Why our efforts to tackle workplace bullying are failing (and how we can do better)

Almost half of Australians will be bullied at work, and our attempts to deal with workplace bullying are failing. That is the finding of research conduced by the University of Wollongong for mental health charity beyondblue. Beyondblue’s CEO, Georgie Harman, explains that the tendency for  organisations to target the individuals involved in bullying, rather than the organisation as a whole, as perpetuating the problem.

‘Strategies and policies tend to target individuals, including the perpetrator and the victim, not the organisation that allows the bullying to occur,’ Harman told the ABC. ‘We need to be targeting the organisations where there is a culture of bullying and empowering employees through communication.’

Bullying most frequently happens in the early stages of a person’s career, and young males are most likely to be victims, the research found. This correlates with the weekend’s revelations that young male police officers from Newtown police station have alleged to the NSW Civil and Administrative Review Tribunal and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board that they have been bullied and singled out for drug testing because they are gay.

Not only is discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, race, religion, political views, disability, family responsibilities and other grounds illegal, the Productivity Commission found in 2010 that workplace bullying costs organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year in lost productivity.

Tackling workplace bullying at an organisational level is challenging. A recently published book, Workplace Bullying by Vice President of the Fair Work Commission Joseph Catanzariti and clinical psychologist Keryl Egan (LexisNexis 2015) sets out the legal and psychological consequences of bullying and will help those who are dealing with education, identification and risk management in relation to bullying at work. The authors state that ‘Only those leaders that are committed to dealing with workplace bullying will be able to effect the cultural change required in the workplace to effectively combat workplace bullying.’

After defining what constitutes bullying, and what does not, the book looks at the legal and risk aspects, including work health and safety laws and criminal and anti-discrimination laws. There is an extensive section on the Fair Work Act 2009.  Since 2014, workers have been able to apply to the Fair Work Commission for orders to stop workplace bullying. Catanzariti and Egan outline the legal arguments and the process, including explaining the ‘reasonable management action’ exception, by which managers can allocate work and give feedback on poor performance in a ‘reasonable manner that takes into account the circumstances of the case and do not leave the individual feeling (for example) victimised or humiliated.’

The psychological explanations of bullying and the descriptions of the mechanisms bullies use are fascinating. The book argues that despite our diversity, we have a ‘shared understanding about what it is to be human and how relationships and society work’, and when people are bullied, their core sense of self is weakened at its deepest level.

The chapter on intervention and prevention begins by stating that ‘Managing the risk of psychological injury requires a strategic decision to invest in the corporate culture with the ultimate aim of maintaining employee engagement, reducing staff turnover and preserving the reputation of the organisation as an employer of choice. Bullying is increasingly recognised as a threat to business that now approaches epidemic proportions globally.’

The book includes an extensive reading list, a detailed description of the role of the Fair Work Commission and possible outcomes of proceedings brought before it, relevant extracts from the legislation and forms. A list of resources for the prevention of bullying will be extremely useful for hiring mangers and HR departments. It includes assessment tools, development tools, and resources to help develop communication and influencing skills. An extensive index makes it easy to find information.

The authors express the hope that the next edition of the book will be different as workplaces improve their ability to deal with bullying. It is certainly in the best interests of companies and their workers to do so.

The book is available in ebook format and in hard copy from LexisNexis.