Changes to Anti Bullying Legislation: the Effects so Far

- Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New changes to workplace bullying legislation have so far showed underwhelming results according to a Fair Work Commissioner with the first substantive order under the new act being made almost three months after the new system came into effect. The changes were made to the Fair Work Act 2009 last year in response to the recognition of the prevalence of bullying and harassment in Australian organisations and took effect on January 1 this year. The impact of bullying is believed to cost Australian employers millions each year in absenteeism and lack of productivity.

The new laws mean that workers who believe they are being bullied at work can now lodge a complaint directly with the Fair Work Commission. The Fair Work Commission has been given the power to implement any remedy they believe appropriate apart from financial compensation to deal with specific incidents of bullying at work.

Although this new legislation came into effect at the beginning of the year, early reports show that there hasn’t been the anticipated dramatic increase in complaints lodged with the Fair Work Commission. However, it is still fairly early on and the number of complaints could rise in the future.

What has been done so far?

The first official ruling was made on March 21st by Lea Drake, Senior Deputy President of the Fair Work Commission and directions included prohibiting an employee to have any unaccompanied contact with a co-worker or making any comments about the co-worker’s clothing or appearance.

The decision was made after a conference on March 4 and directions also stated that the respondent (the employee accused of bullying) should avoid sending emails or texts to the co-worker except in an emergency, should complete any exercise undertaken at the employer’s premises before 8am and refrain from raising work related issues unless first notifying the Chief Operating Officer or his subordinate.

The applicant was also ordered not to arrive at work before 8.15am. The parties have both been given leave to have the matter re-listed for a later conference if there are any difficulties implementing the orders.

According to workplace tribunals commissioner Anna Cribb, there have been 66 bullying claims made so far under the new system, nine of which were withdrawn in the early stages. This is lower than the predicted 67 claims a week but there has been an element of confusion as to whether alleged acts of bullying committed before January 1 can be included in claims and this may have impacted the level of reporting.

What are the main types of claims?

The majority of claims made so far under the laws have fallen into one of two categories according to HR publication OHS Alert. According to Commissioner Cribb the majority of reports involve employees being bullied either by supervisors or managers or by a group of employees. There were also two cases of supervisors reportedly being bullied by employees.

Although the number of complaints lodged so far falls below what was anticipated, the bullying tribunal’s helpline has reportedly been receiving in excess of 200 calls per week.

How effective is the legislation in dealing with complaints?

It is believed that the Fair Work Act legislation regarding reasonable management action will apply in a significant number of workplace bullying allegations. Many of the applications made by employees regarding bullying by a supervisor are believed to fall into this territory with the need to clarify what exactly constitutes reasonable steps taken by management and what would be classified as harassment or bullying.

Other legislation involving bullying, notably workers’ compensation laws in different states, have clear exclusions as to what behaviour constitutes reasonable direction and disciplinary action by managers and supervisors. So far the Fair Work Act legislation has a certain amount of uncertainty around what behaviour is excluded from further action. It is believed that this could lead to employers being able to claim reasonable disciplinary action rather than bullying and therefore avoid further penalisation.

The Fair Work Commission has recently ruled that alleged bullying activities which took place before January 1 are admissible under the new scheme, and this could lead to an increase in the number of complaints lodged.

Is your business suffering from allegations of workplace bullying? Bullying can be difficult to determine and often an impartial investigator is the best way to ensure a fair result. Contact us today to find out more about what we do and how we can help you effectively deal with claims of harassment and bullying in your organisation.

Teacher Awarded Compensation over Twitter Defamation

- Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Workplace harassment can happen in a number of different environments, not just in the office as was upheld by a recent ruling in the NSW district court. In the first case of its kind, NSW teacher Christine Mickle successfully sued a former student for defamation via popular social media platform Twitter. The student was ordered to pay $105,000 in compensation for comments made on Twitter and Facebook.

Workplace harassment and bullying are a real issue for many employees. It can be extremely distressing for employees to be victims of bullying in the workplace but when this continues online over social media it can be even more devastating. Being harassed over the internet means that employees have no escape from bullying, even when they are at home, and with the widespread use of smartphones, negative and derogatory comments can follow them around wherever they go. The Twitter defamation case demonstrates that workplace harassment via social media is actionable and can have serious financial consequences for those who engage in it so it’s important that it is taken seriously.

