Australian Safety Group Examines Workplace Bullying, Violence

Most of us recognize workplace violence when we see it: An employee or employees are subjected to verbal or physical abuse or are threatened with physical abuse. But would we recognize the more insidious threat of workplace bullying?

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Most of us recognize workplace violence when we see it: An employee or employees are subjected to verbal or physical abuse or are threatened with physical abuse.

Workplace bullying, which can lead to psychological problems such as anxiety and depression and physical symptoms such as ulcers and headaches, is a more insidious problem. Would we recognize workplace bullying if we saw it?

The Victorian WorkCover Authority, the manager of Victoria, Australia''s workplace safety system, just closed the comment period on a code of practice to help employers address the problems of bullying and violence in the workplace.

In Victoria in FY 2000/2001, nearly 1,100 Victorian WorkCover Authority claims - what U.S. employers know as workers'' compensation claims - were attributed to harassment at work or exposure to workplace violence.

The proposed "Code of Practice for the Prevention of Bullying and Violence in the Workplace" is the result of a comprehensive consultation process that began in November 2000 and has included briefings, focus groups, meetings and the review of submissions on an issues paper.

The proposed code defines bullying as "repeated, unreasonable behavior directed toward an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety." The following types of behavior would be considered bullying under the code:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Excluding or isolating employees
  • Psychological harassment
  • Assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to the job
  • Giving employees impossible assignments
  • Deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience particular employees
  • Deliberately withholding information that is vital for effective work performance

The proposed code includes examples of bullying and case studies that illustrate the problem. While many of the examples contain easily recognized cases of bullying (refusing one employee''s requests for breaks and vacation time while allowing others to take time off; being called a "moron" by the boss in front of other employees), some include behavior most people have experienced or witnessed. For example, would you recognize the following scenario as bullying?

An information technology firm has a workplace culture that involves playing pranks on new employees. The pranks last for about a month, and include hiding their personal belongings; disabling their computers; adjusting computer software to substitute obscenities for specific words; inviting them to bogus meetings; hiding manuals from them; withholding important phone messages; and sabotaging their office equipment.

Many employers would probably dismiss that behavior as a right of passage. Under the new proposed code of practice in Victoria, it would be defined as bullying, and would not be allowed.

To learn more about the code and bullying in the workplace, go to www.workcover.vic.gov.au/dir090/vwa/home.nsf/pages/workplace_bullying. There, you will find a summary of the comments received during the consultation process; a "Q&A" paper that sets out basic questions and answers regarding the code; and the code itself.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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