As a publisher my mailbox is constantly bombarded by media releases. Some are irrelevant but most relate to safety in some way.
Over the years the amount of attention given to workplace bullying has grown phenomenally. In my opinion the attention it garners is way beyond the level it deserves.
That is not to say that those subjected to workplace bullying are not seriously harmed, they are, but the big-picture issue is disproportionate.
This is partly because many people who talk about workplace bullying do not apply the definition of the hazard, and as a result other non-bullying matters get included. A media release I received today, 14 August 2008, illustrates this point.
Workpro has undertaken a survey of
“2,146 employees applying for work through recruitment agencies across Australia, to gain an understanding of the experiences and beliefs about bullying and discrimination among Australian employees today”.
The survey found
“almost one in three (30%) employees claiming they have been bullied at work; one in four (24%) claiming they have been discriminated against, and 44 per cent stating they have witnessed their colleagues experience either of these”.
That data is pretty clear and you can expect the Australian media to run articles on the survey results tomorrow. These surveys usually get a good hit rate.
The media release provides the impression that 30% of employees have been bullied at work. This is not the case. Thirty per cent of employees who are looking to change jobs say they have been bullied at work. This does not represent 30% of the workforce but that is the impression we are given.
Another part of the release is annoying.
“27 per cent of respondents say they feel bullying or discrimination has happened to them within the past two years.”
Bullying and discrimination are very different interactions. Discrimination can be a one-off event, bullying must be a repeated action. To ask about these two disparate items within the one question is inappropriate or, if the results of two questions are combined, it provides a false impression. Did 10% nominate bullying and 17% say discrimination or was it vice versa?
The media release says
“When asked about their peers, almost half (46%) of respondents say they have seen their colleagues bullied or discriminated against within the past two years; 31 per cent of this group say multiple times.”
The point about definition made above applies here but why ask about other people anyway? The multiple times quote muddies the water because it is impossible to be bullied once, a single attack is just that an attack or in OHS parlance, “occupational violence”.
A spokesperson for WorkPro, Tania Evans, says
“It’s quite shocking to hear from employees that this sort of behaviour continues to happen in modern times, but organisations need to realise that bullying and unfair treatment of staff is occurring and could be impacting their own workplace culture or worse still, exposing them to the risk of liability, possible fines and even brand damage.”
Now we have something called “unfair treatment” in the mix. (And I hate “impact” as a verb) The penalties could be liability, fines or brand damage, what about workers compensation claims for stress and bullying? Not only is this a substantial business cost, the cause of the claim may result in the employee never being able to work again or lead a functional life? I place these risks higher than brand damage.
Media releases are not the be-all and end-all of a survey. Press statements are intended to generate contact in order to provide further information and hopefully generate business opportunities. Alarmism is an effective tool and this media release is unhelpful.
You can imagine the articles in tomorrow’s papers where the journalists, if they can be bothered, will have asked the OHS regulators or unions for their response to the statistics, even though it may only be those statistics in the media release that they have seen.
I would have liked this survey to be reported in two parts, bullying and discrimination, to reflect their difference but also to report on the different control mechanisms for the harm that each of these hazards can generate.
But, I forgot, that’s my job.