Workplace Bullying – Take it Seriously!

Workplace bullying affects everybody including employees and independent contractors. Surprisingly, research on the subject indicated that very often the perpetrator was not aware that their conduct constituted “bullying”. Often it started out innocently as a bit of fun and then over time escalated to the point of causing serious harm, distress and long term psychological damage. Everybody is in the cross-hairs of the OH&S laws in your state. So take note of your responsibilities in this area.
Recently Worksafe Victoria prosecuted the owner and three of the employees of a Melbourne café, Café Vamp, after a young waitress committed suicide following an extended period of serious workplace bullying. The café's hands-on manager (the sole director of the company that owned the café) was not found to have engaged in any bullying conduct himself but still incurred a $30,000 personal fine. This was because of his failure to ensure reasonable systems were in place to protect employees and prevent workplace bullying in the first place. The company (and therefore the director) were liable for breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (VIC) and was fined $220,000. The three employees directly involved also incurred criminal convictions and were personally fined $45,000, $30,000 and $10,000 respectively.

So what do you have to do to ensure your workplace is safe from bullying? In the first instance it is imperative that everyone knows what constitutes bullying. Bullying is defined as a “persistent repeated unreasonable pattern of behaviour that risks the health and safety (intimidation, humiliation, causing fear or distress) of an employee”. Note that ‘health’ includes psychological health. In 2008/9 the total cost in psychological injury claims paid out by employers in NSW alone totalled $76 million with 75% of the awards being a function of work pressure, harassment and bullying.

This is a business critical issue that needs to be on the first page of everyone’s agenda. Click"}">here to download a presentation by WorkSafe Victoria on how to prevent bullying. In order to safeguard their interests, companies must have policies and procedures in place that address the harassment and bullying issue head on and provide a means for an employee to report the matter, facilitate investigation to confirm the facts and provides an intervention mechanism which protects the employee and re-educates the offender. Anything less is deemed as negligent. Click"}">here for example policy.

Under the OH&S laws, all individuals, including contractors, have a personal responsibility. The ACT states under Section 25 that “(1) While at work, an employee must - (b) take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace.” This means you also have a personal responsibility and are liable for your personal behavior or omission thereof. If you are concerned that a particular conduct or behavior of an individual is detrimental to the health and well being of a fellow employee, then under law, you must do something about it. At the very minimum it must be reported to a senior manager within the organization.

Above all, first start by making sure that your own conduct is above board. Are those ‘one-liners’ or jokes appropriate? Is there a chance that what you think is funny, someone else might find distressing? Is that practical joke always focuses on the same individual? In your zeal to deliver that project are you considering how you are communicating with those around you. Please do take this matter seriously because new laws have now been introduced as of June 2011 making bullying a criminal offence with a maximum 10 year jail term.