No bullies here: improving your performance management processes

By Andrew Hobbs on December 12th, 2017
  1. Bullying, Harassment & Discrimination
  2. Bullying in the Workplace


BEING on the receiving end of a negative performance review is never fun, and employees’ reactions can range from quiet acceptance to forceful rejection.

Yet in some cases, these performance reviews can lead to employees accusing their boss of bullying and even pursuing the matter further through the Fair Work Commission (FWC).

If bullying occurs in your workplace, you can face penalties for breaching health and safety legislation as well as claims under the Fair Work Act 2009. And if the bullying claims are proven and a worker suffers a psychological injury, you could also be responsible for any workers’ compensation claims.

Workplace bullying is serious. In 2013-14, bullying and harassment claims cost Australian businesses a median of $22,600, according to Safe Work Australia (SWA).

Indeed, SWA’s Psychosocial health and safety and bullying report released late last year, showed that 9.4% of Australian workers said they had experienced bullying over the six-month survey period in 2014-15.

So, how do you make sure that you can discipline an employee effectively while avoiding any possibility of a bullying accusation?


The FWC will reject bullying claims when the alleged bullying conduct is in fact ‘reasonable management action’ – which is what workers’ compensation legislation across Australia requires managers to use in their daily dealings with employees.

This can include anything from assigning tasks, setting performance goals and standards, giving a worker feedback, deciding not to promote a worker or taking any warranted disciplinary action.

However, any management action, regardless of how justified it might be, can be considered bullying if it is carried out in an unreasonable way.

Unreasonable behaviour is any behaviour a reasonable person would consider victimising, humiliating, undermining or threatening in the circumstances where it took place.

This is a component of bullying, according to Editor-in-Chief of the Health & Safety Handbook and author of its  chapter on bullying.

“Bullying as harmful behaviour directed towards a person or group that is repeated, unwelcome and unreasonable,” Michael says.

“Such behaviour could include the use of abusive or offensive language, humiliating comments or unjustified criticism – such as singling out an employee at a staff meeting,” he warns.

Michael says workers can also be bullied indirectly – when managers set tasks that are significantly above or below their skill level, or are given unreasonable deadlines or are not given information that is vital for effective performance.

Making your management action reasonable

Be sure in all cases to deal honestly and transparently with your workers. Michael says when you consider launching management action against an employee, you should consider:

  • the reasons for the management action;
  • how will the action will affect the worker; and
  • the consequences that follow the management action.

You should also make an effort to handle your workers consistently – giving the same penalty for the same behaviour – and deal with workers fairly, giving them a reasonable opportunity to respond to any allegations of misconduct.

Michael says the Performance Management chapter in the Handbook also suggests the following process for managing an employee’s performance.

  1. Regularly review your worker’s performance and provide them with feedback.

“You need to periodically review the performance of all your workers and give constructive feedback so they are aware of any areas in which they may need to improve,” he says.

“You can do this through a performance appraisal – looking at a worker’s performance against the standards of their position description and against your business’s values and mission statement.”

However, he adds that regular informal performance appraisals might be useful to supplement the formal process – as the sooner a problem is brought to a worker’s attention, the sooner they can work to address it.

  1. Offer the worker additional training, coaching or counselling.

While training and coaching are self-explanatory, counselling requires a review of an employee’s performance with a view to clarifying expectations and helping them to meet specified objectives.

“Counselling sessions should occur before any disciplinary action is taken but after you have fully investigated the performance issue so that you can be sure of the facts,” Michael says.

“Remember, counselling is intended to be a focused discussion that makes your expectations clear,” he states.

  1. Develop a performance management plan.

A performance management plan is a document that outlines the performance goals an employer expects their workers to achieve. These can include health and safety objectives.

“Develop the plan with the worker and keep a copy in the worker’s file. Your performance management plan should identify dates for reviewing the worker’s progress,” Michael says.

  1. Monitor the worker’s progress.

“You can monitor a worker’s progress by competency testing, e.g. with a written test or by observing the worker’s performance. It would also be prudent to supervise the worker to ensure they are following the training they have received.

Your assessment process should be able to effectively determine whether the worker understands any training and counselling they have received, and whether they are meeting the goals outlined in their performance management plan.

For further information

Additional guidance about preventing bullying at your workplace and also how to safely use performance management processes to help improve employees’ attitude to workplace safety, safety performance and compliance with company policies, can be found in the Health & Safety Handbook.

Take a 14-day free trial of the Handbook and judge for yourself how valuable a tool it is.

Click here to find out more.

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