The cost of workplace bullying

Even though there are simple solutions, consistent with the existing values of business, to stamp out workplace bullying, this problem still exists across all levels of organisations.


In the last three weeks I have read headlines both overseas and in Australia about the sad death of teenage children as a result of cyber bullying.

When I was in the US, page 21 of the New York Times on January 4, 2012 was dedicated to the death of Amanda Cummins. Amanda was a 15-year-old girl who was bullied in person and on Facebook, by peers from her Staten Island High School. Upon returning to Australia, I read of the equally sad death of Sheniz Erkan, on January 12, 2012. She too was bullied over the internet.

The Herald Sun revealed that half of Victorian school children aged 12 to 14 have experienced bullying according to the Department of Education's most recent State of Victorian Children Report. The question left on everyone's lips is does someone have to die before this terrible form of bullying receive appropriate publication and response? The answer should obviously be no!

The deaths of teenagers as a result of schoolyard bullying is no more or less frequent than the death of adults as a result of workplace bullying. Although many people are aware of the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Brodie Panlock and the awful circumstances that lead to it, people are less aware of employment bullying cases like Stuart and Alana McGregor, and a host of other people that have died following the inevitable onset of psychiatric symptoms associated with bullying.

Bullying is not capped to teenagers. It covers all age groups, across all levels of business and both genders. Incidents of bullying are widely under-reported and the damage to the business, the business' culture, productivity and quality is enormous. Yet the only time bullying is really discussed is when some terrified teenager takes their life as a result of awful circumstances.

It is time that Australian employers dealt with the issue of bullying maturely. That is, a recognition that bullying could well be occurring in their business and take every step that is reasonable to prevent it. Employers' OHS or WHS primary duty requires employers to do everything that is reasonably practicable to prevent injury to an employee in their workplace. However, although significant money is invested in physical occupational health and safety steps, less is invested in the softer, less visible safety issues of bullying and harassment.

What are the things that employers should do?

1. Own their values. Nearly every business has in its values, respect for its employees. This is not something that can be merely mouthed. It has to be believed and acted upon. Any management consultant worth their salt will say employees who feel trusted and respected outperform those who don't. Therefore, all performance management processes, policies and procedures must be imbued with the value that the employer respects the employees and manifests in every one of their actions.

2. Workplace behaviour policies and procedures must identify what is respectful and what is disrespectful behaviour in the code of conduct, have a thorough discrimination, bullying and harassment policy, a singular and clear complaints process, an EAP program to assist people who are in need, in a confidential manner, a social media and brand policy, an IT policy that prohibits misuse of internal IT system and says explicitly that the employer owns it and may view anything done on the IT system.

3. People must be trained and competent in the workplace behaviour policies and procedures. That means they must not only understand what constitutes bullying and harassment (because many people do not understand what is occurring to them is illegal), they must also clearly understand how to access the complaints procedure to protect themselves in the event they are bullied or harassed.

4. They must be able to identify who are the contact officers or other people nominated in the business to provide confidential support. They must be able to access the EAP system as required.

5. Finally, the employer must recognise that the obligations that exist upon them are not only statutory but common law. The employer must take positive steps to ensure that bullying and harassment is eliminated within its workplace. It cannot wait for complaints.

As I read the New York Times article about the death of Amanda Cummins, I found my eyes filling with tears. The same happened when I read the Herald Sun story on Sheniz Erkan. Partly because of their youth and partly because of the dreadful behaviour that lead to their death.

However, these cases are the tip of the iceberg. There are many cases ranging from victims suffering psychiatric illness to the extreme cases of suicide. The impact is not just on the victims and their family. It is also on businesses.

On a website called Proactive Behavioural-Management, statistics around bullying are laid out. They tell a terrible tale. Statistics around child bullying are frightening. However, in item 13 of the webpage, they note:

"According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health (NIOSH)... there is a loss of employment amounting to $9 billion and a drop in productivity of $3 billion due to workplace bullying."

NIOSH was created in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 in the United States. The amount lost through bullying is the equivalent of Australia's budget deficit for the year 2011 and 2012. This is an incredible amount of money and no doubt represents just a portion of the true cost.

The Australian Human Rights Commission believes that the cost for workplace bullying (see the Workplace Bullying fact sheet) costs employers somewhere between $6 36 billion every year, when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered. Once again, an extraordinary figure.

Given that the solutions are so simple and so utterly consistent with the values of business, it is surprising that business has not embraced this obligation with ferocity. Perhaps this is time for a New Year's resolution for employers to stamp out bullying. If they don't do it for the people, perhaps they could do it for their own profitability.

Andrew Douglas is the Managing Director of Douglas LPT, an integrated legal, HR, recruiting and training business. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the loose leaf publication, The OHS Handbook, and writes on workplace law issues such as Industrial Relations, Employment law, OHS, Equal Opportunity, Privacy, Surveillance and Workers Compensation. He is the principal of the legal division of Douglas LPT and appears in courts, tribunals and Commissions throughout Australia.

This article was first published on SmartCompany on February 7. Republished with permission.

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