Workplace bullying in Australia

The last ten years has seen a growing awareness of the unfortunate reality of bullying and the devastating and damaging effects it can have upon individuals. workplace bullying in Australia

In the same way that schools have had to accept responsibility to address bullying in the school yard, so too have employers around Australia had to face up to their legal and moral obligation to address bullying in the workplace.

Recent studies indicate that almost one in five school students report they have experienced bullying. Similarly, studies suggest the incidence of bullying in the workplace  is equally concerning.

In 2012, a House of Representatives Education and Employment Committee was set up by the Parliament of Australia to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into workplace bullying, looking at its’ prevalence and how different workplace cultures responded to bullying. One of the interim reports on the Committee’s investigation, titled “A Slow Poison – behind the alarming statistics of workplace bullying are stories of human grief and hardship” – referred to a University of NSW study stating “…. up to 25% of workers in various public sector agencies around the country had experienced some form of bullying”

It is believed there are significant numbers of employees who do experience bullying but do not lodge a formal complaint with their employer for fear of jeopardising their career prospects. One workplace victim of bullying commented “…. you know you’re being bullied but there’s very little you can do about it”  The feeling of powerlessness commonly experienced by bullying victims is a central element in the mental stress which they typically suffer.

The effects of workplace bullying can be damaging at so many levels, having human and organisational  impacts that can include –

  • individual grief and distress
  • disruption to team morale,
  • high absenteeism,
  • staff turnover
  • the costs of potential worker compensation claims..

A 2015 report produced by Safe Work Australia, titled “Psycho-social Health and Safety and Bullying in Australian Workplaces” examined accepted workers compensation claims under the category of “mental stress”. Statistics reveal that workplace bullying and harassment was the second most frequently nominated mental stress factor – with unreasonable work pressure being the first. The number of accepted claims made by women were three times greater than those from men. The claims figures referred to in the report exclude injuries of a physical nature as well as claims relating to sexual harassment. The report indicates there has been an increase over the past ten years of claims relating to workplace bullying.

An article in the Canberra Times (July 2015)  revealed the annual bill to taxpayers for bullying, harassment and “occupational violence” in the public service (ie. not including the private sector) is now almost $80 million.

It is not just the “HR Department” of a business that should be worried about this – it is an issue that needs to be on the radar at executive management level.

What is “workplace bullying”?

Safe Work Australia define workplace bullying as “… repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker that creates a risk to health and safety.” This definition is very much in line with that used by the Fair Work Ombudsman (under the powers of the 2009 Fair Work Act).

The Fair Work Ombudsman site describes “unreasonable behaviour” as including victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening. Whether a behaviour is deemed unreasonable can depend on whether a reasonable person might see the behaviour as unreasonable in the circumstances.

Examples of bullying include:

  • behaving aggressively, frequently creating fear or anxiety in a victim
  • persistent teasing or practical jokes, at the expense and embarassment of another
  • ongoing pressuring of someone to behave inappropriately
  • regularly and deliberately excluding someone from work-related events, thereby alienating them
  • persistent unjustified criticiism – or ongoing criticism of a trivial nature whilst achievements and contributions are ignored
  • unreasonable and / or excessive work demands – particularly when these are not uniformly applied across the wider team

A concrete example of workplace bullying in Australia …

An incident in November 2015 provides a classic and unfortunate example of workplace bullying. As reported by ABC News, a Gippsland man was convicted of the stalking and bullying of a work colleague. The man worked at the local store of Woolworths and was described as having “…. undertaken an extended and systematic campaign of bullying that made the life of his victim a living hell”.  It was reported the man frequently made derogatory comments critical of  the other worker’s performance, serving to undermine her confidence. Additionally, he was observed to have regularly displayed openly hostile  behaviour towards her, frequently expressing disbelief that she suffered from back problems. The company itself was criticised in Court,  for failing to provide a psychologically safe work environment and failing to be more proactive in resolving the issue.

So there is no denying the fact that workplace bullying exists in Australia. There is an unfortunate history of bullying of new recruits and female recruits within the Australian Defence Forces. The ADF is now more open and commuted to rooting out behviour that is “psychologically threatening”and acknowledges the need to change some aspects of it’s culture, having developed a program called “Pathways to Change” which aims to encourage ADF members to report cases of bullying or harassment.

