Australia: Massive rise in work bullying claims

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Investigating bullying claims is an exhausting, emotionally taxing job for HR – yet as a new report has revealed the sheer increase in claims, HR must ensure quality investigation procedures are followed.

A federal government inquiry into the problem of bullying is currently underway, and in Perth this week, the West Australian reported that in WA alone there has been a massive rise in workplace bullying claims. Victim compensation claims more than trebled over the past four years. In 2010-11, some 105 workers' compensation claims for workplace bullying and harassment were filed in WA, up from just 30 cases in 2007-08.

While the total cost of compensation paid to the victims from 2010-11 has not been finalised, in the 2009-10 period the figure reached $2.7m in WA for only 85 claims.

The inquiry will consider matters including policy gaps and if there are sufficient deterrents to bullying. While employers, politicians and unions alike agree that bullying is a serious problem which can ruin people's lives and result in long-term problems for employers, the spike in claims also shines the spotlight on a sinister underlying problem – employees who falsify claims.

False accusations of bullying and sexual harassment are a concurrent issue to true instances of harassment. A high profile example occurred earlier this year, when the Federal Court ordered former Commonwealth Bank employee Vivienne Dye to pay $5.85m in legal costs after her claims of sexual harassment against two managers were found to be false.

In the finding, the judge said she had lied and had been motivated to make up false claims out of a “venomous desire for revenge”. The judge also commended the Commonwealth Bank for fighting to clear the managers’ names rather than making an out-of-court settlement to brush the bad press under the rug.

According to the Victorian Chamber of Commerce, the need to investigate matters thoroughly and fully cannot be overstated, particularly in cases where there are conflicting statements as to what has occurred. Where an employer seeks to rely on certain facts, they must be substantiated ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In practical terms, this means thoroughly testing the evidence on which the employer may rely before coming to a decision regarding substantiation.

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