Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Workplace pranksters become intolerable bullies


Workplace BullyingWorkplace bullying was included as a specific risk to occupational health and safety in most States' workers compensation legislation more than four years ago. It's generally defined along the lines of 'unreasonable repeated behaviour that threatens, humiliates or intimidates or undermines a person and is a threat to health and safety'.

This is not completely unlike definitions of discriminatory 'harassment'. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 defines sexual harassment to include an unwelcome act of a sexual nature which makes the person affected feel threatened, intimidated or humiliated, and which a reasonable person would expect to have had that effect.

Bullying and that particularly noxious form of it, sexual harassment in the workplace are thought to cause billions of dollars of loss and damage in the workplace. The most common outcomes are division, retreat from social participation, lost productivity, distress and emotional if not psychiatric injury, dramatically increased sick leave, absenteeism, and staff resignations.

Most victims try to pass instances of bullying off as minor, but they most certainly are not. Sexual harassment statistics kept by anti-discrimination agencies such as HREOC and state and territory equal opportunity bodies show the most common outcomes of complaints are victimisation, the departure of the complainant, enormous costs to investigate the case, and the eventual departure of the alleged harasser.

Australian 'larrikins' and good humour men appear to still operate under a mistaken impression that their intentions — nearly always, to get a laugh from their peers — is what determines whether or not bullying or discriminatory harassment is something for which they should be called to account.

Recently AFL Footy Show veteran Sam Newman made offensive references to Caroline Wilson, a colleague on another football show, during a 'spontaneous' skit involving a mannequin designed to look like Ms Wilson. He defended the skit as satire, though a number of senior women football administrators called it for what it was: a public put-down of a smart sporting commentator linked with her perceived sexual attractiveness, because she's a woman. It was also a very public bullying incident.

Newman is not alone in his misjudgment. On 28 April the leader of Western Australia's Opposition broke down in tears at a press conference. A couple of days earlier an unnamed woman staffer was revealed to have complained that in December 2005 Troy Buswell had 'sniffed the chair' she had been sitting in at his parliamentary office, in front of other staff members.

He said at the time it was done for a laugh. It appears he wasn't aware of the standards of workplace conduct despite having previously admitted to snapping a Labor staffer's bra as a drunken party trick. He's learning the hard way that there are limits on what is acceptable, even when colleagues laugh or turn a blind eye.

Buswell's sudden distress may have been contributed to by his political colleagues' 'look-away' attitude to his past jests. WA's Deputy Liberal leader Dr Hames was reported to say Buswell was a 'rough diamond with a robust sense of humour' who had since cleaned up his act. It remains to be seen if Buswell will relinquish his leadership.

Should we feel sorry for those accused of being bullies and harassers? In a way, yes, because they do not — and in some cases, will not — empathise with the effects of their conduct on others.

I have conducted many workplace incident investigations since 1994 and I am fairly unshockable. I have heard truly appalling stories, and understand the personalities, history and culture that permit careless talk and offensive acts to take place.

In all the time I've been doing it, excluding my years as an Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner, only once have I heard of a similar incident (in a government office). Its consequences were so serious that they led me to make my first and only recommendation that the employer should consider dismissing the joker forthwith.

That man was more culpable than Buswell or Newman. He was intelligent as well as ambitious. He had been allowed to get away with bullying behaviour by his managers who waited for someone to complain and didn't act on things they saw and heard.

What was most disturbing in all these cases is that colleagues seem prepared to speak out about the effects of months or years of jokes and putdowns and bullying at work, only under cover of anonymity and/or confidentiality. In my case, truly disgusting bullying conduct was only revealed after a particularly targeted staff member had been so grossed out that he was unable to face that workplace for one more day, without becoming physically ill.

Workplace bullying is a massive problem throughout Australia. People get hurt, businesses get damaged. It is especially serious when the perpetrator is a leader. Employees and management should work to undermine the look-away culture that allows such behaviour to flourish, and permits an intolerable bully to hide behind the mantle of 'prankster'.

