Employers have an obligation to create a safe workplace for employees. This includes protecting them from workplace hazards. Bullying is one such hazard. Employers who fail to protect employees from workplace bullying can end up in time consuming costly and disruptive workplace disputes.
A recent case before the Fair Work Commission highlights the importance of employers taking preventative action to prevent workplace bullying. The employee, a group leader at an early education centre in Sydney’s western suburbs, claimed she had been the victim of persistent bullying and harassment in the workplace. The employee alleges the bullying commenced in 2013.
The conduct complained of included:
- Belittling in front of parents and staff;
- Warnings without justification;
- Lack of communication from management; and
- Harassment with respect to absences and lack of punctuality.
The employer denied the allegations and countered that it had merely taken reasonable management action in a reasonable manner. The employer advised that they fully investigated a grievance lodged by the employee in November 2013 and the employee’s claims were unsubstantiated. It also claimed that it issued the group leader with two written warnings because she failed to maintain the portfolios of the children in her care and issued a third and final warning in August 2014 because she continued to fail in her duty to maintain portfolios for the children in her care. The employer said it offered mediation in November 2014 but the group leader refused to participate.
The FWC dealt with the matter via a conference in October 2014 but it remained unresolved, partly because the group leader had begun a period of maternity leave and did not return to the workplace until about December last year. The Deputy President of the Fair Work Commission refused to issue the anti-bullying ordering, ruling there was no risk of continued bullying due to resignations of the alleged perpetrators. The centre manager and senior manager who were the subject of the allegations had since resigned.
The employer advised that since the allegations were made they had put in place measures to ensure that it was better equipped to deal with bullying complaints. This included revising its harassment and bullying policy, requiring all employees and educators to acknowledge that they understood their rights and obligations, and rolling-out refresher training courses for a bullying-and-harassment free workplace.
While the employer successfully avoided an anti-bullying order, such a dispute can be disruptive and time consuming for employers and their staff. Disputes such as this can impact team morale and have a negative impact on workplace culture.
Being proactive about bullying minimises the chances of such disputes arising. Possible actions include:
- Providing ongoing training to staff to ensure they understand what is inappropriate workplace behaviour and what constitutes workplace bullying;
- Ensuring that bullying policies and procedures reflect current legislation;
- Ensuring that managers have the skills to address inappropriate workplace behaviour; and
- Appointing workplace Contact Officers and providing appropriate training.
iHR believe prevention is the best cure. Attend iHR’s Anti-Discrimination and Bullying Training for Managers Workshop to learn how managers play a key role in preventing and effectively managing bullying discrimination issues in the workplace, including management techniques and styles that can reduce the risk of workplace issues and litigation.