The importance of responding to bullying allegations
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The importance of responding to bullying allegations

The importance of responding to bullying allegations

Employers are urged to deal with complaints of bullying and harassment fairly, promptly and in accordance with their relevant company policies. Otherwise, they may find that an employee seeks intervention from the Fair Work Commission under the anti-bullying provisions which give the Commission power to stop bullying and harassment at work in its tracks.

In a recent case[1], a Ramsay Health Care (“Ramsay”) catering assistant applied to the FWC for an order to stop bullying at work alleging that her manager and HR Advisor failed to investigate or take any action into her complaints of continuing bullying and victimisation. The employee had attended a meeting to discuss allegations against her of unauthorised absence from work and breach of a reasonable management request. Following these allegations, the employee raised bullying and victimisation complaints.

The catering assistant alleged that a group of colleagues made jokes about her, eavesdropped on her conversations and singled her out. Further, she claimed that she was abused and repeatedly accused of being drunk at work, smelling of alcohol, taking extended smoking breaks and failing to properly perform her duties.

The employee gave her manager and HR advisor the names and contact numbers of three other colleagues, expecting they would contact them to corroborate the claims. She also asked that they contact her previous manager who she said was aware of the ongoing harassment.  Instead, they chose not to take the allegations any further.

Ramsay claimed that the matters were not investigated because the employee did not provide specific information about the allegations, particularly who, when and what happened. They believed that without these facts it was impossible to commence an investigation. Further, the company stated that the employee only advised them she was being bullied at work when allegations were raised with her about her performance or behaviour.

The FWC considered the Ramsay Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment policy and agreed with the employee that she had been a victim of bullying at work. The policy states that “Any reports of discrimination, harassment or bullying will be treated seriously and investigated promptly, confidentially and impartially in accordance with the Grievance Policy”. It was found that the policy did not stipulate a requirement that employees provide particular detail in support of a complaint of bullying. Instead, the manager and HR Advisor imposed their own requirement regarding how the employee was to complain before they would investigate.

The FWC criticised Ramsay for their approach and found that the failure to investigate the matter was inconsistent with their own policies. It was noted that, while some of the instances of bullying were at the lower end of the spectrum, there was no reasonable basis to explain why an investigation never occurred.  As a result, it was found that both the manager and HR advisor took unreasonable management action and behaved unreasonably towards her.

Lessons for employers

  • Remember that employers are obliged to develop and maintain a safe working environment for its employees which is free from discrimination, victimisation, bullying and harassment.
  • Review and update your bullying and harassment policies and procedures. Ensure that complaints are handled promptly, fairly and in accordance with policies and procedures.
  • Conduct workplace training for managers and HR advisors and provide a clear process for responding to employee complaints.
  • Do you have a social media policy which regulates conduct out of hours?  Remember that online platforms can be an outlet for bullying and harassment to occur.

Summary

In a recent case, the FWC made an order to prevent a catering assistant from being bullied at work in the future.  When the employee raised bullying complaints, her manager and HR advisor failed to investigate the matter, which was contrary to their own company policy.

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