Sorting bullying from vexatious claims

A STEEP rise in the number of reported allegations of bullying in the workplace has put huge pressure on small businesses that have to defend many frivolous claims.

A STEEP rise in the number of reported allegations of bullying in the workplace has put huge pressure on small businesses that have to defend many frivolous claims.

Mental health experts say a by-product of more reporting has been a surge in the number of bogus claims against employers who, without proper advice and training, find themselves on the defensive. This is what small businesses need to know.

Increased awareness - but not about specifics

Advertising campaigns and media saturation of high-profile bullying cases have heightened people's awareness, but not always their understanding, of workplace bullying, a clinical and organisational psychologist, Peter Cotton, says.

Dr Cotton holds advisory roles with the federal government's workplace safety body Comcare; WorkSafe Victoria; the national depression organisation beyondblue and several big private insurance companies.

"I review data from different jurisdictions and there has been a dramatic increase over the last few years in reporting of bullying," he said. "Our challenge is that this includes a lot of frivolous reporting. The real challenge is how to separate and identify the genuine and serious cases so we can hold workplaces and individuals to account appropriately."

Bully, bossy or rude?

An organisational psychologist with the FBG Group, Simon Brown-Greaves, said bullying had become an overused term some people took advantage of.

"Rudeness, impoliteness, challenging behaviours etcetera often attract the tag 'bullying'," he said.

Given its subjective nature, there is no standard definition of workplace bullying. WorkSafe Victoria says "workplace bullying is characterised by persistent and repeated negative behaviour directed at an employee that creates a risk to health and safety". The federal government intends to adopt a new national definition of workplace bullying and allow alleged victims to complain directly to a national body rather than state health and safety authorities.

No one wins

Since 1999, there have been only about 31 successful prosecutions in Victoria relating to bullying behaviour, despite more than 5000 calls to WorkSafe's advisory service on bullying in the past few years. In most cases there is insufficient detail for WorkSafe to pursue the allegations in court.

The Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry's executive director of workplace relations, Richard Clancy, said investigating bullying allegations, in compliance with OHS obligations, "takes time and money".

"[However], while some are indeed serious and legitimate, many allegations are without substance or fall short of constituting bullying," Mr Clancy said.

Damage control

Simple tips any workplace can adopt.

■Hold a workplace bullying education session with staff to talk about what

bullying is.

■ Don't avoid giving negative feedback because you don't want to deal with an employee and then bombard them with dreadful feedback at the last minute — it creates conflict.

■Adopt a principle of "no surprises", whereby there is no great discrepancy between how someone believes they are travelling and what their manager says to them.

■Have informal chats along the way.

Source: Dr Peter Cotton

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