To catch a bully


'Workplace bullies' by Chris JohnstonThe growing awareness and legislation around bullying has had an unintended consequence: many workplace bullies have simply become sneaky.

Covert bullying is now far more common than overt aggression. The modern workplace bully debilitates with a thousand subtle cuts; sarcasm, innuendo, sabotage, exclusion, criticism, overloading, discrimination. It's delicate but deadly psychological warfare, difficult to detect, tricky to explain and hard to report. Indeed, when it comes to psychical damage, the poison of workplace bullying is usually worse than its bite.

Norwegian researcher and psychologist Stale Einarsen's long-term research showed that 75 per cent of workplace bully victims displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even five years after the bullying, 65 per cent still had nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks and anxiety. An even higher proportion felt the bullying had a long-lasting and negative impact on their friendships, leisure time, familial and sexual relationships.

Social psychologists tend to understand the effect of severe bullying as a breakdown of 'core cognitive schemas'. These schemas are the fundamental beliefs about our world (such as seeing yourself as a person important people will like, and believing that hard work will be rewarded) that make our lives meaningful. A breakdown of these assumptions can make the world seem unsafe and unstable, often resulting in high psychological distress.

Some people are able to take the devastating new experience to create new 'schemas'; they may become wiser and tougher. For many others, there is nothing but pure mental breakdown, sometimes with fatal consequences.

We had a wake-up call to the consequences of bullying with the death of 19-year-old waitress Brodie Panlock, who took her own life in 2006 after enduring persistent bullying by three of her colleagues. The cafe operator was fined $220,000 and there were calls for the perpetrators to be charged criminally.

As a result, the Victorian Government announced 40,000 snap inspections of bullying in the workplace. This is not an unreasonable response. A government or industry-sponsored awareness campaign around what is and is not bullying would be an effective partner to the investigations. The biggest limitation to any effective inspection is that people are reluctant to talk about it — bullying is massively under-reported.

While the Productivity Commission says more than 2.5 million Australians have been bullied in the workplace, it's thought that less than a third ever complain about the bullying. One reason is that one psychological effect of bullying is a strong sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. Another is simple pragmatism; people want to protect their careers.

Even with bullying procedures in place, most workplaces are made up of complex and informal networks, empires and factions that can aggressively protect powerful managers accused of bullying. Often victims are bullied more after they make a complaint, often with an abuse of performance management so the victim is made to look incompetent or disgruntled, or the actions somehow justified.

It's not uncommon for co-workers to turn against people who make complaints to protect and even advance their own careers. In my experience, it is often the victim who leaves the workplace with a career in tatters, while the bully gets slapped on the wrist and is eventually promoted once again.

Adelaide psychologist and bullying expert Moira Jenkins says the issue of under-reporting is further complicated because often those who do report bullying aren't actually victims. Rather, they have mistaken reasonable management action for bullying.

The meaning of the term 'reasonable' is battled out every day in workplace bullying cases across the country. Part of the problem is that there is no simple definition to mark the point where management action ends and bullying begins. Legislators and anti-bullying advocates need to come up with a sharper and better-promoted definition so that 'bullying' becomes an adequate prescription of behaviour in the workplace.

Earlier this year the Productivity Commission released its draft report on Occupational Health and Safety stating that only two states in Australia have specific legislation on workplace bullying.

The two states, Queensland and Western Australia, have had a significant decline in worker compensation claims related to bullying since the introduction of bullying specific codes of practice. Queensland has reduced the number of bullying claims from 265 to 130 over five years, while Western Australia had just 20 claims in 2008. Victoria, by comparison, has the highest number of bullying claims — 595 in 2008 alone.

Not all is hopeless. This very debate might be starting to swing. Bullying is costing money, with many bullying victims getting significant payouts to avoid allegations going public. Worksafe has had a massive spike in calls since the Panlock case hit the news, Panlock's Facebook page has over 5000 members, and people are starting to identify the behaviors of their managers as clear cases of bullying.

Perhaps it's time bullies started to lie awake and worry about what will become of them if their career comes to an end. Perhaps it's time bullies started to feel they are being watched.

Luke WilliamsLuke Williams is a freelance journalist who is studying law at Monash University in Melbourne.

Topic tags: luke williams, workplace bullying, brodie panlock, Stale Einarsen



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Existing comments

Perhaps the place to start with bullying is in the schools-as early as the first weeks of prep. It begins earlier than this of course but at least at school with teachers properly briefed there is a chance to break the cycle.

