A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF IT

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

WHAT IS THE EXTENT OF WORKPLACE BULLYING

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

THE NEED FOR AN ANTI-BULLYING CULTURE

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHEN EMPLOYERS ARE ACCUSED OF BULLYING 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

HOW DID THE FAIR WORK COMMISSION VIEW BULLYING IN 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

CASE STUDY 1: THE EMAIL IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

CASE STUDY 2: LAWFUL ADVERSARIES - BULLYING IN LAW SCHOOL

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

CASE STUDY 3: A FAILURE TO PROPERLY INVESTIGATE 

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

CASE STUDY 4: GETTING IT BOTH RIGHT AND WRONG

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

CASE STUDY 5: LESSONS IN DISCOURSE

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.  

View on WISE Website

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