Australian employer group doesn’t “get” workplace bullying

Garry Brack is the head of the Australian Federation of Employers and Industries (AFEI), formerly known as Employers First which summarises the industrial philosophy of the organisation.  In the past he has stated that OHS laws are not necessary but this week he has upset the parents of Brodie Panlock by emphasising a failed love affair between Brodie and a work colleague and downplaying the  instances of abuse and bullying that drove Brodie Panlock to jump to her death.

The comments on the ABC Lateline program echo his comments at the public hearing in Sydney of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying. (The Hansard of his presentation is not yet available online although the AFEI submission to the inquiry is)  Brack’s position is difficult to understand as the Inquiry submission and his words at the hearing display a poor understanding of how other organisations and experts (and Brodie’s parents) see workplace bullying.

The AFEI submission says

“What concerns employers is the breadth of these [bullying] definitions which allow a limitless range of actions and behaviour to be construed as bullying by workers – in all jurisdictions. This is where the regulatory difficulty lies. It is not that there are differences in regulatory requirements but that compliance is impossible to achieve. This is because the concept of workplace bullying, as viewed by regulators, is not confined to recklessness, intimidation, aggressive or violent acts, threatening actions or behaviour, verbal abuse or an actual risk to health and safety. It may be anything from a customer demanding faster service or just complaining (even over the phone) to setting deadlines or changing work hours.”

There are several nonsensical statements here.  The Parliamentary Inquiry is not an investigation of regulations, it is an inquiry into workplace bullying.  Regulations may set the parameters for employers and workers to prevent and manage workplace bullying but everyone should already have been dealing with this issue regardless of bullying.  One shouldn’t argue about definitions of bullying if disrespect and abuse is already occurring.  Looking for definitions and categorisation is for those who are looking to avoid their moral obligations to act against wrong and bad behaviour.

The AFEI says that “compliance is impossible to achieve”. Possibly, but does that mean one should not try?

Brack is correct that work behaviour can be (mis)interpreted by workers as bullying however this is nothing new, as the experience of WorkSafe Victoria has shown. But he is seriously mistaken when stating that

“[ the concept of workplace bullying] … may be anything from a customer demanding faster service or just complaining (even over the phone) to setting deadlines or changing work hours.”

This is not workplace bullying, it is abuse.  On the matter of deadlines and work hours, this could be industrial relations or performance management but if the action is “repeated” then it may become workplace bullying under the definitions that Brack and the AFEI mention in their submission.

WorkSafe Victoria was very specific in the early days of its workplace bullying guidance to differentiate between workplace bullying and occupational violence, a differentiation that Brack and others should note.

Brack was one of the first speakers at the inquiry’s public hearings in Sydney, the first session of public hearings, and although the committee members were finding their feet it is worth noting the questions that were put to Brack.  These questions were sometimes asked of others in this and other hearings and the last question from Deborah O’Neill (labor MP) did not hold back.

“With the lack of uncertainty, do you think that there should be a national definition in legislation and some guidance to managers through a code of practice? This would help distinguish performance management issues from things that stray into the area of systematic psychological bullying.”

“Do you think that there can be an objective definition that does not necessarily focus on all those personal interactions but is able to pick up some of the psychological damage that can occur as a result of ongoing systematic psychological bullying in the workplace?”

“Do you think, then, that a code of practice or some sort of guidance under the occupational health and safety law is an important step? I noted in the submission that you were not in favour of that. However, to clear up some of these difficulties or grey areas, do you think some sort of guidance material, code or something like that could clear up some of these issues?”

“Do you think bullying is an issue in the workplace, or is it not? The sense I get from your submission is that you do not necessarily think it is a broad issue that needs to be dealt with.”

“Although there is definitely a recognition that criminal acts in the workplace are not on, I want to dig a bit deeper into acts of psychological or mental harm to people in the workplace. Where do you think that fits and how is it dealt with at the moment? Further, how do you think that should be dealt with?”

“The concept of bullying is developing. This inquiry is developing that understanding as well, alongside work that is already in place in law around the country. You have used the language, where you have expressed concerns, that your employer can get ‘done’ for bullying. You have also indicated the difficulty of employers being able to manage differentiated capacities in a workplace. I will put it to you, Mr Brack, that some of the problem with bullying in the workplace is a failure of managers to be able to differentiate between the capacities of different individuals. They may well be given the same or less amount of work. They may find themselves more or less competent to do that. Good managers are able to respond to that in a way that does not allow bullying and isolation of individuals to occur. I am very concerned by the comment, and I would like a response to this, about people who do not fit in a workplace becoming isolated and eventually being moved on without mention of any training or any responsibility of the employer. Could you respond to those comments?”

The Committee clearly wants evidence rather than anecdote.  They also want to know what actions organisations, like AFEI, are taking to reduce the likelihood of workplace bullying.  This is refreshing but also challenging to those at public hearings.  It is almost as if the Committee is saying

“we know there is a problem with workplace bullying.  That is why we are here. But we need to know what you are doing about reducing workplace bullying or what you want done.”

From what SafetyAtWorkBlog saw at the Melbourne hearings the day after Sydney, the Committee acknowledges that our understanding of workplace bullying, what constitutes it and how is it to be managed, is still immature and the Committee wants to progress our understanding, as required by its terms of reference.  It was also evident that the Committee does not see its public hearings as simply an opportunity for some to “get a badge”, or another line in their LinkedIn profile, from simply attending the hearing and advocating no change or to be dismissive of the issue.

Hansards from the public hearings are gradually being released and SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide hyperlinks to the texts when publicly available.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Australian employer group doesn’t “get” workplace bullying”

  1. Yes workplace bullying is increasing rapidly now a days, even at my workplace we had the same problem twice and we had to take strict actions to stop it because it was completely ruining our work environment.

  2. I get the sense that the concern is the toe-in-the-door angst. Looking at the definition and examples of bullying used WorkSafe Victoria ya can see it\’s targeting what are open and shut examples of crass bullying.

    Perhaps the concern is that dealing with bullying opens the Pandoras Box of regulating unreasonable behaviour that can lead to shabby OHS performance? I\’m thinking of what do you label a middle manager or other worker being pushed to achieve unattainable performance demands that could be reasonably construed as directly causing a safety problem, or reasonably likely to. Is that what could be called bullying? I think it could, given a bolder interpretation of what constitutes bullying.

    Given the huge variability in circumstances I\’d be voting against statutory fiddling, and be looking more towards a code of practice developed in a genuinely collaboratively way with stakeholders. Could end up being a hell of a development process, but surely it\’s a dialogue that has to happen?

    Of course, this sort of mismanagement of a businesses resources could just as readily fall comfortably under all the general duties about providing a safe workplace. And it requires that extra mature step in workplace safety where the compliance search light gets turned on communication, people and resources management; something I think we all know is right at the guts of good work safety performance. Given the reactions to the bullying enquiry it seems we just haven\’t been able to make that extra step.

  3. I do not think that there can be any prescriptive defination that could cover all forms and extents of bullying. It would appear to me that a \”reasonable person test\” would need to apply. That is, would a reasonable person regard a certain behaviour and/or a certain level of repeated behaviour as being bullying.

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