So unreasonable: Managing or Bullying?

  • So unreasonable

Many workplace grievances submitted for investigation pertain to a belief that a person’s manager is bullying them and engaging in unreasonable behaviour. We all have different perceptions and therein often lies the problem. A person making a complaint can perceive a request or action to be unreasonable on the basis that they may; feel singled out, humiliated, dislike being questioned about their conduct or performance or view feedback as nit-picking. Some issues frequently resulting in complaint allegations include, a manager:

  • failing to recognise positive performance and being unnecessarily critical in assessments of competence
  • questioning a timesheet submission
  • requiring attendance at multiple meetings to address underperformance
  • editing a document submitted by a person
  • loudly chastising and being demeaning
  • being perceived to be overly inflexible about timed lunch breaks to some staff but flexible to others
  • requesting a medical certificate after a sick leave absence of two days

So are these examples unreasonable? It all comes down to each particular set of circumstances and fundamentally, the reasonable person test. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) describes unreasonableness as ‘behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard to the circumstances, may see as unreasonable, (in other words it is an objective test)’.

As expressed by Hampton C of the FWC, when dealing with an application under the Commission’s anti-bullying jurisdiction:

‘management actions do not need to be perfect or ideal to be considered reasonable;’

‘a course of action may still be ‘reasonable action’ even if particular steps are not;’

‘to be considered reasonable, the action must also be lawful and not be “irrational, absurd or ridiculous”;’

‘any ‘unreasonableness’ must arise from the actual management action in question, rather than the applicant’s perception of it; and’

‘consideration may be given as to whether the management action involved a significant departure from established policies or procedures, and if so, whether the departure was reasonable in the circumstances.’

Holding a perception that your manager is being unreasonable can result in feelings of persecution and immense emotional angst. Sadly, the grievance process itself can cause these feeling to escalate. To help curb this it is wise to take steps where possible prior to entering into the process. Having a fuller idea of the problem and of whether a manager’s actions have been unreasonable can help with clarity of thought and reduce emotional distress. Some suggestions are to:

  • Discuss your concerns directly with your manager to see if there is a bigger picture that could explain the perceived unreasonableness.
  • Contact your Employee Assistance Program to gain a potentially different perspective.
  • Talk with Human Resources to establish if the request or action fits within organisational policies and practices.

References: Ms SB [2014] FWC 2014 (12 May 2014) [51], Fair Work Commission Benchbook Anti-bullying, 2014