Only when I see the "other" as an extension of myself is there a chance for change.

Mary Duffy | 08 March 2010  

The most pertinent part of this extended article is the last paragraph "perhaps its time to turn our attention onto the bully etc"
My experience is that when a bully gets a dose of his own medicine he is more than likely to stop his behavour. Counselling, logic, pleading, discussion, appeals to conscience mean nothing to him, a dose of his own medicine he fully understands.

Most bullies at school or at work operate from a position of strength or in gangs and are basically cowards, put into a position where they must defend themselves from a competent adversary they back off in fear. Focus on the victim of the bully and we miss the point, let the bully know the consequences of his behavour and the coward backs off.

Kevin Vaughan | 08 March 2010  

Well done Luke in highlighting this important issue. In 2009, Riley, Duncan and myself published results of a national survey of bullying in Australian schools ( for Executive Summary) involving 800 respondents.

One of the more worrying aspects of this survey was the large number of employees complaining that their mental or physical health had been affected (88.7% had experience of this).

To a large extent, workplace bullying is still the silent social disease.

John Edwards | 08 March 2010  

Not only seeing the 'other' as myself but learning to see and appreciate talents of the other without imagining detriment to oneself. And what about ambition and the insidious game-playing which can lead to incompetence in high places necessitating foul play to maintain oneself? Perhaps we need to makeover our society on a platform of collegiality instead of the competitive, one-up-manship model we currently work from? And how should we measure success?

Hilary | 08 March 2010  

"Bullying is costing money, with many bullying victims getting significant payouts to avoid allegations going public. Worksafe has had a massive spike in calls since the Panlock case hit the news, Panlock's Facebook page has over 5000 members, and people are starting to identify the behaviors of their managers as clear cases of bullying."
An unintended consequence (and not wanting to underplay the seriousness - and criminality, of genuine cases of bullying) is that of 'over-exposure' whereby the community will grow lax because the words, 'bullying' and 'bully' are used to label both actions and people when there is no crime.

Posters and well scripted tv and radio infoverts are lacking in the details that define the definitions of bullying actions as opposed to actions of a lesser nature. Effective relationships are needed in the workplace and in any area of human interaction. What is not needed is any atmosphere of a 'witch hunt' variety being a dynamic that could unduly and improperly be proposed to deal with behaviours which are annoying but not bullying. Maturity and maturing processes, with restorative and reconciling practices are to be encouraged rather than suppressive and restrictive ones.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 08 March 2010  

I am in the UK at the moment and there have been a spate of bullying related deaths reported in the media except they use the euphemism "anti-social behaviour" here and at least two reported the bullying has been going on for years and victims have had a mental disability. Even police involvement has not prevented the deaths. These are community related bullying cases. Very disturbing but I don't know how much this goes on in Australian communities.

Catherina Toh | 12 March 2010  

Please remember the vitcims, like Stuart McGregor from Bendigo, see his mother tell his story here -

Cath Montague | 16 March 2010  

A great article to read. So glad to see the truth written so plainly and logically. Well done.

Carl Gopal | 05 April 2010  

Excellent article Luke - you have told it just like it is.

Elle C | 20 May 2010  

Well done Luke. In you capacity as law student, could you please tell me why this type of abuse, which clearly falls within the realm of the Vic Crime Act 1958, Sect21A, Subsect3 & Sect 22 and certainly contravenes the Victorian Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities is not recognised as deliberate abuse/cruelty and regarded as criminal conduct? I look forward to reading more of your work Luke and I hope you get widely published. The Vic Attorney General and the Workplace Minister continue to ignore my repeated requests in this regard. Perhaps you are the man to find out.

Dianne Wilkinson | 26 May 2010  

I reported bullying to my manager about myself and 3 other staff members being bullied by 1 staff member. She then suspended me for doing this.

Then they joined forces and wrote outright lies about me to Qcomp. I can understand why people suicide!

There seems to be no help nor hope who have been victims of this and have their lives completely ruined.

If I had money I could hire a is all so depressing and sickening to think that this can happen at all.

Wendy Holley | 31 October 2010  

Hello SHC year 12, having fun?

lol | 08 August 2012  

Dear Luke, it is great that you have brought this issue to the fore. Not just in workplaces but bullying happens even in educational institutions. The management and other staff members need to be vigilant to stop this menace from affecting the not so strong or the innocent. Take care.

Rupali Chaudhry | 13 November 2013  

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