Dr Jeremy Fernando, Internal Investigations, Misconduct and Public Relations

Dr. Jeremy Fernando, a non-residential teaching staff of Tembusu College, National University of Singapore (NUS) was recently reported to have been dismissed for alleged sexual misconduct. NUS has since lodged a police report and issued a press statement after student group Students for a Safer NUS (SafeNUS) called for accountability.

There are important legal, crisis management and public relations (PR) lessons to be learnt from this episode (quite apart from the important issues about organisations upholding cultures of safety from sexual and emotional abuse).

NUS’s Press Statement

NUS acknowledged in its press statement that it could have shared information about the dismissal of the staff in a more timely manner. Notably, in an Annex in the statement, NUS set out a timeline of what transpired regarding the internal investigations starting from when the first complaint was made by a student to the dismissal and following that, communication about the dismissal to the wider body of staff and students of Tembusu College.

The timeline appears to be intended to account for why NUS took some time to act on the students’ complaints and come to a conclusion on the dismissal of the staff.

Dismissal and Internal Investigations

It is important to understand that immediate dismissal or termination for cause / without notice of an employee is a very serious matter. Employment law as well as contract terms (if there are applicable express terms) require the employer to conduct an inquiry and follow due process before it makes a decision to dismiss an employee. While there are no prescribed rules on how the inquiry process should be conducted, it is important that relevant parties are interviewed and given the opportunity to be heard. It is important that the relevant employee is given clarity as to what is being alleged against him/her. Obviously, conducting such an investigation takes time. In the meantime, depending on the allegation, the employee may be suspended but there may be a limit as to how long the suspension can occur for.

Further, different interests and considerations have to be balanced. Confidentiality and accountability may sometimes be at odds. Expediency and fair / due process may sometimes be at odds.

Code of Conduct and Policies

It is interesting to note that the NUS statement simply states that “internal investigation established that Dr Fernando had an intimate association with an undergraduate”. That is the purported wrongdoing or misconduct in question for which he was dismissed. There are no further details. A reference is then made to breaching the Code of Conduct for NUS Staff.

A legal perspective on this is that NUS as the employer may have chosen this wording so as to avoid any potential defamation claim or liability while remaining accurate as to its basis for dismissal. The wording takes reference from the express wording of the Code of Conduct. It may be that the internal investigations (given the limitations of the organisation in obtaining sufficient and satisfactory evidence unlike say the police who have legal powers to investigate and obtain evidence) resulted in only a factual finding that there was some form of intimate relationship, without any conclusions on whether it was consensual or otherwise. This alone was sufficient for NUS to dismiss Dr Fernando given the Code of Conduct.

This shows the importance of having a clear, detailed and robust set of express organisational policies or employment handbook which is properly incorporated into the terms of the employment contract between employer and employees. This then allows the employer or employee to rely on express terms to exercise their rights.

Law and Public Relations

A big difficulty faced by organisations in crisis management is public relations and stakeholder relations. Needless to say, the students of NUS are a key bloc of stakeholders and had called for accountability. In today’s world where social media is a powerful platform of communication and dissemination, organisations must be mindful that legal and human resource issues cannot be divorced from public relations. It is not just legal rules that should guide how organisations act. They must consider whether their actions will withstand the scrutiny of the court of public opinion and not just the court of law.

Notably, in the press statement, NUS stated that it made a police report about the matter despite the two students choosing not to make a police report. Why? There are various considerations which may have been taken into account.

On one hand, if the students chose not to make a police report perhaps because they do not want to have to go through the process of assisting in a police investigation and (possibly) going through traumatisation or re-traumatisation, then if NUS were to make a police report, the students involved may still have to go through this process despite their wishes.

On the other hand, could it be that NUS considered that it was part of their legal duty of care (or even if not a legal duty, some other ethical imperative which may be perceived by the public and stakeholders) to make a police report so as to ensure safety to students and staff, or at least be seen to be doing something to ensure safety? Did NUS consider that the mandatory reporting obligation in section 424 of the Criminal Procedure Code was triggered? If so, how does this square with the statement that the only thing NUS established in its internal investigations was “intimate association”?

We can expect to see more of such crises being ventilated in the public. It would be prudent for organisations to engage professional advisors who can offer practical wisdom and multi-disciplinary advice in such matters.

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