Bullying at work is unlawful and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. It is only inevitable if employers fail to grasp their responsibility to prevent it or if employees think it’s OK to treat each other badly.
Bullying is not new. It has been with us since any of us can remember, from our personal experiences, or from those who are close to us. We see it in all facets of life and it takes many forms – from schoolyard bullying, bad parenting and ugly parent syndrome at kids’ sport to more serious forms like child abuse and domestic violence.
Schools usually strongly discourage bullying and most of us grow up understanding that bullying is wrong. Why is it then that news stories seem to emerge every day of bullying and harassment in the workplace?
Recent cases of workplace bullying, such as that experienced by cafe worker Brodie Panlock that led to her suicide, have sickened us all, and resulted in changes to the law that make bullying at work a criminal offence in Victoria with prison terms of up to 10 years possible.
But what does bullying behaviour actually look like at work? Bullying is generally defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety.
Bullying can consist of obvious behaviours like persistent shouting, abuse, swearing, threatening, hitting and physical abuse. It can include humiliating jokes or comments, ‘over the top’ practical jokes or teasing, ‘ganging up’ on someone or interfering with a person’s personal effects or work equipment. It can also include unfair, unconstructive criticism, degrading or impossible work demands, setting impossible time lines, unfairly blocking promotion or training, deliberately withholding information and ignoring or isolating someone.
Estimates of its prevalence in the workplace vary, but one study outlined in the Productivity Commission’s 2010 report on benchmarking occupational health and safety estimated that somewhere between 2.5 million and 5 million Australians experience some aspect of bullying over the course of their working lives.
Diversity Council Australia’s national representative survey of Australian employees, Working for the Future, found that almost 20 per cent reported being bullied by a manager in the preceding year, and 15 per cent by a work mate. Interestingly, employees who are female, Indigenous or who have a disability seem particularly vulnerable to workplace bullying, and these were most notable when looking at incident rates of bullying by co-workers.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were almost twice as likely to report experiencing bullying by co-workers (27 per cent versus 14 per cent). Similar findings were found for people with disabilities – they were more likely to report being bullied by co-workers (22 per cent versus 14 per cent for people without disabilities) and by supervisors (26 per cent versus 18 per cent) – and for women, who were significantly more likely to experience bullying by co-workers than men (17 per cent versus 11 per cent).
The Productivity Commission estimated costs to business of bullying and harassment are huge at somewhere between $6 and $36 billion per annum.
These costs arise from a multitude of factors including lowered workplace productivity, increased absenteeism, higher staff turnover, legal and compensation costs, and damage to a company's reputation of publicised cases of bullying, not to mention the hidden cost of lost management and employee time in investigating and addressing allegations of bullying.
Then there’s the cost of the health and medical treatment or income support and other government benefits victims may require from a range of psychological and physical illnesses and injuries caused by bullying.
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