Why all the arguing over a workplace bullying definition?

There have been many calls in Australia for a national definition of workplace bullying.  Apparently the definition below that has applied in OHS legislation for over ten years in Victoria is insufficient:

“Repeated unreasonable behaviour directed toward a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.”

The definition above was the one used in the first draft Code of Practice on Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying produced by Safe Work Australia in September 2011.

The definition was questioned by Moira Rayner, as a representative of the Law Institute of Victoria, at recent public hearings into workplace bullying.  Researchers said that a lack of a national definition is a major reason that research in workplace bullying has been so thin.

A quick survey of workplace bullying definitions in Australia is listed below:

“Unreasonable and inappropriate workplace behaviour includes bullying, which comprises behaviour which intimidates, offends, degrades, insults or humiliates an employee possibly in front of co-workers, clients or customers and which includes physical or psychological behaviour.” Law Society of NSW

“…repeated unreasonable behaviour that could reasonably be considered to be humiliating, intimidating, threatening or demeaning to a person, or group of persons, which creates a risk to health and safety.” Comcare

“repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker.” (Source ACTUQ/QCCI/Qld Govt Dept of Workplace Health and Safety) via HREOC

A more international list of definitions is accessible through Wikipedia

The four definitions illustrate an important consideration. Is a definition written to facilitate prosecution or for prevention of harm?

Take, for example this definition included in Wikipedia but unable to be verified, at the moment:

“systematic aggressive communication, manipulation of work, and acts aimed at humiliating or degrading one or more individual that create an unhealthy and unprofessional power imbalance between bully and target(s), result in psychological consequences for targets and co-workers, and cost enormous monetary damage to an organization’s bottom line.”

This may serve the purposes of researchers but it is indecipherable to the business operator who is obliged to prevent this type of behaviour.  Compare it to the WorkSafe definition and it is impractical gibberish.

It may be sufficient for researchers to accept the common elements of workplace bullying and construct research around them:

  • unreasonable
  • repeated
  • harm
  • workplace

Most workplace bullying definitions included “unreasonable”, and this is where Moira Rayner stuck her first blow at the public hearings.  Rayner stated that unreasonable is indefinable as it varies from person to person and that, to be applied, “unreasonable” needs case studies, examples and scenarios that provide clarity. The September 2011 Draft Code of Practice attempted this.

The “reasonable person” criterion may be a test applied in the Law but that is within the context of Court proceedings.  Employers have an obligation to prevent “unreasonable” behaviour in order to, amongst other reasons, avoid court action.  So is it possible to develop a better workplace bullying definition than the existing WorkSafe Victoria (and Safe Work Australia) one that is easily understood and applied in a workplace to prevent harm?

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Why all the arguing over a workplace bullying definition?”

  1. First off the problem is not with definition of what bullying is ,but more the case that workplace inspectors or investigators can and will not intervene perhaps a code of practice is needed that hsr,s can issue pins on citing breaches ,and that personal fines could be issued by govt. inspectors against senior management for not having a system in place with consultation and training to deter this ,has anyone seen many policy documents at workplaces on bullying ? .The Victorian police force apparently according to the herald sun had widespread bullying what would happen if the minister was liable for the fine ? Let me be clear on this being subject to bullying is very stressful and affects your health ,it is very frustrating for the victim to be told by your union , your lawyer and others that this is bullying but the govt.body did not want to know about it perhaps govt inspectors should be required to fill in reports of bullying allegations at the very least to raise awareness of firms that may require attention if further allegations are raised

  2. I wonder at the language around the issuing of bullying…and some comments by politicians ????
    Last week i was driving and heard a politician speaking on radio (maybe Monday).
    He said that bullying should be stamped out..the imagine of someone stamping does not fit well with bullying…is that not an image that is part of the issue? When someone is not having their needs met they stamp in frustration!
    This man began also by saying that the issue is costing the taxpayer…what a total lack of insight!!!! The taxpayer does not even notice this particular cost. However from my perspective it cost much more than that.
    Families suffer the cost of losing a loved one to suicide or to a mental illness that lasts in some cases forever!

    Seems to me that bullying is really about relationships..Managers do not know how to have relationships with their workers. Students do not know how to have relationships with each other.

    It begins within family relationships and grows through life!

    When we have our relationships through texting, email and face book…how can we have relationships…we have forgotten how to communicate…

    We cannot boil bullying down to stamping out and the dollar…now we have truly forgotten how to be decent human beings!!!

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