Unpacking the Concept of Reasonableness

- Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Across all Australian workplaces the phenomenon of bullying is without doubt a front-and-centre topic. And as a result, overt instances of bullying in the workplace now tend to be more readily identified than ever before. 

One challenging idea for all concerned however is this; is it possible that management action that is entirely reasonable could be misconstrued by a worker as an act of bullying? In both workers’ compensation matters and industrial relations more broadly, the linked concepts of ‘reasonable management action’ carried out in a ‘reasonable manner’ have certainly been difficult to pin down. 

We take this opportunity to explore the complex concept of reasonableness as it related specifically to management action and workplace bullying. 

Workplace bullying - the basics

When proposals arose to include bullying within Fair Work’s mandate, employers were understandably uncertain. ‘Bullying’ has a very broad and subjective interpretation among the general public; surely one person’s harmless banter could be another person’s bullying?

Yet when changes to the Fair Work Act were made and the commission explained the new initiative to stakeholders, it was clear that the definition under 789FD(1)contained certain helpful boundaries. Significantly, the unreasonable behaviour needed to be repeated and not just a one-off incident. Further, the activity needed to cause a demonstrable risk to workplace health and safety. The description of particular unacceptable behaviours – such as belittling, humiliating, spreading rumours and having unrealistic expectations – also went some way to assisting employers in the creation of sound anti-bullying mechanisms.

Reasonable management action…

Yet what about business-as-usual management? – for example when a worker needs constant reminders and oversight by management in order to fulfil their role? Could this type of standard management action actually be construed as ‘bullying’? 

The commission foresaw this potential for definitional constraints to disrupt the operational needs of many businesses. Consequently, garden-variety management action such as performance management, work monitoring, instruction, direction and disciplinary action are generally outside of the definition of bullying. These actions are simply the core of most management roles. However, the analysis doesn’t end there.

Carried out in a reasonable manner

A full understanding of the interplay between alleged bullying and reasonable management action requires that employers be aware of the crucial third element of the equation – was the reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner? This might seem like splitting definitional hairs, but it is this particular nuance that sometimes gets overlooked. Let’s take an example:

The employer receives notification of a bullying claim from the FWC, made against a manager by a worker. The action in question appears to be quite reasonable management action – let’s say a routine performance management process has been commenced. HR assisted with documentation and there was clear objective evidence of the worker’s underperformance. This was clearly – in and of itself – reasonable management action on the part of the manager.

However, what can lead to difficulties for any employer is when the management action is not carried out in a reasonable manner. If the manner is found to be oppressive, aggressive, belittling and/or with completely unrelenting expectations regarding outputs – then there is a high likelihood that a bullying claim can be substantiated. In other words, all the good work involved in reasonable management action can come undone if it is administered in a bullying manner.

Train for reasonable management action

Most employers have become adept at the creation of healthy and safe workplaces. Layout and resource issues are quickly dealt with and the corporate culture is usually a point of workplace pride. 

It pays however to ensure that the less-obvious hazards are still kept in focus. While employees might generally be monitored to prevent bullying issues, it is the manner in which managers carry on their tasks that also has ramifications for employers. 

Our consultants have over 10 years of experience in determining what is and what is not ‘reasonable management action’ so if you have a matter where you need clarification or an investigation, talk to one of our consultants for advice on 1300 580 685. 

If you think your managers could benefit from toolbox training on successful performance management, managing bullying complaints or ‘bullying, harassment and discrimination’ awareness, talk to one of our training consultants about our HR Pop-Up Professional Development initiatives and toolbox training.


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