provide such services and/or are the appropriate body for an individual to seek information from or lodge a complaint with.
- The Commission will also take practical steps and implement strategies to reduce or mitigate the impact of challenging behaviour from individuals to ensure staff wellbeing, proper use of our resources and productivity within the office. The Commission will usually issue a warning to an individual who is engaging in unreasonable behaviour and provide them with an opportunity to cease the behaviour before we implement more formal communication strategies.
- At the same time, we will ensure that we properly consider the subject matter of a complaint that has been lodged with us to provide dispute resolution, regardless of a person’s behaviour.
- The Charter sets out the rights, freedoms and responsibilities shared by everyone in Victoria. When we consider implementing strategies to best respond to unreasonable behaviour, the following rights may be affected:
- recognition and equality before the law (section 8)
- freedom of expression (section 15)
- taking part in public life (section 18).
This list is not exhaustive and other rights in the Charter may apply depending on the circumstances.
- Section 7(2) of the Charter allows for the Commission to limit or restrict a human right provided it is reasonable and justified, taking into consideration the following criteria:
- the nature of the right
- the importance of the purpose of the limitation
- the nature and extent of the limitation
- the relationship between the limitation and its purpose
- any less restrictive means reasonably available to achieve the purpose that the limitation seeks to achieve.
How do we respond to challenging behaviour?
- Most challenging behaviour can be dealt with using good complaint handling and defusing strategies. These include both preventive and responsive strategies, which reduce the incidence and intensity of challenging behaviour.
- To both prevent and defuse challenging behaviour, Commission staff will:
- treat individuals with courtesy and respect, listen to their concerns, explain the service and processes, and if proceeding to complaint, keep informed of the process
- use clear and plain language and avoid technical legal language
- be responsive and timely in their dealings with enquiries and parties to a dispute resolution, consistent with the Commission’s Service Standards
- manage expectations about the scope of our services and the complaint process and possible outcomes
- not avoid difficult interactions with individuals who have a genuine enquiry or complaint that falls within the scope of the Commission’s functions.
- Responsive strategies also include making reasonable adjustments to assist individuals with a disability (including mental illness) and/or language or other barrier to access the Commission’s services, consistent with the Commission’s obligations under the Disability Act 2006, the Equal Opportunity Act and the Charter.
- It is only when challenging behaviour is or becomes truly unreasonable that the Commission will consider implementing contact response strategies or limiting an individual’s access to the Commission’s services. Where this is the case, the decision must be endorsed by the relevant Branch Head and the Executive Director.
- If a person’s behaviour is or becomes unreasonable, Commission staff can apply appropriate and proportionate strategies to respond to the behaviour. The strategies will depend on the type of behaviour involved.
- Before we make a decision to limit an individual’s contact with the Commission, we will take less formal steps, such as warnings, where appropriate, to address challenging behaviours that raise safety, resource and equity issues.
- To respond to these incidents, we may limit or adapt the ways an individual interacts with the office by restricting:
- with whom they have contact – for example, limiting contact to a single staff member
- what issues we will respond to – for example, restricting the subject matter of an enquiry or complaint that has been dealt with and does not raise new issues
- how they make contact – for example, limiting or modifying the ways a complainant can contact us, for example by email
- when they can have contact with the Commission – for limiting contact only to standard business hours.
- When choosing an appropriate strategy to respond to or limit an individual’s contact with the Commission, we will consider the nature and degree of the individual’s conduct, the likely effectiveness and impact of a strategy, and the Commission’s legal obligations (including human rights considerations). More than one strategy may need to be used in individual cases. We will use our discretion to adapt strategies to suit an individual’s personal circumstances or special needs, and level of language or literacy skills, for example.
- When a strategy has been adopted due to an individual’s behaviour, the Commission will inform the individual in writing. The Commission will inform the individual of their right to make a complaint to the Commission or Victorian Ombudsman about the decision.
- Instances of individuals engaging in unreasonable behaviour will be recorded or documented by the Commission and will describe what the individual did or said and what action was taken in response. These records will be considered prior to implementing a response strategy.
- In all instances, we will inform an individual of when and why a response strategy is to be implemented, in writing or in the most accessible format as determined by their circumstances.
- We periodically review response strategies to reassess whether the strategy is still effective and relevant. We will tell individuals when their strategy will be reviewed. In some circumstances, we may write to the individual advising them of any changes to restrictions on contacting the office.
- In rare circumstances we receive threats from individuals, including threats that they will harm themselves or others, including Commission staff. When threatening conduct occurs, we may contact the appropriate authority (such as Victoria Police) to report the threat.
Support for staff
- The Commission recognises that dealing with challenging behaviour can be upsetting and stressful, and is committed to supporting its staff as part of its obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 to provide a safe workplace. The Commission will provide a safe workplace and support its employees through formal and informal training, coaching and mentoring arrangements, and its Employee Assistance Program.
- Managers will speak with staff who handle enquiries and complaints regularly to check on their welfare, in addition to any other supervision arrangements.
- Staff are encouraged to monitor the impact of challenging behaviour on their wellbeing, draw on available supports and maintain a healthy approach to managing stress.
- Staff who are injured at work can report this in accordance with the Commission’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Framework and policies, and Incident Management reporting processes, as applicable.