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Bully law fear

Tuesday, 19th November, 2013

By Darrin Manuel

At what point does disciplinary action in the workplace become bullying?

That’s the question law firms and business groups are asking ahead of the implementation of new anti-bullying laws on January 1, 2014.

A number of groups have expressed concern that the laws are too broad, and could be exploited by employees who are underperforming or facing dismissal.

Under the current laws, those who believe they are being bullied at work must try to resolve the issue internally, use workplace health and safety laws, or submit a workers’ compensation claim.

But under the new legislation if a worker “reasonably believes” he or she is being bullied, a submission can be made to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and the matter must be heard within 14 days.

The FWC may make orders to stop bullying where it is satisfied that the worker has been bullied, and there is a risk that the bullying behaviour will continue.

Any employer that does not comply with an anti-bullying order can be slapped with a stiff penalty of up to $51,000 per offence for companies, and $10,200 for individuals.

However, if management action against an employee is found to have to been carried out in a “reasonable” manner, the worker will not be classified as being bullied.

The loose guidelines prompted Council of Small Business Australia chairwoman Amanda Lynch to recently say she could “drive a truck through the holes in the legislation.”

Chamber of Commerce President Anne Rogers said all local businesses would need to ensure they were thoroughly educated on the new legislation to avoid trouble with employees.

“We’d advise any employer if an issue comes up, make sure you’ve read every bit of paperwork and make sure you get some advice,” said Ms Rogers.

“I went to a recent (anti-bullying) seminar and big money has been put aside for this legislation because they are expecting so many cases.”

Meanwhile, managing principal of law firm People + Culture Strategies, Joydeep Hor, told Business Review Weekly that the new laws would prompt a wave of grievances in the workplace.

“There will be a litany of complaints that are made that were not intended to be captured by the laws,” said Mr Hor.

“Many of them will be genuinely aggrieved individuals who are looking for a solution to a workplace problem.

“What will be found is that as unhappy as they may be and as wronged as they may have been, they were not bullied.”

The coalition government has shown a willingness to review the legislation, and Employment Minister Eric Abetz said this week that the government would “eagerly watch” the implementation of the laws from January 1.

Labor has since indicated that it would not support any move by the government to water down the new legislation.

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