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.




submit a comment

Existing comments

What would you think of a situation in which the CEO of a major Catholic diocesan organisation habitually sexually harassed several female subordinates; in which, when they complained, the appointment of the CEO was terminated with substantial compensation; in which one victim, having spoken of the abuse at a public meeting, was reprimanded by his successor for inappropriate behaviour in making the allegation publicly; and the Bishop of the diocese refused the requests of the victims that he should meet with them.

And may I suggest that if you have not yet read Sacrilege by Leon Podles you should do so. It is a dreadfully sad read.

PETER M ROACH | 12 May 2008  

Good on you Moira Rayner, but how long must we go on tolerating these sort of "pranks" from so called larrikins.
Could there not be more efficient processes for victims of this obnoxious practice? The law seems to have no teeth when the crunch comes, as well as being so prohibitively expensive as to be quite useless for many ordinary victims, not to mention the further layers of embarrassment, distress, and humiliation, of a court hearing for something of this nature. The press generally has something to answer for - rather than leaving the incident at "inappropriate behaviour" as was first reported, the incident was described in detail in the huge amount of subsequent reporting.

Moira Sheedy | 12 May 2008  

I have experienced an orchestrated and collusive bullying in the workplace. I worked in a non-govt community mental health service ... strange I should experience such awful bullying which, in the end, led to me experiencing depression, which I slowly worked through over several months before I felt able or ready to attempt to seek employment.

I wasn't ready, nor did I feel able to visit a doctor to be told I was suffering depression, as though I was unwell, when in reality it was a response to a disgusting experience.

I also felt humiliated and ashamed. I could not quite get it out of my head that maybe somehow I was at fault, because my thinking told me that people simply cannot behave in a bullying manner without any rational reason (my naive faith in the good of people).

In my previous employment there were lies and rumours spread about me by a mental health clinician. Certain committee members also made up rumours about my private life to the staff I was responsible for supervising.

It is interesting I have heard many similar accounts, particularly occurring within the non-government mental health services. There appears to be no accountability of ngo services to their staff and wellbeing, let alone mechanisms for staff to have complaints heard or have recourse to any mechanism that could call the organisational management to account for the wellbeing of their staff.

This is a disgusting state of affairs and there should be some kind of research and subsequent action so that management structures of ngo's cannot get away with such abusive practice.

Sanna | 13 May 2008  

I read with amazement, how your words Moira reflect my own experience. Last week I had a conversation with my boss about my own suffering in the face of bullying and sexual harassment over a four year period. It will end up in my eventual departure because I have finally objected. I risk being labelled a whistle blower - I don't fit in.

Ted Baillieu put it succinctly in last week's Victorian Liberal Party brouhaha. Words to the effect of a culture of vilification must not be allowed to exist in any organisation.

The 'look away' culture goes hand in hand with vilification, and can usually be attributed to a lack of management attention and deftness.

If it is permitted, it will escalate. Most people will be too afraid to stand up to this too - including bosses.

The moment vilification is allowed to exist in the workplace, the first element to suffer is the truth. Something I remember every time I am tempted to engage in negative conversations.

Christians have an onus to turn the other cheek, and a greater onus to allow the truth to be heard, and that includes not tolerating bullying and harassment in any form.

Paul G Brockhoff | 16 May 2008  

Similar Articles

What Kevin Rudd can learn from Gordon Brown

  • Michael Mullins
  • 19 May 2008

Last week's Federal Budget showed Kevin Rudd's determination to stare down the prevailing economic wisdom, in order to stay on track as a man of his word committed to building a fairer Australia. The humiliating fate of his UK counterpart Gordon Brown suggests what might happen if he strays.


Burying Australia's inhumane refugee laws

  • David Manne
  • 19 May 2008

Australia's refugee regime may represent the Western world's worst practice. The Government has abolished flawed and dehumanising temporary protection visas, but a more substantial review is required to ensure asylum seekers enjoy equal protection under Australian law.