Workplace bullying: How to handle this tough issue | WISE Workplace

PUBLISHED - 19 March 2009

Bullying and harassment is a largely hidden problem in the workplace, often taking place behind closed doors and without witnesses.

The effects of bullying can be devastating to the health and well-being of those exposed to it. The cost to organisations in terms of lost productivity and staff turnover can be substantial.

Bullying at work is a problem that is only just beginning to be seen as one of the main causes of workplace stress. Bullying is a form of psychological or physical harassment and women and men at all levels of employment can be affected by it. The bully can be a manager, a supervisor, co-worker or subordinate.

It is an employer’s obligation to protect staff from abuse. Failure to do so can prove very costly.

Not only can a firm face large compensation payouts, but it can have a major effect on workplace moral and seriously tarnish a company’s reputation.

On March 15 2006, the NSW Supreme Court awarded $1.9million in damages to a former employee suffering psychiatric illness caused by bullying in the workplace. The decision of Justice Adams in Naidu v Group 4Securitas Pty Ltd and Nationwide News Ltd highlights an employer’s responsibility to ensure the health and safety of employees while at work.

The Occupational Health, Safety & Welfare Act and Regulations say employers must provide a safe and healthy working environment –this includes the prevention of bullying and harassment.

Employers should be aware of the legal risks associated with harassment and bullying and the steps that can be taken to minimise their potential liability. They should be proactive to ensure staff understand their rights and obligations to both themselves and their co-workers under their workplace harassment and bullying policies.

Also, staff and volunteers should understand they have a responsibility to ensure that their behaviour meets the required standards to ensure a safe and productive workplace.

An Australian Public Service (APS) survey conducted in2006 found 16 per cent of employees who took part in the survey believed they had been subjected to bullying or harassment in the workplace.

Women were more likely to believe they had experienced bullying and harassment than men (19% compared to 12%).

Employees with disability were also more likely (24%)than those without disability (15%) to believe that they have experienced bullying or harassment.

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employee census survey conducted the previous year found that 23 per cent of Indigenous employees believed they had experienced bullying and harassment.

It is vital to act promptly to eliminate bullying in the workplace. Ongoing bullying can be costly in terms of increased sick leave,absenteeism and turnover. By creating a work environment that does not tolerate bullying, you can substantially improve staff commitment and productivity.

A bully is a person who uses strength or power to intimidate others by fear. Workplace bullying exists in various forms. It involves behaviour that intimidates, degrades or humiliates an employee(sometimes in front of other people).

Examples of bullying behaviour include unfair and excessive criticism, publicly insulting victims, ignoring their point of view,constantly changing or setting unrealistic work targets and undervaluing their efforts at work.

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that humiliates, offends or intimidates people.

Under federal anti-discrimination law an employer, regardless of size, may be legally responsible for discrimination and harassment that occurs in the workplace. Employers must actively implement precautionary measures to minimise the risk of discrimination and harassment occurring.

Inappropriate comments about personal appearance and persistent, unreasonable criticism of work performance are also common.Assault, both physical and threatened, can also be a factor.

Physical assault is a criminal offence and should be reported to the police immediately.

No-one works at their best if they feel hurt, angry,vulnerable and powerless. Bullying can have a variety of physical,psychological and financial effects on people.

Commonly reported effects are:

  • Stress, anxiety and tension
  • Feelings of social isolation at work
  • Loss of confidence and self-esteem
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss or deterioration of personal relationships
  • Headaches, backaches, stomach cramps, depression
  • Deterioration of work performance
  • Anti-social behaviour, impact on family/relationships
  • Loss of income; loss of potential income
  • Panic attacks
  • Reluctance to go to work

There are a number of steps that you can take to eliminate bullying in your workplace.

The first step in prevention is to acknowledge that bullying can exist in any workplace.

The most effective way to prevent bullying is for employers to send a clear message that workplace bullying is unacceptable.

Support and involvement from senior management is essential in effecting change and preventing bullying before it becomes a problem.

Often, it is advisable to seek expert advice when dealing with these issues.

Independent investigations of bullying allegations can be carried out professionally and expeditiously. Thus sending a clear message that allegations will be taken seriously, investigated independently and appropriate action taken when allegations are substantiated.

WISE Workplace can conduct Management Enquiries when problems recur in a work team or formal investigations when specific allegations or grievances are made against an individual. 

The value of independence cannot be underestimated.Independence provides all parties with the confidence that they have had a fair hearing, that company politics is not at issue and ‘truth’ is represented to the decision makers. Experience in investigating such complaints improves the quality of the report and ensures expertise in assessing the impact of ‘groupthink’.

WISE can evaluate complaints and advise on further actions, review internal investigation reports and conduct risk assessments,manage mediations, handle grievances and undertake full investigations.