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"Kettle-gate": Public servant sacked over "disgusting" kitchen incident

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A urine-filled kettle has pushed staff relations in a State Government department to boiling point, with employees escalating a complaint to Premier Steven Marshall alleging the bureaucracy failed to adequately deal with the fallout.

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The Department of Human Services told InDaily today that an employee has been “terminated from the department” following an investigation, but several staff have detailed being kept in the dark about the outcome of the inquiry.

It’s understood staff have sought counselling and stress leave, and at least one employee has resigned over the department’s failure to update staff about its handling of the incident, which occurred on March 12 last year – five days before the state election.

According to documents seen by InDaily, two casual staff were on day duty in the Disability SA After Hours Office, part of the then-department of Communities and Social Inclusion, and went to make a cup of tea using the office kettle around 10am.

“On feeling that the water seemed low in the kettle, the lid was opened… and a strong and strange odour was found coming from the liquid contents of the kettle,” a document details.

“On closer examination, this was found to smell and look like urine. Subsequent testing by the Registered Nurse on duty within the DHS building, found this indeed was urine.”

A letter to Marshall alleges that “testing also revealed the presence of blood in the sample”, but in a statement to InDaily the department denies this was the case.

The “disgusting find” was reported to management, who escalated the matter to the “People and Culture Team”.

It’s understood the office was only accessible to staff and was monitored by CCTV.

InDaily has been told desperate staff requested action and sought updates from various senior levels of the bureaucracy about the controversy – dubbed “Kettle-gate” by workers in the agency – eventually writing to the Premier with a formal complaint.

That letter signed by several employees, which was sent a year after the incident took place, laments the “extended timeframe… and complete lack of transparency over the last twelve months”, while also questioning the professionalism of the investigation.

“It seems that the confidentiality of the [alleged] perpetrator has been of more importance than the health, welfare and emotional/mental wellbeing of valuable staff, who have been treated more like non-entities than victims of a despicable assault.”

The letter says several staff “are now displaying what appear to be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder” and had undergone psychological counselling over the incident, with the letter detailing that a psychologist voiced concern to departmental management “regarding the lack of information and respect towards the After-Hours Staff”.

“We therefore believe DHS has shown culpable ineptitude in following and implementing relevant State legislation, DHS guidelines, the Public Sector Code of Ethics, the Public Sector Commissioners’ guidelines and other industrial relevant documentation,” the letter states.

“DHS Management also failed in their duty to take reasonable action to ensure a safe physical and psychological work place, by not removing the main suspect from the office environment – as allowed by its own policies and procedures.”

The letter asks the Premier to “place yourself into our position on that day drinking tea”, saying: “How indeed would you feel and what action would you deem appropriate to be taken and within what timeframe?”

A reply was sent in May this year on behalf of Marshall by Treasurer Rob Lucas, who notes the public sector act “falls within my portfolio of responsibilities”.

“I have noted the concerns you have raised and understand that this has been a difficult time for each of you,” he wrote.

“I am advised that a disciplinary process is currently being undertaken by the DHS in relation to this incident. It is envisaged that this process will be concluded in the near future. As this process is still pending, it would be inappropriate to make further comment on this matter.”

Lucas wrote that he understood staff “are requesting a transparent and open update in relation to the disciplinary process” but that “I am advised that when an investigation of suspected misconduct is undertaken, there is no obligation or requirement for a department to provide details of the outcome to employees who are not subject to potential disciplinary processes”.

“Additionally, it is important for the process to remain confidential to ensure procedural fairness is afforded to any employee in question,” he continued.

However, in response to inquiries from InDaily, the department today provided a statement saying it “takes any allegation of misconduct very seriously”.

“When the incident was reported, an investigation was immediately commenced by the DHS Incident Management Unit… the department’s investigative body for any employee misconduct matters,” it said.

“The investigation found that urine was present in a workplace kettle. No blood was found.

“The thorough investigation found that a particular individual was at fault and this employee has since been terminated from the department.”

It’s understood that the matter was resolved on September 20 – less than three weeks ago and more than 18 months after the incident occurred.

Staff approached by InDaily had not been made aware of the employee’s sacking. It’s understood the employee continued to work in the same office for several months after the incident, and was relocated after Disability SA was usurped by the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

One staff member told InDaily the investigation had been “very badly handled”, with management initially unwilling to test the urine in a bid to determine the perpetrator, and staff kept in the dark for 18 months about what action was being taken.

“It’s quite disturbing, they can’t advise the outcome,” said one before the department’s response today.

“For us as employees to be fobbed off, it’s just unacceptable.”

“It’s been a disgrace – a complete cover-up,” said another.

“They’ve not wanted to divulge any information – and it still hasn’t been disclosed.”

Staff also wrote in desperation to Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas, who replied by email in July, saying Labor would raise the matter with Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink – which it is yet to do.

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