In Australia, Parliamentary inquiries are usually required to provide the Parliament with a copy of their findings. In the last week of November 2012, the Chair of the Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying, Amanda Rishworth, presented its report which included a dissenting report from the Conservative (Liberal Party) committee members. On 28 November both Alan Tudge MP, one of the dissenting committee members, and Deborah O’Neill (Labor Party), spoke to the House of Representatives about the report. Their speeches say much on the issue of workplace bullying and the politics of workplace health and safety (WHS) in Australia.
Statistics and Costs
Tudge acknowledges the importance of preventing workplace bullying but provides an important fact to remember when reading the full report. According to Hansard, Tudge says
“The prevalence of workplace bullying is not known – there is no statistical data to assess exactly how prevalent it is. Regardless of the precise number, we know that it is too prevalent.” (emphasis added)
This may sound a little contradictory but it summarises a problem when investigating workplace bullying, there are no useful statistics on it.
The most authoritative statistics on the cost to the Australian economy came from the Productivity Commission in 2010 which estimated an annual cost of between $A6 billion and $A36 billion. O’Neill’s Hansard record expands on these statistics and she points out that
“..bullying has not been on our radar to a sufficient degree so that we have powerful and accurate data about what the cost is.”
This may have been the case prior to this Parliamentary inquiry but was it unreasonable to expect this inquiry, through its own investigations and submissions, to have obtained a better estimation? The lack of more accurate data is a major omission by the inquiry.
Tudge’s comments indicate the position that many people are left with. “We hear of workplace bullying a lot, we read surveys that say it is a big problem, experts say it is a big problem and, even though we only have a vague idea of the size of the problem, workplace bullying is really bad.”
The Committee has made recommendations that additional research into workplace bullying costs and social impacts be undertaken but our knowledge on these costs have not progressed in the last 12 months and it should have.
The issue of Brodie’s Law and the suicide of Brodie Panlock was discussed at the public hearings in Melbourne. At the time several committee members were unaware of the case. As a Victorian, Alan Tudge knew of the case but has no clearer understanding of the law that carries her name. Tudge says:
“I commend Mr Baillieu, the Premier in Victoria, for taking very strong action in response to that by putting in place what is now known as ‘Brodie’s law’. It applies in Victoria and leads to far more serious penalties applying to individuals who bully people on an ongoing basis. That is the seriousness of the matter.”
Since the introduction of Brodie’s Law no one has been prosecuted under that law. Penalties have been increased however Premier Baillieu’s government has refused to introduce new Work Health and Safety laws that further increase Victoria’ financial penalties for WHS breaches. According to WorkSafe Victoria, the OHS regulator, the 2004 legislation imposes maximum fines of
“… $A1,075,050* for a body corporate and $A215,010 for a natural person* for individuals.”
The model Work Health and Safety Act, were it introduced in Victoria, has a greater range of financial penalties with the highest category, reckless endangerment, attracting a penalty for corporations of $A3 million and $A300,000 or 5 years’ imprisonment for individuals. Tudge commends the Premier for increased penalties on a law that has not been applied. Yet the Premier rejects a safety law that includes higher penalties for companies and the chance of imprisonment for individuals. There is something a bit skewed in Victorian politics in relation to OHS.
Bullying “is different to other workplace safety issues”
Tudge also states that workplace bullying “is different to other workplace safety issues”. This is a major problem and reflects a common perception. Tudge says that workplace bullying is very difficult to regulate against.
“The other contextual element is that it is a very difficult subject matter to regulate against. We say that because in some respects workplace bullying can be defined differently by different people and it often has a subjective element to it. In that regard it is different to other workplace safety issues.”
This contradicts the inquiry’s report which has provided an updated definition of workplace bullying and it shows a misunderstanding of workplace bullying. Workplace bullying has been defined similarly, in this report and over the last decade at least. What differs is the effect on people. The experience of workplace bullying differs for different people.