Cyber bullying has been in the media for a number of reasons recently with calls for stricter laws governing the behaviour of cyber bullies and trolls along with increased awareness of the effect this type of harassment has on victims. In the case of Mrs Mickle, the effects of the defamation were described as ‘devastating’ and resulted in her taking an extended period of sick leave and only returning to work on a limited basis.

What is defamation?
The law regarding defamation is most commonly thought of in relation to media organisations and newspapers who publish false or negative information but the law can equally be applied to businesses and other organisations. Defamation is the publication or dissemination of false information which could damage another person’s reputation.
It’s very important for businesses and other organisations to be aware of the potential for defamation and be extremely careful when posting anything about another organisation or a current or former employee. Material posted on social media networks can be seen as defamatory if it:
  • Says that someone is dishonest or disloyal.
  • Makes personal statements about them which could cause someone else to think less of them.
  • Accuses them of doing something they didn’t.
  • Makes negative assertions about their capability of doing their job.

To count as defamation something doesn’t have to be overtly untrue, it can be argued that a statement which makes implications can also be considered to be defamation.

Make employees aware of the risks of social media
If you hear complaints that employees are posting negative comments about their co-workers on social media it’s important to take the allegations seriously. Social media harassment and defamation can lead to serious consequences for individuals and organisations. Make sure your employees are aware of the consequences of talking negatively about each other on Twitter or Facebook and help create a culture that discourages social media harassment and bullying to make your organisation a safer and healthier environment for everyone.

Workplace Bullying or Reasonable Management Action? - In Milan...

- Wednesday, March 05, 2014

As the sun rose over Sydney this morning, I got the news - WISE is going to Milan!

I will be presenting a paper at the 9th International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment in Milan, Italy, on 16 June 2014. Below is the abstract I submitted and that got accepted;

WORKPLACE BULLYING OR REASONABLE MANAGEMENT ACTION? CASE ANALYSIS OF EXTERNALLY INVESTIGATED COMPLAINTS OF WORKPLACE BULLYING IN AUSTRALIA.
Author:  Stacey, Harriet.  WISE Workplace. Sydney, NSW, Australia

On 1 January 2014 The Fair Work Commission in Australia adopted a new jurisdiction over workplace bullying. Unifying the definition of workplace bullying at the national level the legislation is consistent with the Commonwealth Safe Work Regulatory agency ‘Safe Work”. Under this legislation workplace bullying is defined as ‘repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety’. Specifically excluded from the definition of Workplace Bullying is behaviour, which constitutes reasonable management action. Determining when conduct is ‘reasonable management action’ or bullying is a key issue in the investigation of workplace bullying complaints and critical to minimising the risks of psychological injury in the workplace.

Employers struggle with early recognition of employees who are at risk of bullying through the inappropriate application of performance management strategies from those difficult employees who do not comply with reasonable requests or meet performance measures.

WISE Workplace is a private organisation that investigates complaints of bullying in government, not for profit and private organisations. Pulling from a sample of cases investigated by WISE Workplace over the two-year period of 2011 to 2013 this paper compares two cases of alleged bullying involving performance management and reasonable management action.

Case one involves an employee who experienced bullying over an 18-month period by her line manager. The target complained of threats to terminate her position; intimidating comments about whom she could speak to; unreasonable work expectations; delay in approving leave; failing to approve her performance plan. The target experienced long lasting/permanent psychological injury as a result of the bullying behaviour. The case was investigated and the bullying complaints substantiated.

Case two involves an employee who also alleged bullying over a 2 year period by her line manager. The target complained of a failure to approve leave; lack of procedural fairness in the investigation of complaints about her performance; phoning her whilst on sick leave; failing to be impartial in work allocation; making upsetting comments;  the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated on the basis of reasonable management action.

The paper details the two cases and compares and contrasts the circumstances of each case, how the employees were handled by their organisations in response to their complaints, the way the performance management was undertaken and details lessons to be learnt about identifying genuine cases of alleged workplace bullying early to avoid psychological injury developing or progressing.

Presenting author: Stacey Harriet e-mail: harriet@wiseworkplace.com.au

 

Workplace Bullying - Effective Responses

- Tuesday, February 11, 2014

 

Video: The anti-bullying amendments to the Fair Work Act, introduced on 1 January 2014, mean that employers can no longer overlook complaints of workplace bullying. It sends a clear message that bullying in the workplace will no longer be tolerated.

