Workplace bullying: The buck stops with the boss
They say that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to stand by and do nothing. That seems to be the case with workplace bullying – where organisations and individuals look the other way while workers are victimised.
The case of Karen Klein: Workplace bullying at its worst…
Work is one-third of our lives. It is important for our self-esteem. Sustained bullying at work can poison the rest of a person’s life and does long-lasting damage to their mental health. Bullying in the workplace is one of those things that is difficult to define, but most people know it when they see it.
The key elements of most definitions include repetitious, unreasonable, or unfair and inappropriate behaviour that attempts to undermine a worker or group of workers. Add to that personal attacks on a person’s ability, work ethic, appearance, background or other details and you have a classic case of serious bullying.
Victims often feel a sense of shame about what is happening. They feel it is their fault for being unable to cope or unable to fit in, and do not see that what is happening is out of their control.
At the core of workplace bullying is an imbalance of power. When someone controls your pay slip, your chances of getting extra hours or prospect of promotion, they have power over you.
In the end systematic bullying only flourishes in a workplace culture that does not take the issue seriously or does not give victims a chance to make their voices heard. And the buck must stop at the top.
In my working days as a nurse, I saw and experienced bullying on many occasions. One particular incident sticks in my mind. A young graduate nurse working in a country hospital was mercilessly harassed by her workmates about her appearance, while management turned a blind eye. This situation became so bad, that the local nursing union organiser rang me and asked if I could find a place for this poor young woman on my staff at the Melbourne hospital where I worked.
I did, and in a secure and tolerant environment she blossomed to become a fine nurse. But it never should have come to that. In Australia we are only starting to grapple with the cost of workplace bullying, and how best to combat it.
The ACTU last week gave evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the issue talking about our concerns about the lack of recourse for victims, and the lack of ways of preventing bullying Australians know about the physical dangers that face people in many workplaces, and we understand the need for workplace safety and the lifelong physical damage that can be caused by workplace accidents.
The scars of bullying are invisible but are equally devastating. Workplace bullying leaves a trail of damage, depression, and broken families. The Productivity Commission estimates that workplace bullying costs Australia between $6 billion and $36 billion, a figure that does not include the emotional suffering of victims.
No one who read about the horrific case of Brodie Panlock could fail to understand the damage that bullying can cause. Brodie committed suicide at just 19 after an intense and vicious campaign denigration by her boss and male work colleagues. New laws were introduced as a result of public disgust at her treatment which can see the worst cases of bullying punished with 10-year jail terms.
These laws send a strong message. But the best way to avoid similar tragedies is through prevention rather than just punishing the worst offenders after the event. We need better mechanisms to address the issue – not just after it occurs but before the damage is done.
Evidence of bullying behaviour alone should be enough for someone to be able to act. But the biggest issue we need to fight is workplace cultures that tolerate bullying and leave ordinary workers too frightened to complain when they see others being victimised.
Unions will continue to take a strong stand against bullying when cases are reported to us, but on many occasions bullying goes on for years before a complaint is made. Workplaces that are under-staffed, where employees are required to meet impossible targets, or work in conditions that reduce their dignity, are those most at risk of institutionalising bullying behaviour.
This is especially the case in workplaces which have a high proportion of casual or contract workers who risk losing their job if they step out of line. We are seeing an increasingly insecure workforce, where there is more pressure to work unpaid overtime, or to adapt to a reduced workforce. In these circumstances it is no wonder that stresses rise, some employees step over the line, and actions that would not be tolerated normally can become routine.
Workers who speak out against bullying are courageous and I applaud them. But the reality is that for too many this comes at the cost of huge personal stress and a lost job.
If a crane collapses on a building site, the focus is, rightly, on the management of the site, even if they were not directly responsible. This is because we accept that they have a responsibility to create and maintain a safe workplace.
It’s time bullying was treated the same way.
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