The high cost of dealing with bullying in the workplace

Schoolyards have bullies. Disturbingly, so do most workplaces. The Productivity Commission estimates workplace bullying costs Australia $6 billion to $36 billion every year.

Schoolyards have bullies. Disturbingly, so do most workplaces. The Productivity Commission estimates workplace bullying costs Australia $6 billion to $36 billion every year.

Verbal, physical, social and/or psychological abuses - including repeated hurtful remarks, sexual harassment, assigning pointless or impossible tasks and withholding resources needed to perform a job - are rife in modern workplaces, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Jess Holmes had just moved from Brisbane to Sydney when she started working at "a beautiful boutique" salon in 2009.

Senior therapist Holmes' excitement quickly dissolved when her boss insisted she sweep leaves from gutters, scrub toilets and excessively wipe benches. Daily verbal and/or physical abuse and erratic behaviour by her employer followed.

"It was just myself and the owner and it soon became obvious I had been employed as a glorified cleaner," Holmes said.

"She would scream at me, anything that went wrong was always my fault, send me to the pharmacy to buy pregnancy test kits after her one-night stands, grab me by my elbows and push me, never pay me on time. I am a naturally confident person, but with the constant put-downs I was walking on eggshells and started having panic attacks."

Holmes endured nine months of abuse before resigning when she was wrongfully accused of failing to lock up. "I told her that was ludicrous as she had been the last to leave the salon after the previous shift," Holmes said.

"She screamed at me to take an early lunch break and when I came back, I walked up to my boss, said, 'I cannot work here any more,' and walked out. I went around the corner and cried. I was so relieved."

Holmes was a casual employee and knew she was entitled to superannuation, a sum of more than $2000. "She hadn't paid it and I was determined to get what I was entitled to, so I endured lots of nasty communication for 12 months and was just about to get to court when she settled the debt. Fortunately I knew my basic rights."

Today Holmes is the owner of her own salon, Passion Beauty, in Bondi, and boss to one staff member.

Melbourne woman Van Badham was also subjected to demeaning verbal, sexual and psychological abuse by a former employer, culminating in an ugly scene in which her boss pinched her shoulders and pushed her in 2008. She resigned on the spot. Badham, who now works for a theatre company, had been employed as a festival co-ordinator by the former employer.

When she quit, Badham was still owed "about $5000", including unpaid mobile phone bills. She is a member of the Writers' Guild, which pointed her to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

"He ended up coughing up about $3000 ... Thank God for them [the union]. They helped me get financial restitution for what was one of the most debilitating experiences of my life," she said.

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