Workplace bullying: what is it?

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What is workplace bullying in Australia?

What follows is a summary of what constitutes actionable workplace bullying under the Fair Work Act, and is extracted from a decision of a Full Bench of the Fair Work Commission.

“S.789FD of the Act sets out the test for establishing whether a person has been bullied at work. It provides as follows:

‘(1) A worker is bullied at work if:

(a) while the worker is at work in a constitutionally-covered business:

(i) an individual; or

(ii) a group of individuals;

repeatedly behaved unreasonably towards the worker, or a group of workers of which the worker is a member; and

(b) that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

(2) To avoid doubt, subsection (1) does not apply to reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.’

The test is objective. What is reasonable is a question of fact. Behaviour is unreasonable if a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, may consider it to be unreasonable. 5

The expression ‘repeatedly behaved unreasonably’ in s.789FD(1)(a) of the Act falls within a definition provision and is to be interpreted and applied with reference to the policy or purpose of Part 6–4B of the Act, which is to establish a mechanism by which the bullying of workers at work may be stopped. 6

A one-off incident will not be a sufficient basis for the making of an application to the Commission. 7 Provided there is more than one occurrence, there is no specific number of incidents required to meet the condition of “repeated” behaviour, nor does the same specific behaviour have to be repeated.8 The statutory provision requires repeated unreasonable behaviour by the individual or a group of individuals towards the applicant worker or a group of workers to which the applicant belongs.9

S.789FD(2) qualifies the definition of when a worker is bullied at work such that it does not apply to ‘reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner’. There are three elements to this qualification:

  • the behaviour must be management action;
  • the taking of such management action must be reasonable; and
  • the management action must be carried out in a manner that is reasonable. 10

The expression ‘management action’ in s.789FD(2) is not confined only to managerial decisions but encompasses a wider range of conduct or behaviour which affects an employee, including such things as performance and disciplinary matters, the allocation of work and the way in which work is to be carried out. 11 Placing an employee on a PIP clearly falls within the scope of the expression ‘management action’.

To determine whether the action constitutes “reasonable management action” it is necessary to undertake “an objective assessment of the action in the context of the circumstances and knowledge of those involved at the time”. 12 The test for reasonable management action is whether the “management action was reasonable, not whether it could have been undertaken in a manner that was ‘more reasonable’ or ‘more acceptable’.”13

The specific question of whether placing a worker on a PIP constituted “reasonable management action” for the purposes of s.789FD(2) of the Act, was considered by Vice President Hatcher in Mac v Bank of Queensland Limited. 14 In that case, the applicant, Ms Mac, argued that the managerial decision to impose, and continue to impose, a PIP on her, was not reasonable management action because the shortcomings in her performance had not been sufficiently serious to justify that decision being made.15 In assessing the reasonableness of this managerial decision, the Vice President did not attempt to form his own judgment as to whether Ms Mac’s overall performance was satisfactory, explaining:16

‘… I do not consider that an assessment of whether the imposition of the PIP on Ms Mac was unreasonable requires the Commission to engage in the process of attempting to form its own judgment as to whether her overall performance was satisfactory or not and to substitute its judgment for that of the relevant BOQ managers and supervisors. Even if a different and better opinion of Ms Mac’s work performance could legitimately be formed on the evidence before me, that would not be sufficient to show that the decision to introduce the PIP was unreasonable. What is necessary is for Ms Mac to demonstrate that the decision to introduce the PIP lacked any evident and intelligible justification such that it would be considered by a reasonable person to be unreasonable in all the circumstances.’ (emphasis added)

In the Decision subject to appeal the Commissioner agreed with the approach taken by the Vice President and applied it to the matter before him, noting:

‘It follows that I do not need to form my own judgment as to whether Mr Blagojevic’s overall performance was satisfactory or not. The primary issues for determination are whether the decision to introduce the PIP or revise it lacked any evident and intelligible justification, and whether the introduction and implementation of the initial and revised PIP was carried out in a reasonable manner.’ 17

It is convenient to note here that Mr Blagojevic did not challenge this aspect of the Commissioner’s decision; nor did he contend that Mac v BOQ was wrongly decided. For our part, we agree with the observations of Vice President Hatcher set out at [21] above.

Blagojevic v AGL Macquarie Pty Ltd and another (2018) FWCFB 4174 delivered 20 July 2018 per Ross J, Kovacic DP and Hampton C