Being bullied in the workplace? Blame the bosses

I HEREBY declare 2014 the Year of the Bully. It seems that work no longer sets you free. Instead, it is an arena where every conceivable wrong apparently is perpetrated against the worker. The latest is the workplace bully, and government is ready to stamp it out.

One of Bill Shorten’s last acts as workplace relations minister in the Gillard government was to allow a worker who had been bullied to apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying. The act comes into effect tomorrow. What are the chances of it stopping bullying?

Sometimes we just do not get on. It could be the local bridge club, a body corporate or, indeed, a family. Conflict is inevitable in any association of people, so why blame the workplace? Taking these matters to court and seeking justice is a very painful and expensive business.

It is claimed that bullying, or “workplace psychosocial health and safety”, is a big loser. The Productivity Commission estimates that workplace bullying costs the economy between $6 billion and $36bn every year.

Of course, any problem can be added as a cost to the economy, and will so remain while there is no solution, or at least one that will not cost as much to solve.

Safe Work Australia has found that the average cost of a compensation claim because of workplace bullying or harassment was $41,700 and the average time lost from work was 25 weeks, compared with the average cost of all claims of $13,300 and the average time lost of seven weeks.

So, what to do? The House of Representatives standing committee investigating workplace bullying, which last year recommended the Shorten legislation, was careful to be seen to spread the blame. It reported that under model workplace, health and safety laws (likely to be widely adopted) all workers had a duty to take “reasonable care” for the health and safety of their co-workers.

This is sensible, but it is unlikely a worker will take another worker to the commission. It is always going to be the bosses’ fault. As academics argued before the standing committee, “the system(s) of work … create hazards to workers’ mental health”. I prefer Malcolm Fraser’s sage advice: “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.”

By the way, I notice that the ninth International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment, Promoting Dignity and Justice at Work, is to take place next June in Milan, Italy. There is an industry here; my advice to government is not to feed it.

Then again, it is not going to be a bed of roses for labour law firms, or employees. One of the leading labour law firms has just been put through the wringer by one of its own. And the worker lost.

The Supreme Court of Victoria decided the case on appeal, Brown v Maurice Blackburn Cashman earlier this year. The unfortunate dispute was between a salaried partner and head of the family law department of MBC.

The central allegation was that after she returned from maternity leave the lawyer was systematically undermined, harassed and bullied by a fellow employee. The appellant alleged that she suffered psychiatric injury comprising an adjustment disorder with severe anxiety and depression, and that she would not be able to work as a lawyer in the future.

The trial judge concluded that the appellant was not bullied and the Supreme Court agreed.

One of the problems for bully fighters is that bullying is difficult to define. Safe Work Australia’s draft code of practice provides examples of behaviour that include abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments, unjustified criticism or complaints, setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level, spreading misinformation or malicious rumours, and excessive scrutiny at work.

No employer takes these matters more seriously than the commonwealth. In this year’s Australian Public Service employee census 16 per cent of employees experienced “what they perceived to be harassment or bullying in the workplace”, the same percentage as the year before. Of those who felt they had been harassed or bullied, 43 per cent reported it, the same percentage as the year before. Not much progress here.

Forty-two per cent of employees described the alleged harassment or bullying as based on work performance. Two distinct factors were at work: personal differences and abuse of power. The latter included “disrespect for knowledge and skills”, and competition in the workplace.

There was one sensible piece of advice furnished to the House of Reps committee: “Give your employer one chance to act … If that fails, then get out. If your employer has not got the guts to stand up for you, do not stay and fight because you will not walk away without huge personal costs.”