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Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying in the workplace is an issue that is receiving a lot of attention in Australia.

The rising awareness of the effect that bullying can have on employees, workplace culture and profitability is prompting companies to take this matter seriously.

As a psychosocial hazard, bullying comes under the umbrella of workplace health and safety which is covered by the WHS Act. Since the 1st of January 2014 workplace bullying also comes under the jurisdiction of Fair Work Australia.

The Fair Work Commission is empowered under the Fair Work Act to investigate bullying complaints. The Commission also has the power to issue orders ‘it deems appropriate’ to stop bullying though it cannot make orders for the payment of financial penalties such as compensation for bullied workers. The fact that the Fair Work Commission had to make an order could serve as an incentive for the person who complained about bullying to launch a civil case for damages.

State Regulators, such as WorkCover NSW, also have powers to investigate and address bullying in workplaces within their jurisdiction. The WHS Act and Fair Work Act allow a person to approach both the Fair Work Commission and their State Regulator for assistance in addressing workplace bullying concurrently.

Is Bullying an issue in your Workplace?

Companies or groups that have a bullying culture or an active bully will generally have the following characteristics:

  • Lowered productivity and profitability

  • High staff turnover

  • High absences due to sickness

  • Early retirements or illness related retirements

  • Deaths

  • Staff who suffer stress breakdowns

  • Greater incidences of disciplinary measures

  • Higher than normal numbers of suspensions and terminations

  • Complaints that can lead to litigation

  • High levels of scrutiny and suspicion of staff

Impact of Bullying in Workplaces

Some organisations may favour a ‘tough management style’ which is in fact a culture of bullying, but instead of making the company more productive, viable and competitive it has the opposite effect.

Bullying costs business in Australia billions of dollars each year due to decreased productivity, staff absences (sickness and stress), high staff turnover and general low morale.

The Productivity Commission estimates workplace bullying costs Australia between $6 billion and $36 Billion (1).

Some of the costs are easy to measure, such as:

  • Paid sickness and stress leave

  • Legal expenses

  • Compensation claims (In the financial year 2007-08 the average cost of a compensation claim due to workplace bullying/harassment was $41,700 with an average of 25 weeks lost from work (2).

  • Rising insurance premiums as a result of claims

Other costs may be harder to measure, such as:

  • Reduced productivity. A bully can reduce the work performance of a targeted worker by 10 - 52% percent (Canada Safety Council 2000). Due to the repeated nature of bullying, if one person in the workplace is being bullied they are probably not the only one. Where bullying has become part of the culture of a workplace and is a regular occurrence, it could cut productivity in half!

  • Lowered motivation of all staff

  • Time spent in investigating situations

  • Hiring and training new staff, due to high turnover of staff.

Some other factors to take into account are the following figures from a study by Duncan and Riley:

  • More than one in five Australians believe they are bullied at work.

  • In some industries such as health, education and government services 25% to 97% of workers believe that they are bullied.

Risk Management of Bullying

Bullying in the workplace is a psychosocial hazard, the risks of which need to be managed like any other hazard in the workplace. All businesses, regardless of size, have a duty under Section 19 of the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

Organisations should take an active approach to managing the risk of bullying in their workplace in order to be in compliance with work health and safety legislation, avoid costly legal actions, and avoid getting embroiled in an investigation and penalties by the Fair Work Commission.

An important step in preventing bullying would be consult and involve all employees in creating an agreed Code of Conduct that sets out what conduct is expected and acceptable in your workplace. If everyone in your workplace shows respect for every individual, demonstrated by a caring attitude and actions that enhance the well being everyone in the workplace, then bullying will die out.

Available training in preventing and responding to bullying in the workplace

Preventing Bullying for Workers - 2 hour onsite training course for workers in their duties in regard to workplace bullying

Preventing Bullying in the Workplace Course - 3.5 hour onsite training course for Officers, managers and supervisors.


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