Bullying: The hidden scourge of Australian businesses. What can you look for, as the CEO?

We scribe on all things HR to add value to your organisation

by | Nov 30, 2020

As the new CEO in a business, bullying is one thing that may pass you by. In fact, for CEOs of any business, whether you have been in the role for a long time or not, bullying is difficult to spot, hard to discuss, and horribly expensive financially and psychologically when it’s taking place.

This article shows you bullying’s red flags. It gives you an idea as to what it can cost you and your teams when it goes unnoticed or, worse, ignored. And it gives you some tools that you can put to work to eradicate it.

What are the statistics about workplace bullying in Australia?

In a submission prepared for the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission in April 2019, the University of South Australia pointed out that Australia’s rates of workplace bullying are among the highest in the world.

According to that submission,

Nationally the cost of mental health conditions to Australian businesses is nearly $11 billion pa … The State of Workplace Mental Health Report (beyondblue, 2015) found that only 52% of Australian workers consider their workplaces to be mentally healthy, and only 56% believe that their senior leaders value their mental health … Australian Workplace Barometer data shows reported bullying rates increased from 7% to nearly 10% from 2010 to 2014.

That submission focused on mental health in the workplace. It pointed out that bullying is a risk to a business’s psychosocial safety climate. Bullying precedes mental health conditions that negatively impact both safety and productivity.

Three years earlier, in 2016, Safework Australia published a report on a similar topic.

That report presented an analysis of the Australian Workplace Barometer study from 2014-15. One major finding was that the total cost of depression to Australian businesses, due to both presenteeism and absenteeism, was about $6.30 billion per year.

It also found that workers in psychological distress:

  • take four times as many sick days as employees who are well
  • experience performance losses that are up to 154% higher than those who are well
  • cost employers about $6,309 per year, on average.

Financially, psychological distress is a disaster in your company.

Psychological distress is a symptom of something else

While the facts and figures are alarming, remember that they are symptoms of something else. Psychological distress is the outcome of a number of risk factors. Some of those risk factors include:

  • unsafe systems of work
  • lack of clarity or definition of jobs in the workplace
  • lack of appropriate resources, information, or training
  • a failure to develop productive and respectful working relationships
  • poor management
  • vague, unhelpful, or missing policies and procedures
  • poor prioritisation
  • double standards

… and many other things. Some of these are also risk factors for bullying. As we have written previously, how you communicate, how you lead your leadership team, performance appraisals and even networks of influence, can contribute to environments conducive to bullying.

But before we examine those environments, it’s important to be clear about does and does not constitute bullying.

What is, and is not, bullying?

There are many definitions of bullying. They are all slightly different. At Red Wagon, we go to the Australian Fair Work Commission’s definition.

According to the Fair Work Commission, bullying at work occurs when:

1. a person or group repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or group of workers at work, AND

2. the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

It is not bullying when you are taking reasonable management action. ‘Reasonable management action’ is defined as:

  • performance improvement processes
  • disciplinary action
  • informing a worker about performance or behaviour that is unsatisfactory or inappropriate
  • asking a worker to perform reasonable duties that are part of their job
  • maintaining reasonable standards and goals.

This means that if you must ‘transfer, demote, discipline, counsel, retrench, or sack someone,’ then it isn’t bullying if you’re acting reasonably.

The types of behaviours that can become bullying

The Fair Work Commission tells us that bullying may involve one or more of any of the following behaviours:

  • aggressive or intimidating conduct
  • belittling or humiliating comments
  • spreading malicious rumours
  • teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation ceremonies’
  • exclusion from work-related events
  • unreasonable work expectations, including too much or too little work, or work below or beyond a worker’s skill level
  • displaying offensive material
  • pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner.

The Australian Human Rights Commission goes even further, including such things as:

  • giving you pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  • giving you impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
  • deliberately changing your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you
  • deliberately holding back information you need for getting your work done properly

and so on. They produced a complete fact sheet with more information. Bullying is when a person (or group) repeatedly and persistently behaves unreasonably towards someone else. That someone else can also be a group. For it to be considered bullying, it must also create a risk to health and safety.

