Workplace bullying is unfortunately too common. Ai Group explains how to identify the signs and take action.
“I would end most days in tears – I felt utterly alone and like I was losing my mind. In the end I was too ill to work. I’m amazed I lasted as long as I did.”
These are the words of a young woman who, for more than two years, had been happily working in her dream job – until she became the victim of a textbook case of systematic workplace bullying.
In the space of a single fraught project, the dynamic between her and a previously professional supervisor shifted.
“I was excluded from things. Responsibilities were taken from me and given to more favoured staff. I was subjected to constant cold and unfriendly behaviour – ostracism and bitchiness were practised and actively encouraged in others. And it descended further into incidents of spying and gossip.”
The victim in this case ultimately resorted to engineering her own exit from the business with some belated assistance from her HR department; her bully, ever defiant and without remorse, remains there to this day. And it’s not an isolated incident.
According to research by the University of South Australia, Australia is home to some of
the worst bullies in the world. Compared with 31 European countries, we ranked sixth highest.
If you find this image of the Australian workplace hard to believe, belying as it does our reputation for a “fair go”, consider the following list of Australia’s seven worst workplace bullies – our hall of shame:
7. Hit with a plank of wood
A labourer at a Sunbury, Victoria building company was subjected to physical violence and intimidation that caused public outcry when first reported by The Age in 2010.
He was hit around the head with a plank of wood while working, to the hilarity of his colleagues, and suffered a broken thumb and wrist in a machine after appealing that it was dangerous. The supervisor regularly fired a nail gun at staff and workers were refused safety equipment unless they paid for it themselves – at inflated prices.
6. A mouse down the back of his shirt
An apprentice spent two years from the age of 16 at the mercy of a Geelong builder who not only encouraged other employees to victimise the teenager, but actively participated in incidents including putting a live mouse down the back of his shirt, spitting on him and squirting liquid nails in his hair. The builder was convicted under the Victorian OH&S Act and fined $12,500.
5. Likely to cause significant, recognisable psychiatric injury
Over a period of five years, a contracted security guard was subjected to extensive bullying at the hands of his manager. Physical assault and repeated threats such as “I will do you”, sexual abuse, indecent exposure and racial vilification led to the manager’s conduct being described as “so brutal, demeaning and unrelenting that it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be likely to cause significant, recognisable psychiatric injury.” The NSW Supreme Court awarded a total of almost $2 million in damages.
4. Followed home
Over a two-year period, a female labourer was shown pornographic material, slapped on the bottom, grabbed from behind, had a sex act simulated on her, and told by a male colleague that he would follow her home.
When she complained to the foreman (who had been a participant in the bullying),
he responded by laughing. The Supreme Court of Victoria accepted she was unlikely to ever work again as a result of the severe psychiatric condition it left her with, imposing $1.36m in damages.
3. Burnt by a welder while a colleague sprayed accelerant
The parents of a teenage apprentice awoke one night to find their son crying, distressed because he was still alive after a failed suicide attempt. Extreme episodes of bullying had included being burnt by a welder while a colleague sprayed accelerant. A chart was displayed in the workplace recording mistakes the apprentice made – with reference to a threshold that, once reached, would prompt an assault. A second suicide attempt, just after his 17th birthday, was tragically successful.
2. Took his own life after the relentless bullying
A supermarket employee subjected three of his work colleagues to verbal abuse, stalking and intimidation so sustained that it moved his female shift-manager to fall pregnant, just so she could get away. Sadly, the outcome was far worse for another new parent who took his own life after relentless bullying. While charges could not be levelled in that case, in the absence of the deceased man’s evidence, the perpetrator was charged with bullying the other two colleagues and sentenced to six months in prison under Brodie’s Law.
1. Rat poison left in her pay envelope
Brodie Panlock was a 19-year-old café worker who suffered bullying six days a week for more than a year. She was spat upon and derided for her appearance, held down by her workmates, had fish oil poured in her bag, was teased about a failed suicide attempt, and had rat poison left in her pay envelope, with encouragement to succeed in her next suicide attempt.
Brodie eventually did take her own life, leading to the prosecution of her employer and the three responsible employees, who received fines totalling $335,000. Her enduring legacy is Victoria’s anti-bullying legislation, known as Brodie’s Law – making bullying punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
All employees have the right to come to work and be safe. The responsibility for employee safety sits with you as an employer. Are you equipped to take all steps to manage any risks to employee mental health, including taking swift and effective action to deal with bullying behaviour?
Are you confident you and your leadership team know how to identify, address and put a
stop to bullying behaviour in your workplace? Now is the time to ensure you and your team are equipped to identify and address these behaviours in your workplace and ensure that your workplace is a safe and healthy workplace for all.
Ai Group can help with our range of programs – public, onsite or online – designed to ensure that managers, supervisors and employees all understand their role in promoting a respectful workplace culture, achieving legal compliance and undertaking effective complaint handling.
Contact Ai Group for more information, call (02) 4925 8320.