WISE CEO Harriet Stacey gives examples of recent instances when workplace bullying has been left unchecked with tragic consequences. She then discusses the steps employers can take to see a reduction in workplace bullying, outlining three crucial elements:

  • Strong policies
  • Effective Training
  • Consistent Action.

Only when all three are implemented and working together will your workplace achieve an effective reduction in workplace bullying.


 

Flexible work: a privilege not a right

- Sunday, December 08, 2013

 
Are you or your employees in the dark about their work arrangements? Maybe it’s time to shed light on this. Formalising flexible working arrangements could help protect both employees and managers when it comes to drawing a line in the sand between bullying and harassment and reasonable management action.

A recent case brought against the South Australian Department of Health and Aging is a good example. In this case the court ruled that repeated requests to review flexible working arrangements given to an employee, after her father experienced a fall, did not amount to bullying and harassment and were reasonable under the circumstances.

The court also ruled that by allowing the employee’s flexible arrangements to continue unmonitored for three years, they had inadvertently led the employee to feel that her later start time was a right rather than a privilege. When efforts were made to amend the arrangements, she viewed them as bullying.

When making flexible working arrangements, the court recommended documenting the agreements in a formal way and ensuring follow-up times are set, to review how the arrangements are working for both the employer and the employee.

Spyrou V The State of South Australia (the Department of Health and Aging) 2013 SAEOT 11 (6 November 2013)




Lessons for employers about bullying dismissals

- Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A recent case determined by the Fair Work Commission provides some important lessons for employers about bullying dismissals. 

In Harris v Workpac Pty Ltd [2013] FWC 4111 the Commission found in favour of the applicant and determined that her dismissal for gross misconduct for bullying a co-worker was unfair.

Mrs Harris was dismissed on 20 December 2012 with five weeks pay for gross misconduct for bullying a co-worker.  She was dismissed after a co worker resigned and made complaints of persistent bullying and humiliation against Mrs Harris during an exit interview. 

The complaints were investigated although no evidence of the investigation or the decision making process was provided to the Commission. Similarly no evidence was provided by the co worker to support her claims of bullying, aside from a statement containing general comments of how the applicant made her feel.

Mrs Harris was notified by email of the allegations just a couple of hours before being interviewed and despite disputing the allegations, she was dismissed the same day for gross misconduct.

Significantly, despite the employer conducting a quick investigation and finding that the behaviour complained of had occurred over a prolonged period of time, the employer failed to provide any evidence about the investigation or their reasoning for dismissing Mrs Harris.

The complainant’s allegations were vague and disputed and the Commissioner cited a lack of evidence from either party as a barrier to his decision making.

The complainant stated she previously complained at the time of the incidents but the employer did not produce evidence that any action had been taken in relation to these earlier complaints, nor any evidence that the complaints were investigated following the resignation of the co worker.

The Commissioner stated:
"while the Commissioner does not and should not endorse the view that "anything goes" at the workplace, it is also important not to confirm as bullying and gross misconduct behaviour, as in this case, which is not pursued with vigour and related to incidents which occurred some time ago. In my view the Commission should guard against creating a workplace environment of excessive sensitivity to every misplaced word or conduct. The workplace comprises of persons of different ages, workplace experience and personalities not divine angels employers are required to pursue inappropriate behaviour but need to be mindful that every employee who claims to have been hurt, embarrassed or humiliated does not automatically mean the offending employee is "guilty of bullying" and "gross misconduct".

The Commission also criticised the employer for failing to take into account that the majority of incidents complained about occurred when Mrs Harris’ husband was in a coma and subsequently died.  The Commission stated that this was a period of recognised stress and should have been considered in the determination of the dismissal.

Lessons for employers to take away from this case include:
  • The importance of line managers responding to complaints at the time they occur;
  • The need for the complainant to particularise the complaints - general statements going only to the impact of the behaviour are insufficient;
  • Do not assume that the level of harm is directly proportionate to the poor behaviour. 
  • The need for employers to document the investigation AND the decision making process related to disciplinary action;
  • Take into account circumstances that may mitigate against the behaviour.

 

For guidance on responding to complaints WISE Workplace has prepared a free e-book:

Stepping out the process – Responding to workplace bullying

- Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Does your team know the difference between workplace bullying and reasonable management action?

Do your policies and procedures reflect the new draft Code of Practice for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying?


When an employee makes a complaint of workplace bullying, will your staff know how to respond, come January 2014?