Tudge uses an example of how managerial actions may be misconstrued as bullying to illustrate the inadequacy of regulations in this area yet WorkSafe Victoria has specifically addressed this in their very recent workplace bullying guidance. This guidance may have been released after the Parliamentary Inquiry’s deliberations. WorkSafe stated that
” This guide is not intended to cover dissatisfaction or grievances with organisational and management practices or poor management practices on their own, as they are not workplace bullying. At times people may feel that their working life is unpleasant and that they are being inappropriately treated, but feeling upset or undervalued at work does not mean an individual is being bullied at work.” (page 1)
Misinterpretations of workplace bullying continue as this story about the Victorian Ambulance Service shows. However, WorkSafe’s Victorian guidance should quickly clarify this.
A major concern of the dissenting committee members, including Alan Tudge, was the possible introduction of “inflexible” and “overly prescriptive” “and overly burdensome” regulations yet it is rare nowadays for such safety legislation to be introduced and if it were, it would be tempered by “as far is reasonably practicable“. Tudge said that such prescriptive regulations can become
“…a box-ticking exercise rather than something that they should be seriously concerned about for the productivity of their business.”
If productivity is a concern of Australian businesses, a major support base for conservative politics, then the dissenting members should be much more supportive of the inquiry’s findings as workplace bullying
“..can have a profound effect on all aspects of a person’s health as well as their work and family life, undermining self-esteem, productivity and morale.” (emphasis added, page 2)
“Harmers Workplace Lawyers commented that, in their experience, workplace bullying results in……. loss of productivity – due to sick leave and/or workers compensation claims…” (emphasis added, page 11)
Safe Work Australia advised that
“We have been battling for a fair bit with companies to identify and report on performance in this area in terms of their bottom line. They just aggregate all of this in terms of their normal [human resource] performance, and you cannot get them to think about and focus on how good work in health will lead to good and improved productivity.” (emphasis added, page 11)
“Better response to instances of workplace bullying will not only ensure the health and wellbeing of all workers at an organisation, but can lead to greater productivity and growth.” (emphasis added, page 95)
The dissenting report also states that
“The facilitation of best possible practice will work hand in hand with a focus on high productivity. Simply put, a happy workforce is likely to produce the best results for all parties.”
Of course one person’s happiness is another’s increased labour cost and “best possible practice” could be high levels of respect but also what one can get away with.
The Parliamentary report included many expert comments on increasing productivity by eradicating workplace bullying but evidence was rare and that is why the Committee has called for much more research into this area. O’Neill said in Parliament that even if the costs of workplace bullying are “only” $A6 billion it remains a serious workplace concern.
O’Neill responded to some of Tudge’s comments in Parliament. Specifically on the matter of comparing workplace bullying to a physical machine guard, O’Neill said
“The member for Aston said that it is easy to see what is wrong with a physical problem in a workplace and it is hard to see what is wrong with bullying in a workplace. I would argue that it is hard to see if you are not looking. The reality is that a lot of people have been turning a blind eye to the impact of bullying at the workplace for far too long.”
On the reluctance to create a regulatory regime on workplace bullying, O’Neill stated that
“Sadly, as we have found with OH&S laws that deal with practical unsafe workplaces, there are employers who will exploit every last drop of sweat and tears, and sadly in some cases blood, from their workers because they just do not see them as people; they see them as units of labour. It is for those employers, – thankfully, fewer in number than the great employers across most of the nation – that we do need strong legislation, as I hope will be recommended as a consequence of the inquiry and the report that has been tabled in parliament.”
Workplace bullying and political ideologies
As is evident, the political ideological divide continues in Australian politics and it is very sad that one ideology, the conservative, continues to imply that companies should not be held accountable for the psychosocial consequences of poor management structure and managerial operation. There is the implication that the economic and social consequences of workplace bullying should be handled by someone else, but that someone else is most likely to be the social security system and conservative politicians have described those on welfare as being “bludgers” or afraid of work. Many of the heartfelt, tearful and confronting presentations to this Parliamentary Inquiry should have been enough to convince the doggedly conservative committee members that people are hurting and that the hurt almost always resulted from badly managed companies.
Business has had plenty of opportunity over many many years to adequately address the issue of workplace bullying. The preventive mechanisms, policies and training do not appear to have reduced the problem so again the government must regulate. If the business sector and employer associations are so against additional WHS regulation, avoid it by addressing workplace bullying now and you may just increase your corporate reputation and productivity as well. A win-win.