On 12 July 2012, SafetyAtWorkBlog described Moira Rayner as the “stand out speaker at the public hearing into workplace bullying conducted in Melbourne Australia. She was always on topic and spoke of her own experience of being accused of bullying. The Hansard record of that hearing is now available online and deserves some analysis to illustrate Rayner’s points but to also to expand our understanding of workplace bullying and the Committee’s operation.
As a representative of the Law Institute of Victoria, Moira Rayner, questioned the existing definition of workplace bullying favoured by Australian OHS regulators and said that the definition requires case studies and examples of workplace bullying so that people understand the application of the definition in reality. Many case studies are available in the bullying/OHS/HR literature but these are rarely communicated to community except by labour lawyers through bulletins or by media releases from OHS regulators that rarely gain attention beyond the media editors.
Rayner addressed the confusion in the workplace bullying definition from its reliance on “unreasonableness”:
“It seems to me that unreasonableness or the claimed reasonable purpose of the behaviour needs to be, again, spelled out. You hit on the crux of the matter, Madam Chair, when you say that it is very hard to take action if there has not been some physical consequence such as a person being hurt, burned, stuffed down a vat or something of that sort. Yet every day we see those injuries, in terms of people having psychiatric illnesses or those which are stress-induced, and leaving the workplace rather than saying anything.”
This contrasts strongly with position of the Australian Federation of Employers and Industries.
(Some of the cases are listed in various OHS & HR reference and text books, many out-of-print, but the footnote provides more information and links.)
Broad communication of workplace bullying cases is essential and has been lacking in Australia. It can be argued that part of the reason for the current Parliamentary inquiry was the amount of media attention and community outrage generated by the Coroner’s Inquest into Brodie Panlock and the subsequent prosecutions. The case could easily have slipped under the media’s attention.
Rayner has a useful perspective on handling workplace bullying cases as she was Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner for a time. She floated the idea of a “bullying commissioner” at the public hearing, a concept she acknowledges is unfashionable in legal circles, but may be just the type of organisation required for new thoughts and strategies on workplace bullying.
“Collecting data through a statutory agency such as Fair Work Australia, the Fair Work Ombudsman or some other mythical bullying commissioner—perhaps a bullying tsar; I am making it up on the run—would give you some idea. But the most important thing for the people who are receiving this is to at least publish, for the education of the community, examples where an officer has said, ‘Yes, that could well be bullying’ or ‘That couldn’t possibly be’ so they have a guideline. That is how equal opportunities started in 1977 and 1978 particularly—sending out examples of cases that were brought to the then commissioner and the responses which were dealt with anonymously, and then sent out to employers and they frequently got a message about what was and what was not acceptable behaviour.” (page 15)
The parents of Brodie Panlock, Damian and Rae, spoke at the Melbourne hearing. The Panlocks seemed to be under prepared compared to other speakers but they had a reasonable assumption that the Committee would be fully aware and briefed on the circumstances of their daughter’s suicide. It was around halfway into their time when the Committee admitted an unfamiliarity with the Panlock case. One Committee member, Rowan Ramsay said:
“Three of us are from interstate and we probably do not have a good understanding of Brodie’s case as perhaps Mike does, as he lives here, though I am aware of the case. I do not want you to go places that are too uncomfortable for you.”
This took the wind out of the sails of the Panlocks as it was necessary to address some basic elements of their daughter’s case that most of the observers were already aware of. The lack of information of the case was further illustrated by a question from Ramsay about there being “a romantic issue”, clearly stemming from the evidence of Garry Brack the previous day in Sydney.
The unfamiliarity of the Committee seriously questions the sources of information being accessed by the Committee, particularly as the Coronial findings into Brodie Panlock’s death are readily accessible through a simple internet search. As well as the public submissions, it is reasonable to expect any Parliamentary Committee to have undertaken a literature review of workplace bullying research, a media search and an investigation into the most recent OHS prosecutions of workplace bullies.
It is useful to note that this House Standing Committee on Education and Employment has undertaken this task after completing an inquiry into the employment of people with mental health issues. The final report of that inquiry was mentioned in passing by the workplace bullying inquiry Chair, Amanda Rishworth when she noted (not listed in Hansard) that through the mental health inquiry, workplace bullying was never mentioned. (The report confirms the absence of workplace bullying but there was a brief mention of bullying in relation to schoolyards on pages 46-47.)
