Workplace bullies impact bottom line

Industrial Relations & Legal

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By Michael Lund

Employers are being warned to get tough on workplace bullies because they can be damaging the bottom line.

Experts say bullying behaviour can do more harm to a business than just the pain and suffering it inflicts on staff.

Figures from the Australian Productivity Commission for 2010 show that stress – which includes bullying – costs organisations $10.1 billion a year through people taking time off or turning up for work but not performing well.

Dr Carlo Caponecchia, an expert on psychological hazards at work, says there are further costs from potential litigation and compensation claims, which is why employers must do more to manage bullying in the workplace.

“Yes there might be costs in managing it but at the end of the day it brings a lot of benefits to an organisation’s bottom line,” he says.

“You can’t let it go and managing it will bring benefits in terms of people feeling respected at work and that has flow-on effects to commitment and retaining staff over time.”

Employers who fail to act on bullying risk costly litigation as more victims take court action.

A Melbourne cafe owner was fined $30,000 and his company $220,000 last year after he failed to take action against staff who were bullying a young waitress at his workplace. He pleaded guilty to charges including failing to provide and maintain a safe workplace.

The three former staff that carried out the bullying on the 19-year-old – who killed herself over the tormenting – were fined a total of $85,000.

Dr Caponecchia says the case was a turning point in the way bullying is seen by the legal system.

“It was the first prosecution for bullying completed under health and safety legislation,” he says.

“The people who actually did it and the people who had the ultimate responsibility for her health and well-being were all held to account.”

It’s a case that features in a new book, Preventing Workplace Bullying, co-authored by Dr Caponecchia and consultant Anne Watt.

Dr Caponecchia, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, says the book is aimed at both employers and the targets – he does not call them victims – of bullying behaviour.

“In all jurisdictions around Australia employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and well-being of their employees and that comes under the health and safety duties,” Dr Caponecchia says.

“That is extended to dealing with psychological hazards, as we call them, and bullying is one of those. So they have a duty to provide a safe workplace and a safer system of work.”

One of the difficulties is defining what is meant by bullying behaviour in the first place. Dr Caponecchia says the definition varies across the country with some states, including Queensland, referring to it as workplace harassment.

However, harassment can also include sexual harassment or discrimination, which the authors see as different to bullying behaviour.

“For something to be called bullying, the behaviours have to be repeated rather than one off,” he says.

“They have to be unreasonable and with that we are referring to the reasonable person test – so does the hypothetical reasonable person consider that the behaviour would be acceptable or not?

“The third criteria is for the behaviour to cause harm or have the potential to cause harm and that’s a really important criteria.”

Dr Caponecchia says any employee who feels they are subject to bullying behaviour should report it.

However, bullied staff often fear that reporting other staff will make the bullying worse, especially if the person doing the bullying is a more senior member of staff. Too often people leave the workplace to avoid any confrontation.

Dr Caponecchia blames part of the problem on employers who fail to enact their own procedures.

“You can have a policy but if it’s not implemented then it’s not worth having,” he says.

“And those policies – even though people sign off on them – they’re often not implemented or implemented consistently across a workforce.”

His message to employers is to take another look at their policies and procedures to make sure they are working, and that all staff are aware of the consequences, especially financial, of any action that comes against them from bullying.

“It doesn’t have to be that extreme to start costing if there’s a compensation claim,” he says.

Preventing Workplace Bullying, by Dr Carlo Caponecchia and Dr Anne Wyatt. Published by Allen & Unwin. Price $35. For further information see

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