Anti-bullying Workplace Culture Starts at the Top

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Anti-bullying Workplace Culture Starts at the Top

In 2020 bullying in Australia was estimated to cost up to $47.4 billion per year by the Australian Productivity Commission. The consequences of bullying to individuals include anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicide. The focus of government guidelines is to identify what is not claimable as workplace bullying to limit the burden on the legal system. This was clearly identified in 2007 in the explanatory memorandum for the changes to Comcare laws excluding compensation for bullying resulting from reasonable management action. This exclusion was later adapted to the 2013 antibullying laws preventing anti-bullying orders from being issued for reasonable management action.

The current bullying laws resulting from the 2012 Australia Senate inquiry on bullying are not designed to prevent bullying but to provide sufficient incentive for Companies to prevent bullying themselves within their own organisations. These laws form part of the Fair Work Act governing employment protections rather than the Work Health and Safety Act to protect workers from injury. However, the focus of government guidelines for business is on what is not legally defined as bullying. This detracts from the potential to prevent unreasonable behaviour posing a risk to psychological health and safety and concentrate on avoiding legal liability.

There is no operational advantage to workplace bullying for an organisation, worth the possible injury claims from encouraging inappropriate behaviour among staff. When organisations focus on avoiding liability for unreasonable behaviour, this sends a clear message that unreasonable behaviour is acceptable and even encouraged from the top. This acceptance can be seen as acceptable in situations that are not protected by reasonable management action exemptions, including interpersonal conflict.

The current gold standard for psychological care in the workplace is to focus on providing a psychological safety culture similar to the standard of care required for physical workplace safety to prevent injury before it occurs. By shifting the conversation from what is not bullying to what is reasonable behaviour in a workplace, the focus is now on providing a psychological safety culture to keep employees safe. When these standards are applied to management action, they encourage reasonable behaviour in all inter staff dealings. This sends a clear message that an organisation does not encourage bullying and encourages a consistent risk management culture which has effectively reduced workplace injuries since the introduction of the harmonised Work Health and Safety Laws in 2012.

Kevin Gilmore-Burrell LLB MBA

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