Reasonable management.

Article updated on 15 April 2024 [Originally published in 2017]

Workplace bullying is an organisational problem.

It can happen in any type of workplace or industry. While a single incident of unreasonable behaviour may not necessarily constitute bullying, repeated patterns of behaviour such as teasing, name calling, yelling, gestures, or gossip can tamper with the mental peace of an employee, inhibiting their ability to carry out their role in the workplace and may pose a risk to health and safety.

But is stressful feedback or comments from a superior considered workplace bullying?

A reasonable management action is not bullying

The Fair Work Act (Section 789FD(2) specifically states that ‘Reasonable Management Action is not bullying’.

Management Action may not aim to induce anxiety or distress in employees, but negative feedback and particularly poorly conducted performance review aimed at addressing low productivity and performance can trigger feelings and be perceived as bullying by the employee.

It is important for  employees feel valued and respected during performance reviews. The purpose of performance feedback is to help employees improve their work. It should normally involve the development of an interactive Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) setting out expected standards, identify obstacles to obtaining improvement and set out what support the employee will receive to assist achieve the performance improvement required.

What may constitute a management action?

Determining the reasonableness of management action involves assessing the behaviour of the manager in conjunction with context, facts, and circumstances.  The following are some examples:

  • 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 such as bonuses or commission, in relation to their employment.

What is a reasonable manner?

Whether the management action was taken in a reasonable manner comes down to how the action impacts the worker, the circumstances under which the action was implemented, in addition to any other relevant factors. This may include consideration of, for example:

  • the circumstances of the individual involved.
  • whether anything should have prompted a simple inquiry to uncover further circumstances.
  • whether established policies or procedures were followed.
  • whether any investigations were carried out in a timely manner.

However, the impact on the employee cannot, by itself, establish whether the management action was carried out in an unreasonable manner, some degree of discomfort and embarrassment may frequently be the consequence of a manager exercising their legitimate authority at work.

The rights and obligations of managers

Managers and supervisors have the authority and indeed a duty to take appropriate, reasonable management action. 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 if employees fail to comply with reasonable and lawful management direction.

In doing so, managers and supervisors are not ‘bullying’, but undertaking their roles through reasonable ‘lawful’ direction of employees’ performance. Therefore, any perceived unreasonableness needs to stem from the action itself and not the employee’s perception of it.

For example, it is reasonable for employers to allocate work, and for managers and supervisors to give fair and constructive feedback on an employee’s performance. These actions are not considered to be bullying if they are carried out in a reasonable manner that considers the circumstances of the situation.

When is management action reasonable?

Determining whether management action is reasonable requires an objective assessment of the action in the context of the circumstances and knowledge of those involved at the time, including:

  • The circumstances that led to and created a need for the management action to be taken
  • The circumstances while the management action was being taken; and
  • The consequences that flowed from the management action.

This covers the specific ‘attributes and circumstances’ of the situation including the emotional state and psychological health of the worker involved.

The test is whether the management action was reasonable, not whether it could have been undertaken in a manner that was ‘more reasonable’ or ‘more acceptable’. In general:

  • Management actions do not need to be perfect or ideal to be considered reasonable.
  • A course of action may still be ‘reasonable action’ even if particular steps are not.
  • Any ‘unreasonableness’ must arise from the actual management action in question, rather than the worker’s perception of it, and
  • Consideration may be given as to whether the management action involved a significant departure from established policies or procedures, and if so, whether the departure was reasonable in the circumstances.

At the very least, to be considered reasonable, the action must be lawful and must not be irrational, absurd, or ridiculous.

Where to from here?

A reasonable management action is an important element in a manager’s toolkit, but it is a skill that can be mastered over time and with appropriate training. Our leadership-focused training programs:

  1. Custodians of Culture: Anti discrimination, bullying, and harassment sheds light on where to draw the line during performance reviews, and not have a bullying claim as a result.
  2. Managing Everyday Performance is yet another crucial program, specially designed for managers, supervisors, and team leaders with an aim to equip them with the skills and resources to effectively run a performance feedback process, without burning bridges with the employees.

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