A most curious article about workplace bullying appeared in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on 11 September 2013. In discussing recent changes to Australia’s Fair Work Act Nick Ruskin of K&L Gates wrote about the broad definition of workplace bullying to be applied:
“…the intriguing thing is that worker is very broadly defined. Its definition, reliant on the Workplace Health & Safety Act 2011, is so wide it could even include the director of a corporation.
In other words, non-executive directors of corporations will have the same ability as a traditional worker to take a bullying grievance to the Fair Work Commission.
We could see a situation in which a company director alleges they have been bullied by another director and seeks early intervention from the Commission.” (emphasis added)
The tone of this article is often seen in writings by lawyers or corporate commentators and implies that senior executives should be treated differently from the “traditional worker”, whatever that is. Writers could claim that the article is tailored to the readers of the AFR but that is similarly disturbing.
Ruskin implies a “what is this world coming to” surprise that one director may seek early intervention after being bullied by a fellow Board member? Why not? Bullying is bullying whether between a manager and a worker, worker and worker, or director and director. Why would bullying at Board level be treated any differently?
Rather than a tone of surprise, the article could have been a straight reminder, or even a warning, to AFR readers that the Work Health and Safety laws are designed to apply equally to everyone at work, and that the duty of care extends equally to the boardroom as it does to the warehouse, the mine or the child care centre.
The Work Health and Safety legislation does not differentiate between organisational strata. Anyone can be a worker. In fact, everyone is a worker.
Ruskin’s article on workplace bullying fails to advise the bleedingly obvious safety principle – avoid the legal hassles and costs by eliminating bullying from your workplace. And if one accepts that workplace bullying is a subset of workplace mental health issues, some of Australia’s law firms and senior executives have experienced serious OHS problems with mental health.
“All senior leaders want to succeed and want their companies to succeed. However, if executive bullies are successful, it is despite their bullying not because of it. Executive bullying creates an unhealthy work environment — rife with micro-management, information hoarding and self-interest. This behavior may seem like it’s working in the short term, but what may look like positive results are often short-lived. Sometimes, by the time the company sees the damage, the bully has moved on, leaving the blame to his successor.
When executive bullying flourishes, disrespectful treatment of others can become systemic….”
If action against workplace bullying, and other OHS issues, starts from the senior executive level, as most OHS professionals concede, then senior executives (and their legal advisers) need to understand that their mental health fragility or resilience is no different from that of their workers, colleagues or peers. They may work in an elitist profession or position but the personal and familial damage from mental ill-health and workplace bullying hits senior executives just as much as it does the “traditional worker”.