by David Bates

From 1 January 2014, most Australian employees will be eligible to lodge workplace bullying claims directly with the Fair Work Commission (FWC). The FWC is required to begin dealing with applications within 14 days of receipt and Commissioners will have the power to issue ‘stop-bullying’ orders which can lead to penalties of more than $50,000.

Now’s the time to act and protect your business from embarrassing hearings and hefty penalties. Here are the top 5 things every employer needs to know about the new laws:

1. Most employees are covered by the new laws

The new bullying provisions are part of the Fair Work Act 2009, but only apply to employees in incorporated businesses. This means employers operating as sole-traders or unincorporated partnerships are not covered by the new bullying laws.

Even so, most employees will be covered and the FWC estimates (conservatively) that more than 3500 bullying cases will be lodged each year.

2. Bullying has a specific definition

The new laws define bullying as any repeated conduct of an unreasonable nature that creates a risk to health and safety. While this is a broad definition, note that the Act also says that ‘reasonable management action’ taken in a ‘reasonable manner’ is not bullying.

So, take time now to consider your disciplinary and performance management processes – as well as your own management style – and adapt these where necessary.

3. The new laws don’t just apply to employees

The new bullying provisions apply to ‘workers’, not just ‘employees’. The definition of ‘worker’ is taken from the national workplace health and safety laws and is wider than you might think. ‘Workers’ include your employees, contractors, apprentices, trainees and even volunteers.

It’s a good idea to ensure your employment policies and procedures (see below) take this much broader definition into account.

4. Good policies and procedures are essential

The new laws require the FWC to consider whether your business has effective policies and procedures in place to deal with workplace bullying complaints. If you do, you’ll be in a much better position if you find yourself hauled into a hearing at the Commission.

5. Employees can still lodge claims under the old laws

The new laws allow eligible employees to lodge claims with the Commission and still pursue compensation under state/territory OH&S laws. Yet another good reason to pro-actively stamp out bullying - and unjustified allegations of bullying – in your workplace.

Important information:
 This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.