The tragic suicide of Brodie Panlock, whose death was linked to extreme workplace bullying, has resulted in changes to the law classifying bullying as a criminal offense in Victoria, with prison terms of up to 10 years. These legislative changes also have wide-ranging implications for business owners.
Diversity Council Australia CEO Nareem Young defines bullying as “repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety.”
Young also constitutes persistent shouting, swearing, threatening, physical abuse, humiliating comments and interfering with a person’s work equipment as bullying.
Outlined in the Productivity Commission’s 2010 report on ‘Benchmarking Occupational Health and Safety,’ between 2.5 to 5 million Australians experience some aspects of bullying over the course of their working lives. The publication also indicated costs to businesses of bullying and harassment are overwhelming, estimating $6 to $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. 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.”
As employers have a legal responsibility to take “reasonable steps” to prevent harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace, preventative measures must be taken.
Young believes that having up-to-date diversity/EEO policies, grievance procedures and support networks are good first steps.
“Continual education of staff on these and on their rights and responsibilities at work is also important.”
The research also revealed that approximately two-thirds of complaints knew what to do when they felt they were being bullied. However, only half of complaints raised the issue with someone in need for advice. Interestingly only about a quarter of complainants who did seek help had positive comments on how the incident was dealt with.
In light of these results, Young suggests that organisational culture needs to change.
“[Working for the Future] revealed a pressing need to develop an organizational culture in which employees feel able to seek assistance, and to build managerial capability on preventing and responding to inappropriate workplace behaviour in Australian workplaces.”
Employers need to be aware of warning signs such as high levels of absenteeism (associated with particular shifts and areas), high staff turnover, increases in grievances and negative staff engagement.
Young advises that it is important to audit your workplace for key risk factors that can contribute to bullying:
- Organisational change
- Negative leadership styles
- Lack of appropriate work systems
- Poor workplace relationships
- Workforce characteristics.
“Creating a productive working environment in which everybody feels valued and respected, and where their talents are being fully utilised, should be the ultimate objective,” she added.