Workplace Bullying

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Left-Handed Screwdrivers and Workplace Bullying

-by Nathan Donovan

ED: When I was just a lad I was often sent to collect left handed screwdrivers, a long weight (wait), or a box a bright grinding sparks. I was a slow learner and was an easy target, but in this article by our regular contributor Nathan Donovan, times have changed.

Over recent times workplaces have become managed more and more professionally. This is perhaps no more evident than in the world of HR. The rites of initiation for young apprentices and flagrant harassment and discrimination of women are gradually disappearing. Even with the growing professionalism in the workplace, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the legal obligations on workplace owners and managers to prevent bullying.

First and foremost, workplace health and safety laws place a duty of care on employers to create a safe work environment for employees. Simply put, this means you must have a zero-tolerance attitude to workplace bullying. You should not only have workplace policies which identifies unacceptable behavior and their consequences but the policies need to be enforced. There is no point having a policy and turning a blind eye to bullying.

Quite aside from WH&S obligations, I can say, at least anecdotally, that stress-related workers compensation claims caused by workplace bullying are on the rise. According to newspaper reports in February 2013, the average payout to public servants who claimed mental stress was over $250,000. Permissive attitudes to workplace bullying are a sure-fire way to find yourself faced with worker’s comp claims and ever-higher premiums.

To top it all off, in January this year, the federal government introduced specific workplace bullying laws. The key point of these new laws was to give employees the right to apply to the Fair Work Commission for orders to stop the bullying (but not orders for monetary compensation). The types of orders that can (and have) been made include orders requiring a business to prevent one-on-one contact between the complainant and the bully.

What is workplace bullying? Importantly it is repeated behavior, rather than a one-off incident. This repeated behavior must be unreasonably directed to towards one or more workers and create a risk to health and safety. The Fair Work Commission’s own anti-bullying guide indicates that bullying behavior may include:

  • Aggressive and intimidating conduct;
  • Belittling or humiliating conduct;
  • Spreading malicious rumors;
  • Teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation      ceremonies’;
  • Unreasonable work expectations; and
  • Displaying offensive material.

There is a fine line between employees who unreasonably take exception to direction from management and bullying. Merely asking a staff member to do a job they’d prefer not to do or providing a critical performance review is not bullying. If you require all staff members to treat each other consistently, fairly and with dignity and respect, chances are you will not have any systemic problem with workplace bullying.

Does workplace bullying laws then leave any room for sending an apprentice on an errand to the local hardware for a left-handed screwdrivers? I hate being the killjoy, but probably not. Look, you might be able to argue that the practical joke was just a once off and therefore wasn’t bullying, but the problem with these types of jokes is that they are always at the expense of one person. I’d agree that some people in the workplace are over-sensitive, but if I can give one tip, it is this: have a joke with the apprentice, not at the apprentice.

Nathan is a regular contributor to our trade news magazines, contact Nathan at Donovan Legal email