Media reporting of workplace bullying

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As a publisher my mailbox is constantly bombarded by media releases.  Some are irrelevant but most relate to safety in some way.

Over the years the amount of attention given to workplace bullying has grown phenomenally.  In my opinion the attention it garners is way beyond the level it deserves.

That is not to say that those subjected to workplace bullying are not seriously harmed, they are, but the big-picture issue is disproportionate.

This is partly because many people who talk about workplace bullying do not apply the definition of the hazard, and as a result other non-bullying matters get included.  A media release I received today, 14 August 2008, illustrates this point.

Workpro has undertaken a survey of

“2,146 employees applying for work through recruitment agencies across Australia, to gain an understanding of the experiences and beliefs about bullying and discrimination among Australian employees today”.

The survey found

“almost one in three (30%) employees claiming they have been bullied at work; one in four (24%) claiming they have been discriminated against, and 44 per cent stating they have witnessed their colleagues experience either of these”.

That data is pretty clear and you can expect the Australian media to run articles on the survey results tomorrow.  These surveys usually get a good hit rate.

The media release provides the impression that 30% of employees have been bullied at work.  This is not the case.  Thirty per cent of employees who are looking to change jobs say they have been bullied at work.  This does not represent 30% of the workforce but that is the impression we are given.

Another part of the release is annoying.

“27 per cent of respondents say they feel bullying or discrimination has happened to them within the past two years.”

Bullying and discrimination are very different interactions.  Discrimination can be a one-off event, bullying must be a repeated action.  To ask about these two disparate items within the one question is inappropriate or, if the results of two questions are combined, it provides a false impression.  Did 10% nominate bullying and 17% say discrimination or was it vice versa?

The media release says

“When asked about their peers, almost half (46%) of respondents say they have seen their colleagues bullied or discriminated against within the past two years; 31 per cent of this group say multiple times.”

The point about definition made above applies here but why ask about other people anyway?  The multiple times quote muddies the water because it is impossible to be bullied once, a single attack is just that an attack or in OHS parlance, “occupational violence”.

A spokesperson for WorkPro, Tania Evans, says

“It’s quite shocking to hear from employees that this sort of behaviour continues to happen in modern times, but organisations need to realise that bullying and unfair treatment of staff is occurring and could be impacting their own workplace culture or worse still, exposing them to the risk of liability, possible fines and even brand damage.”

Now we have something called “unfair treatment” in the mix.  (And I hate “impact” as a verb) The penalties could be liability, fines or brand damage, what about workers compensation claims for stress and bullying?  Not only is this a substantial business cost, the cause of the claim may result in the employee never being able to work again or lead a functional life?  I place these risks higher than brand damage.

Media releases are not the be-all and end-all of a survey.  Press statements are intended to generate contact in order to provide further information and hopefully generate business opportunities.  Alarmism is an effective tool and this media release is unhelpful.

You can imagine the articles in tomorrow’s papers where the journalists, if they can be bothered, will have asked the OHS regulators or unions for their response to the statistics, even though it may only be those statistics in the media release that they have seen.

I would have liked this survey to be reported in two parts, bullying and discrimination, to reflect their difference but also to report on the different control mechanisms for the harm that each of these hazards can generate.

But, I forgot, that’s my job.

Kevin Jones

Don’t rely on alarms

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The Australian media has been following the investigation into the crash of a light aircraft that was travelling to Benalla on July 28, 2004.  There was a report on 5 August about a family who will be suing Queensland Rail over the serious bashing of a relative.  Different stories, different states, different modes of transport, but both stories of sadness.

Both stories illustrate an important reminder for the management of safety in workplaces and in public – alarms are there for a reason.

According to media, Barbara Lillicrap, the widow of bashing victim, Scott Lillicrap, said witnesses had pushed the emergency button at the station at least three times, but rail officers believed it to be a prank and ignored it.

A newspaper report says that air traffic controller Stuart Hodge said that an alert was sounded when the plane veered off course before approaching Benalla Airport.  Mr Hodge said false alarms were common and there was a culture among air traffic controllers to ignore them.

These two reports also need to remind safety professionals that alarms are simply audible signs to which people need to respond, or at least acknowledge.  An ignored sign is a useless control measure and if this is likely to occur, then a higher order of control measure needs to be implemented to control the hazard.

(Don’t get me started on signs at level crossings!)

Would you fire someone who could fire back?

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Any gun issue in the United States comes down to the right to bear arms but what happens when that right conflicts with the employers’ obligations to provide a safe working environment and one without risks to health.

On 9 April 2008 Reuters reported on a new law in Florida that allows employees to take their guns to work.  The law would “prohibit business owners from banning guns kept locked in motor vehicles on their private property.”

The law has now been tested at Disneyworld and NPR provides an audio report on the issue.

Could sexual abuse by priests be a breach of OHS law?

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In early July 2008, serious accusations about the management of sexual abuse claims by the Australian Catholic Church came to the public attention.  Considerable debate on this current round is available in the Australian media but the ABC show Lateline started the running on the matter.  A useful starting point is an ABC news report on the initial claims.

This week I was conducting some OHS update sessions for a client in which I outlined that one of the objectives of Victoria’s OHS legislation is to

“protect the public from the health and safety risks of business activities”.

And there is a legislative obligation on employers to

“not recklessly endanger a person at a workplace”.

There is a further obligation on employees, in relation to workplace safety and the safety of the public to

“take reasonable care for self and others”.

I put the question to readers – could the sexual misconduct of priests be a potential breach of OHS law?

Domestic violence and workplace stress

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Today, prominent New Zealand sports broadcaster Tony Veitch has admitted striking a previous girlfriend whose back broke in the incident.  The issue of domestic violence is outside the approach of SafetyAtWorkBlog but Tony Veitch has identified some contributory factors to his actions – workload, stress and medications.

Media coverage of Tony Veitch’s admissions will be dominated by the issues of domestic violence and the money that he paid his girlfriend to keep the matter out of the media.  In this blog’s context, questions should be asked about his employer’s, TVNZ’s, appoach to stress management and excessive working hours, and Tony Veitch’s own decision to accept working conditions that he says contributed to his violent acts.

As with the many politicians who resign due to workload and stress and who develop a sudden desire to “spend more time with the family”, and those CEO’s who take a year off to reestablish a work-life balance after amassing a personal fortune, and the television broadcasters who strike out at girlfriends, the contributions to domestc violence by work environments should be assessed so that other workers do not have to suffer and partners are not assaulted.

A balanced ABC news report on the Tony Veitch’s apology is available HERE.  A New Zealand talkback radio session on the issue is available HERE

Additional information on the issue can be found HERE