By Paul Hemsley with Julian Bajkowski
Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten has given notice to workplace bullies that he will legislate to have certain kinds of bad behaviour defined in the Fair Work Act in the after tough recommendations from Parliamentary Inquiry about how to control on-the-job aggressors.
The proposed crackdown by the Gillard government comes as industrial relations issues, especially the protection of employee conditions, returns to the front of the policy agenda ahead of a forthcoming election on 14th September.
While the government announced the bullying inquiry back in May 2012 – after what it claimed was increasing community concern over of bullying in the workplace workplaces and industries – the issue has since greatly increased in resonance through the wider public sector after mass sackings of thousands of public servants prosecuted by the O’Farrell and Newman state governments in New South Wales and Queensland.
The increase in IR friction across jurisdictions was widely anticipated when recently elected Coalition state governments flagged their intention to curb union activity and influence in the state public sector.
But the less combatative federal public service has also had its share of bullying controversy following revelations about a hostile workplace culture at the CSIRO which been unfolded throughout 2012 just as the federal government was conducting the inquiry.
CSIRO chief executive Dr Megan Clark announced an independent review in February 2013 into workplace bullying at the organisation to investigate allegations by former staff after Comcare found that the CSIRO needed to improve how it manages its responses to bullying.
According to Dr Clark, however, Comcare “found no evidence of system deficiencies or a culture within the CSIRO … that enabled or promoted bullying type behaviour”.
Dr Clark acknowledged the allegations of bullying within the agency and announced the appointment of an independent person to review claims by former employees and assess whether previous investigations were adequate.
In the face of such problems, the federal Department of Employment and Workplace relations released the federal government response to the parliamentary inquiry’s report titled Workplace Bullying “We just want it to stop”, which supported “in principle” 19 out of 23 of the House of Representatives’ committee recommendations to address bullying in the workplace.
A core element of the federal government’s response to the parliamentary inquiry will be to amend the Fair Work Act to adopt the Committee’s recommended definition of bullying, which is as follows: “Bullying, harassment or victimisation means repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.
Mr Shorten said bullying and harassment have no place in any Australian workplace and that every Australian who goes to work should be able to come home safely.
“We want to make sure all Australian workplaces are safe, healthy and productive and to adopt a zero tolerance approach to bullying,” Mr Shorten said.
“We heard from those who gave evidence of their personal experiences to the Committee the importance of early intervention in bullying cases, to preserve the employment relationship, to stop bullying from continuing or escalating and to ensure their voices are heard.”
No longer confined to the education and training sector where it is commonly assumed to take place, “bullying” has become a prevalent term to describe any situation or circumstance where an individual may feel they have been mistreated, victimised or intimidated. As a result, this definition has extended to describe situations of a similar nature in the workplace.
The psychological damage potentially inflicted on individual employees as well as the economic is estimated to costs between $6 billion to $36 billion each year.
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