Workplace bullying – more of the same

In November 2009, a New South Wales Government committee reported on issues concerning bullying.  Much of it concerned school-related bullying but there was some evidence and recommendations concerning workplace bullying of apprentices and trainees.  On 12 May 2010, the Government  responded to the recommendations.

By and large, the responses to the work-related bullying recommendations are uninspiring with the Government exploiting the loopholes left for it in the recommendations.  For instance, the Committee recommended:

“That the NSW Attorney General examine the adequacy of the existing legal framework for bullying related offences, and identify any legislative changes that could enhance the legal protection provided to victims of bullying and cyberbullying.”

The long-winded response is that there is a lot of activity but with no definitive aim.  But then the recommendation did not call for results, only “examine” and “identify” opportunities.

The Committee report is more interesting than the Government’s response due to the access to various submissions on school, work and cyber-bullying but it has quickly become only of historical interest and added to the pile of missed opportunities.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Workplace bullying – more of the same”

  1. Workplace bullying is well known, is well defined, but is not well understood.

    People who have never bullied are at a loss to understand why this sociopathic behaviour emerges and is often supported and perpetuated in workplaces.

    Those who have been targets of workplace bullying are often too shattered by the experience to make any sense of it. As both a former target of workplace bullying and as a bullying support person (union delegate) within an organisation that had a very high incidence of bullying, I know that the need to be supported and heard is very important.

    More important is that the workplace acknowledges that the issue is real and must be dealt with. Supremely important is that effective steps are taken to curtail the bullying and to assist the target before it is too late. Lives are destroyed by bullying, sometimes lives are lost to suicide. (Jodie Zebell, Brodie Panlock, a young apprentice at Oberon NSW are recent examples)

    I have been researching workplace bullying for years, but feel I have hardly scratched the surface. The international workplace bullying literature, particularly that from Scandinavian countries, has shed some light on the characteristics of bully-prone workplaces, the psychological dimensions of bully behaviour and victim personality characteristics. But other than the OHS regulators recommending some policies and procedures in workplaces, there does not seem to be any other solutions coming out of the research.

    From my own observations, and having now dealt with allegations of bullying in dozens of workplaces, I think the following is true:
    § Bullying has a high prevalence in very hierarchical organisations, particularly those with a ‘command and control’ management culture. More obvious examples of these are the police forces, the military, Nursing in large hospitals etc.
    § Bullies target the vulnerable – the target may be young, new to the workplace, less extroverted, perceived as different, less verbal and more passive than others in the workplace, ‘different’ from the dominant clique, sometimes by race or ethnicity, gender, perceptions of ‘class’ or some other cultural intangible.
    § Bullies target those they see as a competitive threat for themselves or others they favour in the workplace. The target is often a skilled, motivated, conscientious employee – and this is not incongruent with the profile of vulnerability.
    § Bullying is serial behaviour – whatever ‘reward’ the bullying behaviour gives the bully, it appears to wear off and the bullying has to be carried out again and again.
    § Bullies uncontrolled will also bully more than one vulnerable person, and will do this serially.

    There is currently a fad for a ‘resilience’ training approach for the targets of bullies. I feel that this approach trivialises the very real impact on the target of bullying, on their physical and mental health, their relationships in and outside the workplace, on their livelihood and future work/career prospects. Though ‘resilience’ training may assist people to recover from bullying it does not address the fundamental dynamic of bullying – which is the propensity of some people to exploit a power differential to bully and harass a person who has some vulnerabilities, and is unlikely to be in a position to fight back effectively against the bully.

    I often deal with bullying cases as part of my work but I’m often hamstrung by employer reluctance to ‘buy-in’ and implement effective controls, perhaps because they are afraid of litigation. I do know that when I lodged a grievance against my bully boss many years ago I was persuaded by the management of our HR division to drop the matter because of a threat against both me and the organisation of legal action. Yet, I later learned that this was a serial bully, and some 23 complaints had been made and mishandled in exactly the same way.

    When I met and spoke with some of the bully’s victims, the modus operandi was exactly the same, down to the same words and phrases being used in tirades of verbal abuse that this person subjected her targets to (always in private, one-on-one, out of the earshot of others). One of the problems with establishing that bullying has occurred is that bullies often act against their target subtly, and there is often very little substantive evidence. It is so difficult for the target of bullying to get any adequate response, let alone redress.

    Public bullying is rare, but seems to be becoming more prevalent – ‘mobbing’ occurs when a popular bully harnesses the group to also torment and harass the target.

    I’d like to say that I’ve got some answers to the problem of workplace bullying, but so far the only things that I have found that works are
    – Separation of the bully from their target
    – A firm and definite zero tolerance policy, implemented and supported by responsibilities and accountabilities, and
    – Unqualified, consistent support for the target – so that they can recover their dignity, emotional equilibrium and get on with life.

  2. The biggest challenge of workplace bullying is that no one can actually define it, and then when there is a definition the person doing the workplace bullying belives that he/she is the victim not the bully or that there are multiple bullies and multiple victims and that they change roles from time to time.

    I was asked the serious question by a [percieved] workplace bully \”is not going on WorkCover and getting everyone to feel sorry for you a form of workplace bullying?\”
    I have never been able to answer that question, I simply do not know the answer.

    The truth is both victime and bully need help both have issues that need to be handled and understood.
    The bully may only be reacting to undue workplace pressure or may actually be in a position that the victim believes should be theirs.
    The victim may not be able to handle the amount of workplace pressure that their role requires of them and so place the blame for their own inadequate abilities onto the percieved bully.

    I simply do not know the answer, what I do know is that \”toughen up Princess\” is not a wise thing to say to anyone who is feeling extra-ordinary pressure.
    I also know moving a bully from one department to another is not a wise thing.

    There is an answer of that I am sure, I also know that one answer will not be a one size fits all answer.

    1. I think there is a fairly functional definition of workplace bullying that WorkSafe Victoria uses but the complication comes when HR or legal action is decided upon. Does the bullying contain elements of sexual harassment? Is it discrimination? Should action be pursued through Fair Work Australia or Workcover?

      Workplace bullying as a workplace hazard is still in its infancy with its growth being impeded but the lack of a coordinated approach from Government.

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