This may seem odd as workplace bullying is often discussed in the context of mental health at work. But the previous inquiry did not consider the generation of mental health problems from work activity, poor management practices or psychosocial abuse. Had it done so, SafetyAtWorkBlog would have given it more attention.
Dr Evelyn Field
Dr Evelyn Field made her presentation to the committee in a rapid-fire delivery which can only really be appreciated from Hansard. During her delivery she seemed to relate the failures of the Fukushima nuclear reactor and a space shuttle, in some way, to workplace bullying. SafetyOz tweeted these at the time in disbelief and confusion but Dr Field stated (the whole paragraph is provided for context):
“I think we need to look at role models, from our CEO and CFO down, and to again encourage them to see bullying as a sign of dysfunction within the management system. It is like the canary down the coalmine. It is not just a matter of, ‘Let’s employ a high-profile legal term to get rid of the target and then the bully later on,’ but rather, ‘Let’s look at what’s going on.’ Unfortunately and very sadly, Fukushima is a very good example of bullying. I think we would really benefit from a national helpline, with state-based advice for our targets—legal advice, medical advice and training. There needs to be somewhere to go. My website is good. It is being updated, but really there needs to be something more accepted than that. Mine is my own thing.” (page 35) [emphasis added)
The Columbia space shuttle reference is much easier to understand as it is in terms of a lack of leadership and listening:
“The inquiry into the Columbia disaster, which was the shuttle that fell to the earth with the loss of seven lives, concluded that leaders should listen, listen and listen to get all the information.” (page 37)
There were two Committee questions of particular note. Both related to the evidence being provided Dr Field:
“…is it possible that this has something to do with gender? These workforces that you identify are feminised. The ones that have been talked about are still male domains. Is there a difference about women and male interactions or about more females reacting with each other or do they have a lower threshold?” (page 40)
The other requires more context:
“Mr SYMON:How does that correlate with what happens in a blue-collar workforce? Why is there this big difference in reported cases, and even in submissions that we have received, from this group versus the rest of the workforce?
Ms Field: I am not sure what you mean.
Mr SYMON: You have identified, and we have read in your submission, that some professions are over-represented in terms of cases. I am asking about the professions or occupations that are under-represented. Is there any opposite reason for that—do they have better managers in those areas, or are they less able to complain because they are less likely to know what should be expected in a workplace? Is there something there that has not been said?
Ms Field: I am not aware of the international or local research about that, but I will go by my gut feeling…..” (page 39)
Dr Field’s evidence was principally from white-collar occupations, generating the question from the committee member Mike Symon. Symon asks about management competence and consultative structures. Dr Field’s response illustrates a major concern of the Parliamentary inquiry, the paucity of valid research in psychosocial issue under investigations. Her response also illustrates that in the absence of evidence we all rely on anecdotes, experience and gut feelings.
The Committee questions are excellent questions. How strong is the gender factor in workplace bullying? Is workplace bullying different in blue-collar to white-collar occupations?
More relevant is the secondary question, if gender and “class” are elements in workplace bullying, is it possible to develop a single control measure or strategy to reduce the psychosocial harm?
This Parliamentary inquiry should have the full support of OHS professionals and others as there is the potential to change Australia’s system of work.
There are several publications that include cases studies of workplace bullying. I have listed a couple that I could grab from the bookcase easily
CCH’s Australian Master Human Resources Guide, 2004/2005 edition
CCH’s Australian Master OHS & Environment Guide, 2nd edition
The footnote provides a list of some of the terms that may be used in an internet search:
- NSW, young gardener, practical jokes
- Jeffrey, Police and Community Youth Club, NSW
WorkSafe Victoria v Reginald Mowat, unreported, Ballarat Magistrate’s Court, Magistrate Mornane, 22 July 2004
Inspector Gregory Maddafrod v MA Coleman Joinery (NSW) Pty Ltd  NSWIRComm 317
WorkSafe Victoria Prosecution Summaries