Only 1 in 2 Australian employers understand the legal requirements and have a defined action plan to address bullying according to Employsure’s Workplace Safety Index. This figure dips even further in businesses with 2-4 employees, with only 40% knowing how to manage and address bullying in the workplace.
In general, the average bullying case amounts between $17,000-24,000 in legal fees for employers. Penalties alone carry a heavy price tag, with as much as $500,000 for a category 3 offence and $3,000,000 for a category 1 offence in some states.
Employsure’s Senior Workplace Relations Adviser Josh Vikis says that employers are leaving themselves exposed as bullying can happen in any workplace, regardless of size and industry: “Too few employers are aware of what they can and can’t do when dealing with difficult behaviour in the workplace. They are busy trying to run their business, but not knowing this kind of information leaves a business very vulnerable”.
Bullying can take place between employees, or between management and employees where an individual, or a group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker, or a group of workers, and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.
Common misconceptions often arise when managers are legitimately coaching or performance managing employees. Such instances should be assessed and if they fit the definition of ‘reasonable management direction’ they can sometimes be dealt with informally through mediation or through a casual chat about conduct.
Three simple steps to minimise the risk of bullying in the workplace.
Step 1: Stay connected.
Consult with employees and health and safety representatives on a regular basis to ensure that all staff are educated on what constitutes bullying and understand that you are available at all times to hear any of their concerns.
Step 2. Set the standard.
Develop a bullying and harassment policy and communicate this policy to all current and new staff. Outline the behavioural expectations of employees and also include detailed reporting and response procedures for staff, so that there is a clear course of action if bullying does occur.
Further, employers should set the standard with their own approach and take extra care of their language, tone, behaviour, and manner when managing staff to avoid bullying complaints.
Step 3. Communicate, educate and enforce.
Ensure staff are not only aware of the bullying and harassment policy, but take the time to ensure they understand the details of the documents. Employers should conduct training, review their policies and communicate best practice around bullying to assist in maintaining a fair and safe workplace for all employees.
It is also vital that the policy be enforced across the workplace and that all allegations are taken seriously and dealt with in accordance with the policy. Review and brief staff regularly – make it part of the organisational culture.
Vikis says employers should “Outline the available support and assistance for anyone who feels bullied, so they know who to turn to. In addition, implement workplace values and missions around the behaviours of staff and approach to work which model the standards of the workplace.”
Many bullying claims come from employees against their managers or employers. “This emphasises the difficulty in differentiating between bullying and reasonable management action – some employees can claim they feel bullied when being performance managed or having disciplinary action taken against them. Yet, management action taken against an employee is not bullying if it is carried out in a reasonable manner” Vikis adds.
The Fair Work Act protects employers from a bullying claim if they are carrying out management action in a reasonable manner. It is important to understand what is considered bullying and what is reasonable management action.
The following are examples of both.
• being aggressive, intimidating or humiliating
• using bad language or rudeness
• teasing, playing practical jokes or spreading rumours
• exclusion from team activities
• unreasonable work expectations, whether it be too much, too little or withholding information needed to do the job
Reasonable management action includes:
• setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
• rostering and allocating working hours
• transferring a worker for operational reasons
• deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process has been followed
• informing a worker of their unsatisfactory work performance
• informing a worker of their unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
• implementing organisational change or restructuring
• taking disciplinary action including suspension or termination of employment
Employers should have the correct systems in place, including policies and procedures to address any employee issues. This will ensure that in the event of a claim, the employer can establish that they took reasonable management action to defend any accusation of bullying.
As every situation differs, it is worth getting professional advice on the best way to manage bullying in your workplace.