Considering the impact of proposed workplace bullying reforms

As Federal politicians consider reforms to Australia’s workplace bullying laws, Victoria’s workplace safety authority WorkSafe has revealed that over 6000 people contacted them about bullying, but only 5% of these enquiries were referred for investigation, according to a report in The Age.

The reason for this low conversion rate, WorkSafe says, is that many of the contacts they receive are people seeking advice and information rather than people making a complaint.

These statistics from Victoria are an interesting frame through which to view the proposed amendments under discussion in Canberra including the yet to be approved; Draft Code of Practice – Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying. Under the proposed system, workers could apply directly to the Fair Work Commission seeking an order to stop bullying at their workplace. The proposed reforms also include the development of national training standards to deal with bullying complaints and promoting a national definition of workplace bullying.

Understandably, there is much concern about allowing employees to seek redress from the Fair Work Commission. It is not yet clear how the process will be dealt with in legislation – some are anxious that the reforms might allow employees to bypass established internal processes for dealing with workplace bullying. If not drafted carefully, the legislation could have a significant impact on individual employers and could inundate the Fair Work Commission.

Quoted in The Age, WorkSafe Victoria’s General Manager, Lisa Sturzenegger noted that people’s perceptions of bullying are also part of the issue: ”At times people might feel that their working life is unpleasant and that they are being inappropriately treated,” however this may not mean they are being bullied. Ms Sturzenegger acknowledged that poor management practices or organisational processes may not amount to bullying behaviour.

These statistics have a deeper meaning for employers; that employees must be properly trained to understand what constitutes workplace bullying, their rights and responsibilities at work and internal processes for raising concerns.

Furthermore, if an employee makes a complaint which, upon investigation, is not upheld, this does not necessarily mean there is no issue to be addressed. Although WorkSafe may have only escalated 5% of enquiries to investigation level, the issues which may lead employees to make their enquiries, such as inappropriate management practices or poor workplace cultures, are still in need of attention.