First look at Australia’s workplace bullying report

Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying has released its report that includes 23 recommendations and a dissenting report from the Coalition (conservative) committee members.

The first recommendation that most will look forward is the latest workplace bullying definition. The committee suggests:

“repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety”.

This is no great shake from most of the previous definitions but illustrates further the isolation of Victoria from nationally harmonised work health and safety laws as WorkSafe Victoria’s preferred definition is

“… persistent and repeated negative behaviour directed at an employee that creates a risk to health and safety.”

Regardless of which definition is “better”, Victoria will be further out-of-sync.

The Committee also recommends the Government

“develop a national advisory service that provides practical and operational advice on what does and does not constitute workplace bullying..”

This is sorely needed and will relieve State OHS regulators of the pressure and the resources. No timeline is mentioned but it is likely that the Federal Government will move to establish such a service quickly, as the recommendation is not surprising.

However, the opposition political mantra for any government initiative is how it will be funded. Some of the recommendations feature Safe Work Australia but an earlier iteration of this body suffered severe financial cuts under a previous conservative government. Some of these recommendations call for long-term efforts which will not be achievable without similar long-term and sustainable financing. Federal budgets should be carefully scrutinised to identify any hint of lip-service in this area.

Importantly the Committee recommends urgent progress on the stalled workplace bullying code of practice. However, it recommends promotion of this Code through “all jurisdictions”. Will Victoria stick to its own independent strategy on workplace bullying?

The Federal Government has received little or no support from the Victorian conservative government of Premier Ted Baillieu. On the issue of the national advisory service, given Baillieu continues to highlight Victoria’s difficult financial straits, it will be difficult for the Premier to justify the double-handling of bullying enquiries by WorkSafe Victoria when a “free” service is available nationally.

All inquiries call for further research and this report is no different. The inquiry heard repeatedly that the extent of workplace bullying in Australia was understated. The collation of data on workplace bullying cannot rely primarily on workers compensation data as many bullying issues never involve this option. Any data collection will need to examine absenteeism and other personnel data. Given that so many workers eliminate the bullying experience by changing employment, resignations and worker mobility should be examined, if possible.

The Committee recommends a

“voluntary national accreditation system stakeholders, a voluntary national accreditation system to recognise and award employers who achieve best practice and meet defined standards of psychosocial health and safety.”

This is the recommendation most likely to not occur. It is difficult to see how it can be achieved because assessment will be so complex, and the expected benefit of such a system is curious. Would it not be possible to incorporate workplace bullying metrics in the existing determinations of “employers of choice”?

To some extent this recommendation is supported by another about “instituting annual employer awards” that recognise workplace psychosocial health and safety, but many States already have such awards.

Oddly the Committee recommends

“… a national accredited training program for all work health and safety inspectors that equips inspectors to identify and address instances of workplace bullying.” [emphasis added]

Clearly they believe that a targeted workplace bullying unit of specialised inspectors is not the answer. This recommendation will provide regulators with resource options but it may show that the Committee does not appreciate the complexity and difficulty of investigating workplace bullying claims.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has had little time to assess much more than the list of recommendations but the report looks like a defining report on workplace bullying in Australia. How the Federal Government reacts through, particularly, Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten will be the important next step as Federal Parliament is in its last sitting week for 2012. For any urgent action on the national draft workplace bullying code, a response is required from the Government soon.

Significantly the Coalition (opposition) members of the Committee have issued a dissenting report. For bipartisan support on workplace bullying initiatives,Minister Shorten will need to maneuvre carefully. Shorten’s responses to this report will be fascinating and, hopefully, significant.

SafetyAtWorkBlog will be posting articles on this report over the next week or so.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “First look at Australia’s workplace bullying report”

  1. Let me tell you, workplace bullying is \”real\” and endemic in this Country. And the problem is complex:

    * There\’s the bullying culture and you feel so…. powerless, unsafe, useless because the abuse is done within the four walls and there is the general tolerance by others, when the bully is a manager/ director or other senior public sector supervisor. Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten says \”we need zero tolerance for workplace bullying\”, and I could not agree more. But how you are going to execute it?

    One company introduced the zero tolerance for bullying policy, long ago. And the bullies are still bullying. We need a law that will respect it, when I say \”I\’m being bullied\”, please do not endlessly argue with me, because I\’m being bullied. On this stage there is law in various jurisdiction lacking consistency and indirect protecting the bullies and NOT the bullied.

    There is no easy method of reporting bullying, and way to guide the victim (not public system managers), on how to deal with the action including escalation (if nothing has been resolved), incrimination that at the end will punish the victim. The Work cover system works on the principles that the victim is \” a liar \”, the \”fit for duty\” test is abused by the same people that abused me and used by senior public servants against me because I\’ve lodged a complaint about significant internal operational issues.

    I\’ve lodged a complaints about significant internal issues (affecting the standards of services we provide), and find myself being accused of having mental/psychological problems, \”wanting something\” (senior manager said \”she always complaint when she wants something\”..).

    Tried to report the bullying to my employer. When the employer investigated, I\’ve been incriminated by the internal bullies and accused of screaming \”workplace bullying\” when I\’ve been asked just to do my job.

    * Managers at the operational level are of low quality (with the same job for over 30 years), employed long ago with no academical, proper qualifications, contemporary understanding of most of the issues, etc, etc. and/or low moral/ethical standards.

    So we, as a society end up with senior public sector managers who prefer to sweep the issues under the rug. They create demoralized work place; people will witness abuse, assault, intimidation and bullying, and prefer to turn a blind eye to it. Or in so many cases even benefit from it.

    Senior managers attitudes are simple, \”everything I (manager) do is appropriate, everything you (staff) do is inappropriate, if I, the manager say so\”.

    My profession is the only group of professionals not registered, in this country. My professional well being, dignity, protection and responsibility are in hands of person that supervises me.

  2. It\’s good to see that bullying is finally being recognised as a component of occupational health and safety. Though OHS regulations and laws accept the physical aspects of health like accident, injury and illness, they have for a long time ignored the invisible or emotional injury that workers are vulnerable to.

    1. Jessica, thanks for reading the blog and commenting. Of all your comments, this is one that I feel bound to respond to.

      Workplace bullying has been on the OHS agenda for almost 20 years that I know of but did receive a boost in 2000 through an ACTU survey and the first workplace bullying guidance from WorkSafe Victoria.

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