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A new national approach to workplace bullying

The Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment has released its findings on bullying in the workplace. The report, entitled Workplace Bullying: We just want it to stop was tabled on Monday 26 November 2012 and provides 23 recommendations to create a harmonised set of minimum standards and guidelines for the management of bullying in workplaces.

A nation-wide definition of workplace bullying

The Committee recommends the establishment of a national advisory service to offer advice and guidelines to both employers and employees on what does and does not constitute workplace bullying.  To this end it recommends the adoption of a nationally consistent definition of bullying and what constitutes bullying behavior:

“Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behavior directed towards a worker or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.”

This contrasts with the current situation where there is no express prohibition on workplace bullying in any Australian laws, and with different definitions of bullying and no real guidelines in State and Territory legislation. Add to this the overlap between the various employment, work health and safety and discrimination laws, and you can appreciate the complexities faced by employees and employers alike.

A code of practice for all employers

The report mentions the national body responsible for implementation of work health and safety laws – Safe Work Australia – is developing a code of practice for managing the risk of workplace bullying. This code of practice will be used to outline minimum standards of the Work Health and Safety Acts and Regulations in each State. The Committee also recommends that, once it is finalised, this code of practice should be elevated to model Work Health and Safety Regulations that would be applicable to all workplaces. These regulations would impose specific obligations on employers for managing the risks of workplace bullying.

Coalition members’ dissenting report

The three Coalition members of the seven-member Committee support the implementation of a national definition of workplace bullying, the establishment of a national advisory service, and having a national code. However, the Coalition members disagree with the notion of approaching the issue of bullying in the workplace by implementing a greater regulatory burden on employers as opposed to measures which will foster a positive, cooperative work environment. They also disagree with the report’s final recommendation that individual victims be given a right of recourse against perpetrators of workplace bullying. The Coalition members prefer the current jurisdiction afforded to workplace regulators to take action on behalf of victims.

Can harmonisation lead to harmony in the workplace?

The primary push of this report is to establish a harmonised, national system to manage workplace bullying. This mirrors efforts to do the same thing in other areas: Model work health and safety laws are being adopted by States and Territories to achieve consistent rules and coverage. Right now there are moves to harmonise various Federal anti-discrimination laws. (See our article on this here)

While we don’t welcome a greater regulatory burden on employers, we believe that the Committee’s recommendations should go a long way towards effectively identifying and dealing consistently with bullying, in all Australian workplaces. As the report makes clear, improving workplace culture is the singly most important investment that can be made in Australian organisations.

 

Andrew Gordon, Solicitor, BlandsLaw  

 

 

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