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The top 5 workplace issues for 2014

Editorial
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As we enter the first working weeks of the new year, law firm Justitia examines what will be the workplace issues in focus for 2014.

1. The effect of the updated workplace bullying laws

The amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009, which focus on workplace bullying, started operation on 1 January.

These changes introduced the first individual right of recourse of workplace bullying in any jurisdiction, Justitia explained.

"Workers who reasonably believe that they have been bullied at work may apply directly to the

Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying," Justitia said.

"The Commission will be required to start dealing with an application to stop bullying within 14 days of the application being made.

"It may do so by taking steps to inform itself of the matter, conducting a conference or holding a formal hearing. In the process, the Commission will consider the outcome of any other investigation into the matter and any other procedure that is available to the worker to resolve the grievance.

"While it cannot make an order for re-instatement or the payment of a pecuniary amount to address the bullying, the Commission can, amongst others, order an individual or group to stop the bullying behaviour, or require an employer to implement anti-bullying policies and training. A breach of an order made by the Commission will attract a maximum penalty of up to $10,200 for an individual or $51,000 for a body corporate."

However there are some employers that will be exempt from these new laws, such as State government and unincorporated bodies like sole traders, partnerships, and not-for-profit associations.

Justitita describes the new amendments as a quick and relatively inexpensive mechanism to resolve workplace bullying issues. 

"We think it will prove a popular option for aggrieved employees and their union representatives to get the attention of their employer," it said, adding that "consequently employers should be preparing for these changes by reviewing their workplace bullying policies, complaints procedures and relevant training programs".

2. Unconscious bias

Is an unconscious lack of objectivity damaging your company's performance and harming your workforce?

According to Justitia an "unchecked unconscious bias in an organisation’s management team can result in a failure to recognise high-potential employees or even lucrative business opportunities".

It is predicted that this year some companies will be taking radical steps to overcome this issue.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) has announced plants to fight unconscious gender bias amongst its members, as current biases have created a "male-gendered concept of merit-based assessment" in a number of companies.

To reverse this trend BCA is proposing an interventionist checklist, which includes measures such as regularly testing CEOs and board members for bias, and the development of female-only hiring short lists.

"Some organisations are already offering training to managers and recruitment staff on how to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace," it said.

"Unconscious bias training has been described by some as a 'light bulb moment' when senior employees begin to understand the potential in a diverse range of people. We predict that the focus on unconscious bias in the workplace will intensify in coming months and that more and more organisations will be taking up initiatives like those announced by the BCA.

"For this reason, unconscious bias is set to become a hot topic for HR managers in 2014, particularly in the areas of recruitment and talent management."

3. Reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency

In 2012 the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 was replaced by the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, which introduced a new reporting and compliance framework focused on improving equality.

Any company with 100 plus employees now have to submit a public report that addresses the six specific Workplace Gender Equality indicators.

As it came in 2012 the grace period for reporting has ended, and there is a flurry of activity expected as the May 31 deadline approaches and workplaces adapt to the broader reporting obligations.

These obligations are in line to become even more extensive next year.

From April this year employers will be set minimum standards (which are yet to be published) related to measurable outcomes or evidence of action taken to improve outcomes.

4. Insecure employment

As non-standard employment such as irregular and unpredictable job hours with little security increases, the issue of insecure employment is rising.

This is being seen through the hiring of casual workers instead of permanent staff, placing staff on short fixed term contracts, relying on interns or apprentices, and having extensive contract arrangements in place.

It is estimated nearly half of all Australian workers in these forms of employment.

To fight this the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is pushing its 'Secure Jobs, Better Future' campaign to support these workers.

Part of this is through expanding the definition of employers and employees, giving Fair Work more power to make orders, and expanding the existing National Employment Standards.

However Justitia stated that this push may be reined in by business demands for more workplace flexibility or labour market deregulation.

5. Workplace Law reviews

The spectre of WorkChoices is still haunting the political and business landscape.

Abbott's current government had promised that it would refrain from pursuing IR legislation change, but it has now stated it will carry out a series of 'reviews' that may lead to changes in a second term.

"A key element of the foreshadowed reviews was a Productivity Commission review into the operation and impact of the Fair Work Act 2009," Justitia said.

"It is expected that the Coalition will initiate this review in 2014, with a requirement that the Productivity Commission provide recommendations on how to improve the operation of the Fair Work Act 2009."The findings of the Commission will probably form the pillar of any new workplace relations policies by the Coalition.

While these five issues will garner much of the focus of businesses in this new year, Justitia stated that there are a number of other, smaller issues and reviews that will key this year, including:

  • a review by the Law Reform Commission into workplace relations laws’ “encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges” – for example, the reverse onus of proof in adverse action laws is a likely candidate;
  • a Royal Commission into the home insulation programme, which will look at workplace health and safety arrangements in that scheme; and
  • a mooted Royal Commission into union misconduct, which may impact on registered organisations and those who deal with them.

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