BULLYING INCIDENTS are landing a growing number of businesses in serious legal and financial trouble, according to a workplace law firm, with awards for compensation in the hundreds-of-thousands — if not millions of dollars — becoming more commonplace.
Shana Schreier-Joffe, a partner at Harmers Workplace Lawyers, said employers have a responsibility to their workers to foster an environment and culture where bullying and harassment does not occur, and if it does, occurrences are reported and appropriately dealt with, no matter the type or frequency of bullying.
“The cost of bullying to employers is not just the potential financial penalties. Bullying in the workplace can lead to unmotivated staff, staff that take more days off from work and ultimately the company will experience a high level of staff turnover,” said Schreier-Joffe.
“If bullying is occurring in a work environment, it is up to the employer to change the culture of the workplace — or face the consequences. If an employee is too scared to talk to their boss, or their boss’ boss about a bullying incident, the employer may be liable.”
If an employer gives any indication that a bullying incident is not their problem, Schreier-Joffe said the employer will be just as liable. “Change cannot happen overnight, but concerted efforts by employers must be made,” she said.
The courts do not look favourably upon any organisation, regardless of size, that has an incident of bullying, but has no policy or procedure in place informing its employees how to deal with and report incidents of bullying or harassment, Schreier-Joffe said. Similarly, employers must ensure such policies are very clearly understood, and enforced.
In one recent case, an employee was awarded more than $500,000 by the Federal Court of Australia because the employee’s company had an anti-bullying policy, which was implied in the employee’s employment contract, yet the company did nothing to protect him against bullying.
“The rise in the number of bullying cases being dealt with by the courts, industrial tribunals and commissions has several important implications for HR professionals and HR departments in particular,” Schreier-Joffe said.
“Policies dealing with bullying and harassment need to be put in place by HR personnel in a company. Further, it is insufficient that there are policies dealing with the subject matter, HR must take steps to ensure all employees are well aware of the policies and how to deal with a circumstance of bullying or harassment.”
In circumstances where there is a culture of bullying as a result of management behaviour, Schreier-Joffe said HR professionals should firstly educate management in the risks associated with the behaviour, and ensure that the company has policies and procedures that appropriately deal with the issue.
“Thirdly, actively attempt to change management behaviour by continually educating those concerned regarding the costs to the business both financially and in lost work hours, low morale and high turnover,” she said.
Litigation over bullying will increase over the coming five years, Schreier-Joffe said. “We are likely to see more litigation raising bullying as a basis for breach of the employment contract and any policies of the employer dealing with the subject matter. We are also likely to see more acceptance by the courts of bullying as an unacceptable work practice giving rise to discrimination claims.”
In the current environment where there is a scarcity of skilled and qualified employees, she said employees will simply leave an employer which does not protect them appropriately from bullying and harassment. Employers will find this especially challenging with generation Y, who are far more mobile and less loyal to their employer, Schreier-Joffe said.
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