Employment and Migration Blog

Bullying: when is it and when is it not?

Posted by Stephen Booth on 9 Dec 2011

Office BullyingI sense that there is a debate starting about this, prompted, I think, by Safe Work Australia releasing a draft Code of Practice on prevention of bullying, as part of the OH&S harmonisation project.

(the draft is available at: http://safeworkaustralia.gov.au/Legislation/PublicComment/Pages/Model-WHS-CoP-Public-Comment.aspx.)

The issue has featured in articles in The Weekend Australian Magazine and the SMH in the last 2 weeks.  The problem is that, accepting that bullying such as the hounding to suicide of Brodie Panlock, “initiation” of apprentices, and much other arrogant and overbearing workplace conduct is totally unacceptable, many complaints of bullying relate to no more than reasonable work directions which make an employee feel uncomfortable.  And, of course, there are many situations on the spectrum in between.  Which of these call for a significant response?

 For employers, fending off trivial complaints, sometimes apparently tactically intended to stymie other workplace action of which the employee disapproves, breeds cynicism, which is unhelpful for handling serious complaints.  This is exacerbated when the issue results in extended sick leave or workers compensation.

 The WAM article pinpointed the lack of definition of what constitutes bullying, so that many employees have far too broad a concept of what might be legitimate grounds for complaint, and react disproportionately, or even cynically or vexatiously, to low-end instances of poor communication or personal interactions.  One contributor thought that the loaded label “bullying” should be jettisoned, so the discussion could be about specific “acceptable” or “unacceptable” behaviour instead.  The SMH article reported commentators on the Code of Practice arguing about details of what might or might not be bullying (eg an isolated incident is excluded in the Code).  I think many people would be surprised at the potential amplitude of the scope of bullying as described in the draft Code:  but where do you draw the line?

 Ultimately, having a Code should give everyone a firmer foundation for dealing with allegations of bullying, but there is a long way to go before tactical allegations go out of fashion.  From an employer’s point of view, to manage the risks well, allegations have to be handled carefully, with the right combination of sensitivity and robustness towards both parties as to what is un/acceptable behaviour, and what should happen to resolve a particular workplace issue.