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The serious threat SMEs are ignoring: One in two small businesses don’t have a policy for bullying claims

Emma Koehn /

One in two small businesses do not know how they would respond if bullying allegations were raised by their staff, according to new research, leaving them open to significant costs and productivity issues.

But workplace experts say these concerns can be prevented with forward planning.

A survey of 400 businesses from employment relations advisory Employsure found one in two Australian small businesses don’t have a “defined action plan” for when bullying is raised at work, with many unaware that they could face costs related to dispute resolution or even penalties relating to bullying cases in some states.

The research, which surveyed businesses with up to 15 employees, found those businesses with between two and four employees were the most likely to be unaware of best practice processes for dealing with bullying claims, with only 40% of businesses saying they know the steps they would take to address concerns about bullying within their businesses.

Employsure figures suggest businesses spend between $17,000 and $24,000, on average, to resolve a bullying case.

These figures include legal costs associated with having a matter heard by the Fair Work Commission, as well as staff absenteeism, but exclude any potential penalties imposed on the employer.

Senior workplace relations adviser at Employsure, Josh Vikis, says too many business owners are “busy running their businesses” and leave themselves vulnerable by not having bullying policies in place.

While too many haven’t thought about the fallout if serious allegations are raised, there are key steps a company can take to ensure staff are aware of expectations around behaviour, and that employees know where to go to raise issues, Employsure says.

These include having a formal ‘bullying and harassment’ policy at work, communicating reporting procedures to staff, and making sure everyone in the business knows how a claim will be responded to once it is made.

Senior workplace relations adviser at Employsure Harry Hilliar says because workplace safety regulations differ between Australian states, business owners should visit their state’s workplace safety regulator website for further information about workplace bullying.

When developing policies around workplace culture, it’s critical that small businesses get staff involved in developing and communicating these expectations, he says.

“The fundamental part of this is around consultation with workers, and having an open conversation about standards expected,” he says.

If a business is too small to have a formal occupational health and safety committee or other representative who takes care of workplace culture, it’s a good idea to bring in external help, he says.

“In a sense when it comes to very small businesses, the relationships within these are just critical — so bring someone else in you can ask.”

Take steps to keep a team strong through conflict

Leadership expert Pollyanna Lenkic says that when it comes to many kinds of conflict at work, businesses can develop plans to help resolve concerns without situations becoming a drain on the productivity of other staff.

It’s important for small businesses to understand that just because they are tight-knit teams, it doesn’t mean they are safe from disharmony or bullying claims, Lenkic says.

Sometimes being in a small environment makes it harder to get respite, and you [as a staff member] can also feel at greater risk,” she says of conflict in small businesses. 

However, business owners that focus on communication and the best outcomes for the team tend to do better at resolving concerns, she says.

The first thing an SME owner can do to help resolve bullying and other concerns smoothly is to face any problems head-on.

The first thing is you can’t avoid the situation, because the natural tendency is to avoid [talking] about it. But if you’ve got a framework for this, and a good support mechanism, then that’s key,” Lenkic says. 

While many small businesses are reluctant to call upon external experts, Lenkic says it can be helpful to have a workplace adviser or external facilitator available to help resolve disputes, as they can often help staff discuss concerns while bringing in an independent perspective.

“This approach can be incredibly powerful, because I’ve seen time and time again how people within a business can be locked into one perspective,” she says.

Thirdly, small businesses should develop a plan for the first steps the company will take when faced with a claim of conflict or bullying, with Lenkic suggesting the focus should remain on how behaviour affects the team, rather than just focusing on the emotions of individuals involved.

“We also sometimes need to look at what the team needs,” she says.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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