Bullying takes many forms. The Australian Human Rights Commission suggests all of the following can be bullying behaviour:

  • repeated hurtful remarks or attacks, or making fun of your work or you as a person (including your family, sex, sexuality, gender identity, race or culture, education or economic background)
  • sexual harassment, particularly unwelcome touching and sexually explicit comments and requests that make you uncomfortable
  • excluding you or stopping you from working with people or taking part in activities that relates to your work
  • playing mind games, ganging up on you, or other types of psychological harassment
  • intimidation (making you feel less important and undervalued)
  • giving you pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  • giving you impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided deliberately
  • changing your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you
  • deliberately holding back information you need for getting your work done properly
  • pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing you in the workplace
  • attacking or threatening with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any other type of object that can be turned into a weapon
  • initiation or hazing—where you are made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of the team.

In all cases, it is only bullying when the behaviour is repeated and persistent and creates a risk to health and safety.

How will I know when a behaviour is a risk to health and safety?

As an employer, you are required to provide a safe workplace for your employees. ‘Safe’ includes both physical and psychological safety.

When someone is bullied, they tend to believe that the situation is their own fault. They may feel that they don’t fit in because something is wrong with them.

Knowing that bullying is persistent and repeated, the following are potential risks to health and safety:

  • high levels of change without boundaries or perceived timeframes for conclusion
  • continuing job insecurity
  • poorly designed rosters
  • hostile workgroups
  • abusive or demeaning behaviours. This is a big category! It includes inappropriate or derogatory language, and unwarranted or malicious feedback or criticism. It includes employees who are consistently left out of decision-making, meetings, or other forms of workplace participation. Other behaviours are repeatedly talking over colleagues, loudly disagreeing so much that others stop saying anything, and consistently ignoring someone’s input.
  • lack of training or resources
  • assignment of tasks with unreasonable timeframes, unreasonable measures.

You can proactively identify behaviours and patterns that are bullying risk-creators

The types of patterns that you can identify from workplace and human resource data include:

  1. Reductions in productivity levels
  2. Increases in absenteeism
  3. Rates of staff turnover
  4. Rates of bullying complaints and reports of actions taken.

As the new CEO in your business, make a point of looking for and analysing these data types over time. In particular, examine bullying complaints. How were they actioned, what was the outcome, and how were they followed up? This is a fast way to identify how bullying has been addressed previously. If resolutions were not achieved, why not?

Conducting a multivariate analysis of the data may shine a light on patterns that haven’t been identified previously. For example, patterns of complaints, turnover, or productivity levels may have occurred in sequence.

Other patterns that you and your leadership team must look for include changes in employee attitudes, personalities, and confidence levels.

People who are bullied tend to feel guilty, hopeless, depressed, confused, stressed out, and ashamed. They may be tired all the time, because it can create sleeping problems. They may be less active, less confident, and participate less in workplace and social activities.

6 things you can do today to minimise bullying risk

Each workplace is unique, and approaches to bullying and culture will necessarily vary. However, the following six items are things that you can get started today.

  1. Check-in on your teams’ coaching. If regular, 1:1 coaching isn’t in place in your business, now is the time to put it in place. Regular conversations are important for building trust and for developing your team. They also give you a smart way to identify early signs of bullying.
  2. Make a public commitment to managing and controlling bullying risk.
  3. Check-in on your bullying reporting and response procedures. Do you have them? When were they last reviewed? Are they effective?
  4. Set the standard of behaviour. Be the person to call out inappropriate behaviour. Do it no matter who the person is.
  5. Ask to see the latest complaints. How many of them are bullying reports, and how have they been handled?
  6. Review your learning and development programs. Are your team members trained to understand bullying? Do they learn about the organisation’s position on bullying, and how to work with its procedures?

When bullying requires further investigation

Any report of bullying must be taken seriously. The first stage is an internal analysis. Your analysis may lead to an internal investigation.

In some cases, you may need an independent investigator to help you.

Be proactive about bullying in your workplace

Effectively preventing and managing bullying risk will improve your business. It will lift your productivity, and save you thousands of dollars. It will also support a robust and enjoyable workplace culture.

Having the right systems, processes and policies in place is half the battle.

We are experts in workplace investigations and can give you practical advice on how to improve your systems and processes to manage issues if and when they arise.

Book in a free consultation and let us help you assess whether you’re on the right track.

For support with complaints handling and workplace investigations, call or message Susan at Red Wagon Workplace Solutions for an initial consult.

About the author

As President and South Australian State Councillor of the Australian HR Institute (AHRI), Susan is a valued advisor and thought leader to her clients and the HR community. Maintaining an extensive understanding of employment law and business acumen through her work and connectivity to the AHRI and the business community, Susan is a master at finding innovative people orientated solutions, carefully balanced with the commercial reality.


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