Protecting workers from workplace hazards should be a key priority for employers. Workplace bullying is a major workplace hazard. Risks of workplace bullying include litigation, the possibility of psychological harm to employees, high staff turnover and reduced productivity.
Employers are often confused by the difference between reasonable management actions and bullying. The result being that workplace underperformance is not managed and productivity suffers.
Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable way is not bullying, this means:
• The behaviour must be management action;
• It must be reasonable for the management action to be taken, and
• Management action must be carried out in a manner that is reasonable.
The following are examples of what may constitute management action:
• Performance appraisals.
• Ongoing meetings to address underperformance.
• Counselling or disciplining an employee for misconduct.
• Modifying an employee’s duties including transferring or redeploying the employee.
• Investigating alleged misconduct.
• Denying an employee a benefit in relation to their employment
• Refusing an employee permission to return to work due to a medical condition.
A recent case before the Fair Work Commission highlights the difference between bullying and reasonable management actions.
An employee at a large building company commenced employment with the employer in July 2009. Initially he worked as a building estimator and then transferred to the position of site manager in September 2010. He was a trainee site manager for the first four months and then allocated sites to manage independently.
The employee made a wide array of claims against his employer and two of his managers. The site manager’s claims included ‘that increases in his pay were unfairly delayed, he was not given the opportunity to transfer to an area with greater career opportunities and was the subject of occupational health and safety breach allegations that came about because he was unfairly targeted by his managers’. Further adding that he was given an unreasonable workload by his managers.
The site manager also claimed that once he reached a point where he was no longer able to continue reporting to the two managers that he alleged bullied him, and the alternative positions he was offered involved either considerable extra travel or considerably lower pay.
The Fair Work Commissioner found several “unreasonable” incidents did occur, including the employee being called a “lackey” while training as a site manager. It is claimed an email was sent suggesting this the employee’s pay be delayed to show him how building contractors feel when they don’t get paid due to the necessary paperwork not being completed.
It is also alleged that there was an incident at an end-of-year work function in which another employee allegedly threatened the employee and a year later, the same employee challenged him to an arm wrestle.
The Commissioner noted that while the employer did not carry out reasonable management action in relation to some of these particular incidents, he found the specific events “were not the major issues raised by the complainant. Instead noting that the major issued complained about by the employee did not constitute “unreasonable behaviour”.
The Commissioner also found that the complainant “does not have a clear and accurate memory of events”, erroneously accused a colleague of corruption, did not have pay rises unreasonably withheld and also recorded that the complainant had received a first and final warning for safety breaches. It was also found that many of the training and management processes of the company, while robust, were not directed exclusively at the complainant ie. he was not singled out.
Managers and supervisors must remember that they have rights and obligations to take appropriate management action and make appropriate management decisions. They need to be able to effectively direct and control the way work is carried out, respond to poor performance and, if necessary, take disciplinary action. Not addressing poor workplace performance can have a negative impact on workplace culture, leading to reduced productivity, high staff turnover, poor morale and litigation.
iHR believes that prevention is the best cure and it is important that employers understand the difference between reasonable management actions and bullying. Protect your business by attending one of iHR’s Anti Bullying and Performance Management training programs.