The tragic death of Brodie Panlock in Victoria, following relentless bullying at the hands of her co-workers, has led to the enactment of what has become known as “Brodie’s Law”. This amendment to the Crimes Act has criminalised serious bullying in Victoria. The idea of anti-bullying laws is now gaining momentum nationally.
The Amending Act broadens the definition of stalking to include:
- Making threats, using abusive or offensive words, performing abusive or offensive acts, and directing abusive or offensive acts towards a victim;
- Acting in a way that could reasonably be expected to cause physical or mental harm to the victim; and
- Actions that would reasonably be expected to cause the victim to self harm.
For the first time, the Victorian Amending Act also widens the definition mental to include psychological harm and suicidal thoughts.
Other jurisdictions are now discussing similar laws. It is therefore in every business owner’s interest and even your legal responsibility to educate your employees about bullying, as both a business imperative and a moral responsibility.
In light of these legal changes and this growing awareness of bullying, business owners need to ask themselves:
- How does a business owner deal with seeing bullying occur in the workplace?
- How does a business owner deal with allegations made to them about the possibility of bullying occurring?
- How does a business owner deal with complaints that are made directly to them?
- How does a business ensure that their performance management processes can withstand bullying allegations?
What to do if you detect bullying
Every employer, large and small, should have formal employee grievance procedures in place and investigate any complaints. Business owners must act quickly and decisively. If an employee feels they are being bullied the situation they must have an avenue to air their complaint and handle the grievance confidentially and sensitively. If alleged bullying is found to be occurring, warn the ‘bully’, explain to them the effects of their behaviour and the undesirability of it. In serious cases and if the behaviour constitutes “serious misconduct” at law, you may be required to take further steps and terminate the ‘bully’. As a business owner, vulnerable employees expect you will be the saviour that stops the bullying, that you will ensure they are able to come to work, and stay at work, feeling safe and secure. It is your job to make it clear to every employee, regardless of length of service or position, that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated.
What to do if bullying is alleged
Simply being reactive with the mindset of until ‘X’ comes to me with a complaint themselves I will put my head in the sand is not adequate, nor acceptable. So taking action is absolutely necessary. Arrange to speak with the alleged victim of bullying in a confidential manner and speak with them generally about what you have heard and that you wanted to make sure everything was okay. From there, you will often be able to gauge if there is an issue. Remind all employees of anti-bullying policies you have in your workplace and grievance procedures if people want to use them.
How to deal with complaints about bullying?
Ensure that you act swiftly and objectively. If you fail to investigate a complaint you could then be at risk of action against you from government bodies and workers compensation authorities. In Victoria you may also be aiding and abetting a crime. Commencing an investigation can be complex and you need to work through a fair, open and transparent process that affords innocence until proven guilty. Ensure that all parties are afforded privacy wherever possible. Mistakes and a mishandled investigation may worsen a situation so if you are not confident consider outsourcing the investigation to specialists. It is a wise investment.
Performance management processes and bullying
Ensure that your processes are fair and transparent without any favouritism and be careful that performance management is not simply knee jerk reaction to a situation without substance. All employees need to be treated with fairness, respect and equally. Don’t apply different rules to different employees. When undesirable performance or conduct occurs, document things fully and where others have supervisory responsibilities ensure they are trained in performance management procedures. Educate employees, particularly those with supervisory responsibilities as to what is and what is not bullying. If you have a sensitive situation, do not feel confident or feel that your business may be at risk, again consider getting specialist advice.
Bullying is not going away and business need to educate all employees, supervisors and managers about what constitutes bullying and how your business will treat those that engage in this activity. We should not take our eyes off the ball in relation to genuine bullying cases but likewise ensure your business has processes in place that mean that legitimate performance management is handled correctly and does not morph into a bullying accusation. And the last word, don’t go it alone if you do not feel confident get assistance, the stakes can be higher than you think.
Robyn Anderson is the Managing Director of HR Navigation Australia, an HR/IR/Employment Law consultancy specialising in providing the services to the needs of Small and Medium Businesses. To contact HR Navigation call 1300 669 747 or visit www.hrnavigation.com.au.