A DRAMATIC increase in the number of workplace bullying allegations has placed huge pressure on small businesses forced to defend many frivolous claims.
Mental health experts say the byproduct of increased reporting has been a surge in bogus claims levelled against employers who, without proper advice and training, find themselves on the defensive.
Here's what small businesses need to know.
INCREASED AWARENESS ... ABOUT WHAT? Advertising campaigns and media saturation of high-profile bullying cases have heightened awareness - though not always understanding - of workplace bullying, according to clinical and organisational psychologist Peter Cotton.
Dr Cotton deals with workplace bullying across many contexts, through his advisory roles with Comcare (the federal government's workplace safety body), WorkSafe Victoria, national depression organisation beyondblue and large private insurance companies with millions of members.
"I review data from different jurisdictions and there has been a dramatic increase over the last few years in reporting of bullying," Cotton said.
"Our challenge is that this includes a lot of frivolous reporting.
"Bullying started to become a bit of a catchall to categorise any sort of discontent.
"The real challenge is how to separate and identify the genuine and serious cases so we can hold workplaces and individuals to account appropriately," he said.
Simon Brown-Greaves, organisational psychologist from FBG Group, said his organisation "was seeing a dramatic increase in people and organisations seeking advice and support around the bullying issue".
"As someone who has been around a while, it feels like the new compensation ticket replacing stress and RSI," Brown-Greaves said.
"There are many people who are experiencing difficulties in the workplace that cause genuine distress. But equally, many see bullying as a way to manage their challenging circumstances."
BULLY, BOSSY OR JUST PLAIN BITCHY? Brown-Greaves said "bullying" had become an overused term that some people took advantage of.
"We now see bullying as a label that has come to include a broad range of behaviours in the workplace," he said.
"Rudeness, impoliteness, challenging behaviours etc. often attract the tag 'bullying'."
Given its inherently subjective nature, there is no standard definition of workplace bullying in Australia. Earlier this month the federal government announced plans to adopt a new national definition, allowing victims to complain directly to a national body rather than state health and safety authorities.
According to WorkSafe Victoria, "workplace bullying is characterised by persistent and repeated negative behaviour directed at an employee that creates a risk to health and safety".
Workplace bullying falls under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in Victoria and a breach occurs "when an employer or another person at work has failed in their duty to maintain a safe environment for others".
WorkSafe health and safety executive director Ian Forsyth said "the highly personal and emotional nature of this issue continues to provide challenges in the way allegations of workplace bullying can be responded to".
"At times people might feel that their working life is unpleasant and that they are being inappropriately treated," Forsyth said.
"However, feeling upset or undervalued at work does not mean an individual is being bullied at work.
"Dissatisfaction or grievances with organisational and management practices, or poor management practices on their own, do not constitute workplace bullying."
NO ONE WINS Since 1999, there have been about 30 successful WorkSafe prosecutions relating to bullying behaviour in Victoria. This is despite more than 5000 calls to WorkSafe's advisory service relating to bullying in the past few years.
Only a small proportion of complainants provide detailed allegations that allow WorkSafe to pursue the matter in court.
While the small number of successful prosecutions indicates most Victorian workplaces are reasonably safe places, it poses a dilemma for small businesses and many are seeking advice from the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI).
VECCI executive director of workplace relations Richard Clancy said it was "very important employers have procedures in place to respond to allegations of bullying". "There is no doubt there is greater community awareness in relation to bullying, which is very important, but employers have increasingly found themselves subjected to allegations of bullying after having raised legitimate performance issues with employees," Mr Clancy said.
"Workplace bullying is currently covered by OHS laws and while not specifically defined, bullying-type behaviour is generally characterised as a pattern of negative behaviour directed at an employee that creates a risk to his or her health and safety.
"This is very important, because although employees might be subjected to a single incident of inappropriate management action and this is a negative experience, it will not necessarily constitute workplace bullying," he said.
Clancy said it was important that managers be able to raise performance issues with staff, "but if this draws a bullying complaint, they are then required to investigate the claims".
"This takes time and money and whilst some are indeed serious and legitimate, many allegations are without substance or fall short of constituting bullying," he said.
Five simple tips any workplace can adopt
■Hold a workplace bullying education session with staff to talk about what is, and isn't, bullying.
■Don't avoid giving negative feedback because you don't want to deal with employees and then bombard them with dreadful feedback at the last minute - it creates conflict.
■Don't start the performance management process three-quarters of the way through and surprise someone with silent expectations.
■Adopt the "principle of no surprises" whereby there should not be any great discrepancy between how someone believes they're travelling and what their manager says to them.
■Have informal chats along the way.
■For more information about how to respond to bullying in the workplace go to:
SOURCE: DR PETER COTTON