Ensure you are not on the back foot, trying to pick up the pieces, when the Fair Work Commission steps in to protect one of your employees from ongoing bullying.

There many ways of breaking down information into bite-sized, memorable pieces, such as “top 3 tips for….”, “five ways to….”

The draft Code of Practice for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying has nine principles of responding, three levels of response and 10 steps in the investigative process to investigate workplace bullying:

1.  Receiving the complaint
2.  Interviewing the complainant/target
3.  Plan your response – notifications/plan/TOR
4.  Interview witnesses
5.  Collect other evidence
6.  Draft allegations to the respondent
7.  Interview the respondent
8.  Evaluate the evidence
9.  Make the decision on fact
10. Report the findings

WISE has produced an easy-to-read, desktop reference, to help you respond to workplace bullying.

From the award-winning author, Harriet Stacey, this FREE eBook draws on the key points of the draft Code of Practice, covers the 10 steps of the investigation process and provides a SAMPLE REPORT for workplace bullying investigations.

Investigating bullying: six common mistakes interviewers make

- Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013 has just passed in the Senate, and come January 2014 HR managers will have to consider more carefully how their organisation responds to complaints of bullying.

The primary source of information in any complaint is the people involved; the complainant, the accused and co-workers who may have witnessed the events or tried to manage them.  

Developing effective skills on how to ask the right questions for an investigative setting is critical to the accurate determination of bullying complaints.

Interviews conducted by HR managers are often too short to really get to the issues at hand. Managers who have had prior dealings with the complainants often assume they know the events that are involved, but in reality they are just another witness and should be considered just as critically as other witness statements.

An investigative interview is not the same as interviewing for selection or recruitment; critical differences can often trip up even experienced HR professionals.

Planning your investigation and preparing for every interview is critical to success. Too much preparation, however, and you run the risk of conducting an overly-controlled interview, which doesn’t allow for fluid and interactive conversation.

Here are six common pitfalls that HR professionals should avoid to ensure the integrity of the interview and, potentially, the whole investigation:

1. Leading an interviewee to give specific answers where a predetermined decision has already been made, commonly called “confirmation bias”

  • For example, a senior manager conducts their own “quick” investigation after an incident, and says: “You see, what we think really happened is …don’t you agree?” It’s more common than you might think!
2. Using personal characteristics or stereotypes to assess credibility, rather than assessing the reliability of an interviewee’s evidence
  • You’re told the person you’re about to interview is a “bit dodgy”. They’re red-eyed, shifting in their seat and sniffing frequently. You interpret that as a drug habit - and don’t attach much weight to their account – only to find they suffer acute hay-fever and witnessed the whole incident!
3. Failing to ask for specific details of an event:
  • “They yelled and swore at me  in front of everyone in the meeting!” If you don’t ask for specific words, they probably won’t tell you exactly what was said or what happened in detail. What was it that made the person feel intimidated?
4. Asking for irrelevant information
  • It can be easy to let an interview wander off topic and/or confuse an interviewee with irrelevant history between two parties. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff can be challenging, but if you want the evidence sometimes you have to listen to the chaff and sort it out later.
5. Failing to ask questions about inconsistencies in accounts;
  • Be alert to differences within an interviewee’s account. Questioning them about these may reveal critical information. Also note inconsistencies in accounts between interviewees, and use the opportunity of subsequent interviews to clarify.
6. Using affirming comments and gestures during an interview which can be interpreted as bias on the part of the investigator
  • “Thanks for confirming that. That’s great. I’m pleased we can now confirm what happened.” Such comments may persuade an interviewee that you believe their version of events causing issues later if no apparent action is taken.


Making administrative decisions stick: procedural fairness at work

- Wednesday, June 26, 2013

 

A starting point for any court of law when assessing the legitimacy of an administrative decision is fairness – procedural fairness

Now that Safe Work Australia has released the draft model code for bullying in the workplace, employers need to ensure that procedural fairness is at the heart of their response to bullying issues.

A fundamental concept of law is that whenever you make an administrative decision about an employee you need to ensure that the process was procedurally fair.

This applies uniformly to managing misconduct and performance management. Ensuring that actions are taken as a result of ‘reasonable management action’ involves abiding by these principles and sticking to your policies and procedures.

The case of Police Association of New South Wales (on behalf of Kim Gilmour) and Commissioner of Police NSWIRComm 51 is a classic example of how not to conduct a workplace investigation.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission found that the investigation process was so infected by procedural deficiencies as to contaminate the process.

