Hurt feelings and workplace bullying are not the same according to Fair Work Commission
A common concern for managers is what constitutes workplace bullying. A recent case before the Fair Work Commission highlights the importance of managers understanding the definition of bullying and specifically the difference between bullying as repetitious unreasonable behaviour and hurt feelings.
The Commissioner dismissed the medical receptionist’s application for a stop bullying order, saying the case reinforces the important distinction between reasonable workplace conduct and an employee’s self-belief that they had been bullied or feelings of discomfort.
The Commissioner concluded that “there was no risk to her health and safety by returning to work”.
The medical receptionist worked at the medical centre on a casual basis and alleged she had been bullied by three of her colleagues after an incident in December last year. The receptionist made several allegations against the Clinic Coordinator.
It is alleged that the Clinic Coordinator requested the employee to write detailed messages for staff when that staff member was unable to take a telephone call. The receptionist suggested that the three casual receptionists discuss the request as a group. The employee alleges her manager did not reply to the suggestion and this constituted bullying.
Another allegation related to an incident in which the reception desk was left unattended for 40 minutes while the receptionist attended a doctor’s appointment at the clinic. The employee’s manager asked the employee to return to reception and that she could see the Doctor after she finished work at 2:00 pm.
The receptionist described the event as “confronting”.
Other allegations include that her colleagues behaved inappropriately towards her when they allegedly teased her, made practical jokes, behaved aggressively and ignored her work requests in accordance with her roles and responsibilities. She also claims that employees were “checking up” on her and giving compliments to the other receptionists.
The Commissioner dismissed the receptionist’s application, finding that the alleged bullying was “over-estimated”, “insubstantial” and that there was no repetition of unreasonable behaviour.
Further adding that if the Commission was to give the alleged conduct the “expansive view” contended by the receptionist, then reasonable workplace behaviour and reasonable management action would be trumped by a person’s feelings of being anxious or uncomfortable.
While the employer was not found to be at fault in this instance the above case illustrates the importance of all staff attending regular anti-bullying training so that they understand the difference between reasonable management and bullying. Had the employee attended anti-bullying training they may have understood that their grievances did not constitute bullying and they may have taken a different course of action. The employee would have also been informed about the importance of workplace contact officers. Had the employee discussed this matter with a contact officer the employee may have understand that their grievances did not constitute bullying and taken a different course of action.
Disputes such as this are costly for employers as time spent preparing for the proceeding and attending the commission impacts productivity. Such disputes also negatively impact team morale.
Employers can prevent allegations of workplace bullying by being proactive. Actions include:
- Providing ongoing training to staff to ensure they understand what is inappropriate workplace behaviour and what constitutes workplace bullying;
- Ensuring all new employees undertake a formal induction process and ensure all staff have read relevant policies and procedures;
- Ensuring that bullying policies and procedure reflect current legislation;
- Ensuring that managers have the skills to address inappropriate workplace behaviour; and
- Appointing workplace Contact Officers and providing appropriate training.