A recent study has revealed that half of Australian employees experience workplace bullying during their careers. This results in psychological and physical health risks to the victims as well as significant socio-economic costs for employees, their families, organisations, and the wider community.
Bullying in the workplace—the unreasonable repeated behaviour that poses health and safety risks to a worker or group of workers—includes but isn’t limited to:
- Physical and/or verbal assault
- Constant negative criticism and demeaning remarks
- Rude and offensive language, and yelling or screaming
- Inappropriate and derogatory jokes about a person’s appearance, lifestyle, and background
- Isolation of a worker or group of workers from normal work interaction, training, development, and/or career opportunities
- Overwork, unnecessary pressure, and unreasonable deadlines
- Underwork, creating a feeling of useless or invalidation
- Unacceptable aggressive behaviour by a more senior officer
- Tampering with someone’s work materials, equipment, and tools
- Meaningless tasks and roles, unexplained job changes, and responsibilities beyond a person’s skills and/or training
- Over-detailed management and supervision and unwarranted checking of performance
- Unreasonable sanctions such as undue delay in processing applications for training, leaves, and/or expenses
Studies also reveal that:
- 40 per cent of all Australian workers experienced bullying early in their professional life
- Young males, those with limited social support at work and in stressful environments, are most at risk
- One in three women who claim for mental disorder states it involves harassment or bullying in the workplace
- One in five men who claim for mental disorder discloses it involves harassment or bullying in the workplace
- Almost 20 per cent of workers say they have experienced discomfort due to sexual humour in the workplace
Workplace bullying poses both psychological and physical health risks to workers, which in turn significantly affect the socio-economic costs for employees, their families, organisations, and the larger community. Federal legislations have been passed to ensure bullying in the workplace does not occur, or its occurrence prevented right away. This means employers need to up their approach in managing workplace bullying complaints.
As an employer, the following are the things you need to do and observe in investigating bullying complaints in the workplace:
- Procedural fairness to both complainant(s) and respondent(s)
- Assumptions based on your prior knowledge of parties involved should be avoided at all times
- Do not let employees make only “confidential” complaints, as you have a legal responsibility to ensure the occurrence of bullying does not go unchecked
- Always resist the urge to perceive complainants as simply “difficult” and/or disingenuous
- Make sure you thoroughly understand the “Reasonable Person Test” concept
The severity and substance of the complaint will determine the appropriate type of investigation. If the issue appears to be relatively minor, proceed by calling a meeting or mediation of the parties involved. When the allegations are serious, involving violation of human rights legislation or an act of crime for example, a much more formal and intensive investigation is necessary.
Conducting the investigation
Given that each complaint is a unique case, employers should be able to take the most appropriate action and make the best decisions in proceeding with the investigation. Here are things to do and/or consider during the investigation process:
- All complaints should be treated seriously and promptly
- Neutrality should be observed at all times, and judgment shouldn’t be rushed
- Ask for the most specific details of the complaint in writing and follow-up with the complainant(s) to clarify and pin down details, identify witnesses, and understand the scope and severity of the complaint
- During the investigation, determine if a workplace change is necessary to aid the investigation process—if there is a need to, effect the change(s) the soonest possible time
- Unless prejudicial to the investigation, provide notice to the respondent and assure them of procedural fairness
- Allow all parties their right to representation
- Document all necessary statements and key evidence
- Provide respondent with sufficient particulars of the allegations and the opportunity to respond to said allegations
- Preserve confidentiality and observe neutrality the entire time
- Conclusions must only be reached after all evidence are gathered and evaluated and the respondent has had the opportunity to clarify and respond to the allegations
A report should be drafted to complete the investigation process. The report should bear the conclusions arrived at, supported by evidence, and by applying the appropriate standard of proof.
The size of the report is dictated by the scope of the investigation. Regardless of the scope however, a report should always be issued sufficiently containing all uncovered facts, evaluated evidence, and verified statements by all parties involved. The investigator should consult and review with the employer on recommended remedial steps.
Finally, promptly advise both the complainant and respondent of the outcome of the investigation. And sanctions, if found necessary, should be implemented the soonest possible time.
The investigation process usually has significant emotional, sometimes even psychological and physical, impacts on all the parties involved. By observing propriety and promptly conducting the investigation, you as an employer, will be able to reduce tension and other avoidable stressors.