There are a range of simple steps employers can take to help stop workplace bullying before it starts, says David Bates

In September 2006, 19-year-old café worker, Brodie Panlock, ended her life after enduring more than a year of relentless bullying by her co-workers. More than ten years later, workplace bullying remains a major issue.

What is “Bullying”?

Workplace “bullying” is defined by section 789FD of the Fair Work Act 2009 (“Act”). That section reads:

(1) A worker is bullied at work if:

            (a) while the worker is at work in a constitutionally-covered business:

            (i) an individual; or

            (ii) a group of individuals;

repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker, or a group of workers of which the worker is a member; and

            (b) that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

(2) To avoid doubt, subsection (1) does not apply to reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.

As this section makes clear, four requirements must be met for conduct to amount to bullying. It must:

  • be repeated;
  • be unreasonable;
  • be directed towards a worker or group of workers (of which the alleged victim is a member); and
  • create a risk to health and safety (either physical or mental)

Critically, the Act also makes it expressly clear ‘reasonable management action’ taken in a ‘reasonable manner’ is not bullying.

“For more than twelve months, Brodie endured physical and emotional abuse”

Brodie’s Story

Brodie began work at Café Vamp in early 2005, and almost immediately became the subject of relentless bullying by her three male co-workers. For more than twelve months, Brodie endured physical and emotional abuse, including having sauce poured into her bag, being spat on, being told she was ‘worthless’, ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’, and even finding rat poison enclosed in her pay packet following a previous suicide attempt.

The abuse suffered by Brodie culminated in her suicide late one evening in September 2006. The subsequent coronial inquest concluded Ms Panlock was experiencing an ‘unbearable level of humiliation’ on the night she ended her relatively short life.

Steps Employers Can Take

There are a range of simple steps employers can take to help stop workplace bullying before it starts, and to comprehensively address and resolve allegations of bullying once they’ve been made.

Preventing Bullying

We recommend all employers take the following steps to help prevent bullying in their workplace:

  • Have a clear understanding of what workplace bullying is, and is not, to ensure people behave appropriately.
  • Provide employees with practical, clear and interactive training on workplace bullying.
  • Roll-out comprehensive anti-bullying-related policies and complaint procedures, which make it clear bullying will not be tolerated and will result in disciplinary action.

“Have a clear understanding of what workplace bullying is, and is not, to ensure people behave appropriately”

Responding to Bullying-Related Complaints

It is essential complaints are taken seriously and dealt with promptly. We recommend employers take the following steps whenever allegations are made:

  • Ensure the complaint is in writing. The alleged victim should be asked to include the following information in their complaint:
  • Specific examples of the alleged bullying
  • Dates and times of the alleged incident(s)
  • How the incident(s) made the alleged victim feel
  • Names of any witnesses to the incident(s); and
  • Any and all other relevant information they would like the employer to consider.
  • Protect the alleged victim. The alleged victim should be immediately protected from any further potential bullying.
  • Conduct a thorough and impartial investigation. In most cases, it will be appropriate to engage an independent investigator.
  • Take appropriate action once the final investigation report has been received. If the allegations have been substantiated, appropriate disciplinary action should be initiated. If the allegations were ultimately found to be without merit, this should be confirmed with all parties in writing.

Where to Go for Help

The following services provide invaluable help to those in need of assistance (information provided by beyondblue.com.au):

Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467

Lifeline: 13 11 14

MindSpot Clinic: 1800 61 44 34. This is an online and telephone service providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.

SANE Australia: 1800 187 263. SANE Australia provides information about mental illness, treatments, and where to go for help and support.

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