Between one-third and half of the total number of FWC workplace bullying claims came from employees working in organisations with less than 50 employees.
SMEs face particular challenges in managing people. There is often no dedicated human resources department within the business, or HR is just one of many functions that a managing director has responsibility for.
This highlights the importance of keeping on top of the many potential areas of liability in relation to employment issues. And workplace bullying is one of the key emerging risks for all employers.
There is a multitude of laws at federal and state level that regulate bullying. Therefore, bullying behaviour can give rise to a number of different types of claims or legal processes.
These include investigations by work health and safety authorities, workers’ compensation claims, discrimination/harassment claims and even common law actions for negligence.
In addition, since the start of 2014, an employee may apply to the Fair Work Commission – FWC – for an order to stop bullying that is affecting him/her in the workplace.
The FWC dealt with 676 claims for stop-bullying orders in 2014-15. Around 90% of claims were resolved through the tribunal’s early intervention case management process, with a strong emphasis on mediation.
Early data indicated that between one-third and half of the total number of FWC workplace bullying claims came from employees working in organisations with less than 50 employees. SMEs therefore need to understand this new area of the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
So who can bring a claim, and what is ‘bullying’?
Any ‘worker’ can apply to the FWC for an order to stop bullying ‘at work’ by another individual or group of individuals:
Bullying is defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour towards a worker that creates a risk to that person’s health and safety. In one case, a member of the FWC provided a catalogue of what might constitute bullying behaviour which included:
However, more than one instance of any of these types of behaviour will be required to establish that bullying has occurred. Another significant limitation is that ‘reasonable management action’ is not bullying. In many instances, employees may feel ‘bullied’ when they are the subject of performance management or disciplinary processes.
As long as there is a reasonable basis for taking that kind of action, and it is carried out in a reasonable and fair manner, it will not constitute bullying – regardless of whether the employee perceives it as bullying.
What are the remedies?
Importantly, the remedies that can be ordered by the FWC are directed at preventing future bullying conduct – they have no power to order compensation to a worker affected by bullying.
Very few orders have been made in the FWC cases to date, as a resolution is usually achieved through conciliation or mediation. Examples have included orders that:
One intriguing case involved allegations of bullying between family members involved in the running of a number of small companies. The orders imposed included limits on the parties sending abusive, offensive or disparaging communications, and a requirement that they ‘be civil to one another’.
So, the FWC can actually become involved in the management of personal relationships within organisations – where it is established that bullying has occurred.
What should SMEs do to address workplace bullying?
Tackling bullying and other unacceptable forms of behaviour in the workplace – discrimination, sexual harassment – is not just important to avoid legal claims. It is also very much about creating a positive workplace culture that will ensure you can attract and keep the best talent.
Here are some tips:
Janine Young, Partner, and Professor Anthony Forsyth, Consultant, Corrs Chambers Westgarth