Fair Work Commission girds its loins for workplace bullying complaints

Official statistics on workplace bullying in Australia are notoriously unreliable.  The Productivity Commission estimated the cost of workplace bullying with a huge margin of variation, between A$6 billion and A$36 billion annually.  WorkSafe Victoria has indicated in the past that the number of interventions on workplace bullying is way below the number of workplace bullying complaints.  On 29 October 2103, in a long discussion on workplace bullying the Australian Capital Territory’s Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher stated:

“According to reports from the Commissioner for Public Administration, reports of bullying and harassment have totalled 68 cases in 2010-11, 71 in 2011-12, and 118 cases in the financial year that has just passed, 2012-13. Proven cases of bullying have numbered four, eight 11 and 19 respectively. This amounts to complaints being made by 0.5 per cent of staff, and substantiated in relation to 0.08 per cent of staff.” (Hansard, page P3930, emphasis added)

These latest statistics, in conjunction with those previously reported, indicate that the perception of workplace bullying is much higher than the reality in Australia.  One could argue that the workplace bullying complaints are a better indication of general worker dissatisfaction than bullying, but there is no denying that workplace bullying is a reality for a small proportion of the population.

Cover of fwc-ar-2013-webThis is significant when one considers that the Australian Government is continue to beef up the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in anticipation of a flood of complaints when new bullying complaint processes are introduced on 1 January 2014.  Senator Eric Abetz was reported as saying, on November 2, 2013:

“…. the government had been in discussions with the commission about introducing new rules designed to ensure the tribunal was ‘‘not clogged up’’ by the introduction of new ant-bullying [sic] laws.”

According to the latest Annual Report of the Fair Work Commission, it has established an Anti-bullying Implementation team which has been:

“…preparing information in clear, simple language across a range of formats for publication on 1 January 2014. These materials will help workers and employers understand the new jurisdiction and the Commission’s processes for dealing with allegations of workplace bullying.” (page 65)

There is still no indication from Safe Work Australia for the release of its workplace bullying guidance but one could expect it to be released before Christmas in support of the FWC strategy.

The FWC would be doing everyone a service if on a regular basis, perhaps twice yearly, it reported

  • the number of workplace bullying complaints received
  • the number rejected, or referred elsewhere
  • the number investigated, and
  • the number resolved.

This would go some way to showing the OHS regulators and business operators that the hazard of workplace bullying may not be as big an issue as they were led to believe.  It would establish a reality and from this reality more sustainable hazard control strategies could be developed.  Perhaps then, the focus will shift to the broader and more significant issues of workplace mental health, stress and other psychosocial matters.

Kevin Jones

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