Could performance management be construed as bullying?

This is an issue that can create confusion and uncertainty for some managers in the workplace. They are charged with responsibility for maintaining standards and ensuring that work is completed in a safe, timely and efficient manner. This responsibility will require them to sometimes have discussions with an employee who might not be meeting performance standards.

Of course this type of conversation should always have a constructive focus on problem-solving and performance improvement – and acknowledge the possibility that there could well be external factors beyond the control of the employee that are creating sub-standard performance. Never-the-less ,  an employee can feel threatened by this type of conversation. The employee may feel that a manager who is expressing some type of criticism about their work is engaging in bullying behaviour.

The fear of having allegations and complaints of bullying leveled at them can certainly discourage some managers from addressing issues of workplace under-performance.

So it is important that managers understand what they are entitled to do. The Fair Work Ombudsman site states that “…a manager can make decisions about poor performance, take disciplinary action, and direct and control the way work is carried out. Reasonable management action that’s carried out in a reasonable way is not bullying.”

Management action that isn’t carried out in a reasonable way may however be considered bullying. So yelling at an employee, abusing an employee, publicly ridiculing and humiliating an employee  for their under-performance would very likely be viewed as unreasonable and construed as bullying.

In the course of my early career, I recall incidents of insecure managers who abused their power and sought to lead by intimidation – berating and degrading staff when small errors were made. They set a poor example, were never respected and failed to engender any employee loyalty. It was an indictment on their organisation that these overly-combative managers were tolerated. Having said that – it is important however to recognise that an autocratic or directive management style of itself is not sufficient grounds to be labelled as bullying.

Best practice performance management

In a positive and preventive sense, effective performance management is founded upon good communication and ensuring all employees understand the standards expected of them  It also requires that employees have received the training and the tools needed to capably perform their duties.

In addressing any issues of under-performance if it arises, a manager should always ensure the employee is provided with an opportunity to explain why something has not happened that perhaps should have happened (eg. a deadline to complete a task was not met). A manager who fails to listen and fails to explore with the employee what the cause of a performance problem might be is guilty of poor management practice.

The effective manager in a conversation will help the employee to appreciate why the performance issue is a concern and how it is impacting the work of the rest of the team. They will engage the employee in identifying the cause of the problem and involve them in finding a workable solution. Agreed actions are subsequently monitored by the manager – who in turn acknowledges and encourages signs of performance improvement.

Resources for prevention & management of bullying

Workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in a workplace which has created a culture based on open, respectful and regular communication – and which a clearly defined code of employee conduct that is monitored and enforced. Safe Work Australia offer employers further guidelines and some worthwhile resources to help prevent and manage workplace bullying.

Another credible website offering information and resources is the Zero Bully Australia Foundation And an interesting article appeared in the Australian Financial Review, titled “Performance Management – Are You a Bully or a Boss”in which the author states that many claims of bullying that prove unfounded stem from a simple lack of understanding of what bullying is – and is not.

The Australian Government ComCare site offers many resources to raise employee awareness of bullying – as well as a toolkit for team leaders to help prevent bullying. One of their Bullying Fact Sheets  carries the tagline “Don’t be a silent witness” and encourages bystanders to record and report any incidents of workplace bullying.

One of the thought leaders in Australia, highly respected for her expertise in researching and addressing both School and Workplace bullying, is psychologist Evelyn Field. She was awarded an Order of Australia medal in recognition for her outstanding contribution to both treating and preventing bullying. Her website offers a useful range of resources, books and training seminars on Bullying  

By the way, if your organisation is seeking to conduct some training in best practice “Management & Leadership Skills” that provides practical strategies around employee coaching and positive performance management, then check our our next Leadership course in Melbourne

In closing, here’s a short animated video produced by the American Psychological Association which reinforces many of the points from this post about workplace bullying.

Although the focus of this post has been on workplace bullying, if you are either a parent or aa school teacher, then you will probably also be concerned about the bullying of kids at school. A very useful resources site is How to Handle Bullying