The three key principals of procedural fairness are:
  • The right to be heard
  • The right to an unbiased decision maker
  • The right to have the decision based on evidence
Achieving an unbiased decision can be difficult, the decision makers must not be biased, that is:
  • Actually
  • Potentially or,
  • Perceived as being

It is not enough to get in a second or third opinion to form a committee of decision makers. Bias is assessed using the principle of one biased all biased, rendering any such decisions as biased as if they were made alone. 

When assessing whether there is perceived or potential bias, the law uses the reasonable person test to make the assessment: would a reasonable person in full possession of the same information think there was a potential or perceive a bias?

Flaws found by the Industrial Relations Commission (NSWIRComm 51 ) included:
  • the relevant decision-maker admitted that she: (a) had a pre-determined view of the outcome of the investigation prior to its completion and (b) took irrelevant matters into consideration in making her decision,
  • the initial investigator had been involved in one of the alleged incidents and had previous disagreements with the employee under investigation,
  • two witnesses present at the alleged incidents were not interviewed,
  • there were unreasonable delays in the process,
  • the employee under investigation was not given details of the allegations against him until he was interviewed many months after the investigation process commenced.
Putting this into practice in workplace investigations or in performance management practices:
  • The right to be heard means making sure the employee has enough information to know what they have done wrong, and provide them with an opportunity to be interviewed and provide their side of events.
  • Ensuring an unbiased decision maker means removing decision makers, managers and investigators who have had prior dealings with the employee that could affect their view of the current case. Anyone with a conflict of interest in determining the case without bias should be distanced from the proceedings.
  • The right to have the decision based on evidence entails collecting all the available evidence within reason, and assessing that evidence without bias or favour. Knowing how to weight the reliability of different forms of evidence is critical in drawing the correct conclusions in law.

Safe Work Australia Draft Code of Practice - Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying

Procedural Fairness: a practical guide for workplace investigators 

Five top tips on investigating workplace bullying

- Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New federal legislation passed this month means employers will need to pick up their game when managing complaints of workplace bullying.

Prevention is the best place to start. However, putting in place suitably qualified staff capable of conducting robust investigations and managing difficult cases is an essential strategy for any employer.

Previously, the investigation of workplace bullying involved managing the challenges of workers taking ‘sick leave’ and lodging a compensation claim for the stress caused by bullying at work.

Employers may also have had to navigate issues when HR became the subject of complaint when they assisted managers with performance management.

From 2014, however, HR policies and procedures will come under scrutiny directly by the Fair Work Commission, and staff will potentially have to handle prevention orders from the FWC.

This kind of oversight is not new to all business, but many will find this unfamiliar territory stressful. It will provide complainants with an extra level of control.

For the past 12 years, WISE Workplace has helped companies and government agencies manage investigations into bullying. Here are our top five tips for the successful management of these often difficult cases:

  1. Ensure procedural fairness is afforded to both complainant and respondent. This means allowing both parties to have their say.  More than just a procedural step, the key to procedural fairness is to ensure that this is done with an open mind and that key decisions are not made until ALL parties have been spoken to and supporting evidence gathered.
  2. Do not make assumptions based on your prior knowledge of parties involved. There are just as many frivolous, ill-conceived complaints as there are substantive ones - and some of the biggest bullies sit high up in an organisation.
  3. Do not allow staff to make ‘confidential’ complaints that may be about bullying. You have a legal responsibility to ensure that bullying behaviour does not go unchecked. If you receive complaints or whinges of behaviour that you consider could be bullying you will need to start an investigation regardless of the wishes of the complainant.
  4. Resist the temptation to perceive complainants as ‘difficult’ or disingenuous because they use or threaten external avenues for complaints. Lodging a workers compensation claim if you are harmed, lodging a complaint with the Fair Work Commission, a human rights commission, ombudsman or solicitor are all legitimate avenues for a victim of bullying. In extreme cases, victims may also legitimately report actions to the police. These things make the cases complex not implausible. 
  5. Make sure you understand the concept of the ‘reasonable person test’ when it comes to assessing management action and behaviour that may have a risk to health and safety.

Safe Work Australia has released the Draft Code of Practice - Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying for public consultation. Responses are invited until 15 July, 2013.

WISE Workplace offers training to HR professionals and managers on how to respond to workplace bullying, conducting investigations and making findings of fact. For more information you can call us on 1300 580 685.