How appointing a contact officer can reduce the expense of bullying allegations

It has been reported that workplace bullying is costing Australian businesses between $6 and $13 billion per year, due to drops in productivity, higher rates of absenteeism, higher staff turnover and poor employee morale.

According to a survey by Drake International, workplace bullying is insidiously widespread in Australia. Of 800 employees surveyed, half had witnessed bullying and 25 percent were the victims of bullying behaviour. In some industries, these figures tend to be far higher. Evelyn Field, a clinical psychologist and author of various resources on workplace bullying, accounts this prevalence to the lack of people-management skills in the workplace, further stating the importance of taking a complaint seriously by validating the target’s perception of the situation. Employers must recognise the importance of addressing such issues by putting into practice straightforward policies, procedures and training as to what constitutes acceptable behaviour, in addition to providing clear channels for enforcing these policies.

So what is the best practice when a workplace bullying complaint, or any harassment or discriminatory allegation for that matter, is lodged?

This is where the role of a Contact Officer or Equity & Diversity Officer (normally assumed by a manager, team leader or supervisor) can be pivotal in resolving the situation and mitigating the financial risk and repercussions for a company. A denial or attempt to downplay the complaint only exacerbates the situation – as one organisation learnt in a very costly way.

One case tells of a fashion retailer who paid $240,000 as compensation to an employee who suffered undue psychological distress shortly after her 2010 return to work from maternity leave. Her new store manager was allegedly isolating her from business matters, ignoring her offers to assist, speaking aggressively and criticizing her past and present performance. When she complained to the Queensland business manager about the bullying, she failed to receive proper support and resolution, in spite of the employer having formal anti-bullying policies. Instead the business manager’s response was that “she was going to have to work it out herself”.

The judge noted importantly that the lack of support from the business manager was itself a causative factor which contributed to the employee feeling abandoned and under attack.

The judgement from the Supreme Court of Queensland found that a reasonable person in the employer’s position would realise that if the initial complaint was not properly addressed, the degree of emotional distress would likely worsen for the employee. Therefore, the employer ought to have realised that suffering psychiatric injury was a reasonably foreseeable risk.

As the first point of contact when a workplace conflict arises, managers and leadership staff need to have the discerning knowledge and confidence to identify and respond effectively to prevent or manage the escalation of bullying, harassment and discrimination concerns.

iHR Australia’s Contact Officer Training provides participants with a sound understanding of the role’s responsibilities and the pragmatic ability to respond to and deal with allegations of workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying behaviours against relevant legislative guidelines. The program is designed to maximise learner engagement and transfer of knowledge through iHR’s signature Workplace Reality Theatre – an opportunity for participants to practice newly acquired techniques and skills by interacting with actors that re-create real-life workplace scenarios.