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Role of a support person

What is a support person?

A support person is someone that an employee can nominate to attend a meeting with them to provide emotional support and reassurance. They are not an advocate. A support person could be a work colleague, friend, family member, industrial representative or lawyer. There are circumstances where it may not be appropriate for a particular person to take on this role.

What is the role of the support person?

The role of a support person is to provide emotional support and reassurance to an employee. They:

  • DO provide emotional support and reassurance for employee
  • DO observe the proceedings, assist with clarifying the process and take notes
  • DO quietly prompt or give advice to the employee, including requesting a break if needed
  • DO respect and maintain confidentiality at all times
  • DO NOT answer on behalf of the employee
  • DO NOT advocate for the employee.

If a support person is an officer of a union to which the employee is a member, the officer also has a role to support their member’s interests, including actively ensuring that natural justice and procedural fairness has been afforded to their member.

When is it appropriate to have a support person present?

There are certain circumstances where it may not be necessary or appropriate, for an employee to have a support person present at a meeting with a supervisor or line manager. These may include:

  • discussions about general workplace operational matters
  • general staff meetings and information sessions
  • meetings about routine changes to local workplace procedures or systems (e.g. allocating tasks).

It would be appropriate to offer an employee a support person in meetings relating to disciplinary matters that may or may not result in the dismissal of employee. These may include:

  • meetings about poor performance and conduct in the workplace
  • investigation meetings.

Can an employer refuse a particular support person?

Yes, where it is reasonable to do so. The following should be taken into consideration:

Co-workers – it is not unreasonable to restrict co-workers from being a support person if they will or might have any involvement in the matter. If involved, there is a risk that their evidence will be seen to have been compromised by things they see or hear in relevant meetings.

Management – it is rarely a good idea to have management involved as a support person. It is more likely that they will have a conflict between their role as support person (supporting employee) and their role as a manager (representing the employer).

Managing overly enthusiastic or obstructive support persons

It is important that all participants in a meeting or interview clearly understand the support person’s role and the nature of the interaction that should occur between the parties. The support person should be acknowledged and reminded of their role and that they are not an advocate. It is important to remind everyone involved of the need for confidentiality.

Tips for managing an overly enthusiastic or obstructive support person:

  • Remind them that they are at the meeting for support only and are not an advocate. If a support person is an officer of the employee’s union, the officer also has a role to support their member’s interests.
  • Offer a short break to allow the employee and support person to confer.
  • If the support person is answering for the employee state, ‘I need the employee to respond to this.’
  • If they become too obstructive (e.g. repeatedly interjecting or continually asking for breaks to confer with the employee), they should be warned that if they continue to advocate, they will be asked to leave.
  • If the behaviour continues, ask them to leave the meeting on the basis that they are being obstructive and not observing their role as a support person. If the employee does not wish to continue the meeting without a support person, consider the request with a focus on what is fair and reasonable.

Options include:

  • giving the employee a reasonable timeframe and opportunity to find an alternative support person
  • continuing with the meeting without a support person
  • giving the employee the option of responding to the meeting issues/allegations in writing.