Bully boys or nanny staters – does the draft Bullying Code of Practice make the workplace unworkable?

Bullying behaviour costs billions of dollars per year and the effect on individuals who are targeted by bullies can be devastating, however the draft Code of Practice introduces the concept of intentional and unintentional bullying which, if adopted, will see managers with a lack of line management skill labelled as bullies.

Eye-rolling responses from managers, being given too much work and not being given enough could be classified as bullying under the national draft Bullying Code of Practice.

Employer groups quoted by News Limited papers have blasted Safe Work Australia’s “nanny state” rules, outlined in the draft national code.

Maurice Blackburn Lawyers claim that the code will require modification if a heavy burden on human resources departments is to be avoided, and Clayton Utz has observed that “persons conducting a business or undertaking”, including business owners, directors, senior officers and principal contractors will have to do more to eliminate risks associated with workplace bullying.

The code lists “not providing enough work” as a form of “indirect bullying”, along with constantly changing deadlines or setting timelines that are difficult to achieve. It advises employers to ban pranks and discourage “exclusive clubs or cliques”, so workers are not “ostracised” by colleagues.

The national code borrows from the federal public service policy on bullying, which even prohibits “eye-rolling responses” that might “diminish a person’s dignity”.

The Australian Industry Group’s representative on the board of Safe Work Australia, Mark Goodsell, said employers would start paying “go-away money” to avoid court cases.

“Every time something happens that an employee doesn’t like – including reasonable, necessary and constructive criticism and performance management – they will say they feel bullied. They latch on to some sense of entitlement that sends them down the compensation path, and then you have a pattern of ‘go away’ money. The problem is, it’s easy for people to make an allegation and it is expensive and difficult for companies and management to rebut it.”

Those managers who are perceived to ‘over-manage’ and ‘under-manage’ could be ‘unintentional’ bullies, according to the draft Code. For example, a manager or supervisor in a position of power may have a management style that seems to be strict or disciplinary when it is in fact bullying. Conversely a leader may have a style that is too relaxed and characterised by a tendency to avoid making decisions, inadequate or absent supervision of workers, inappropriate delegation of tasks to subordinates and little or no guidance or performance feedback being provided to workers.

The future of the code depends on the outcome of a parliamentary inquiry into bullying, ordered by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and it is anticipated to be finalised in the first half of 2013.

But the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) said the draft code has “all the worst elements of the nanny state”.

ACCI work health and safety manager Carolyn Davis said bullying was open to “subjective interpretation…the guidance must clearly distinguish bullying from legitimate management practices and reasonable management.”

Bullying is repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that causes a risk to workplace health and safety. iHR Australia cautions that senior managers and company directors must exercise due diligence with regards to workplace bullying and modify their management style accordingly. Organisations that appoint managers that have a purely technical background, for example in the engineering industry, but without the necessary people skills to do their job might be found to be vicariously liable for any resultant psychological injuries. For this reason, iHR recommends that organisations assess the training and development needs of their managers, or those moving in to supervisory roles, and provide appropriate training opportunities, coaching and support.