Don’t put up with workplace bullying

"Do you even have a university degree," a former boss asked me a while ago. "Really, do you even have a university degree?"

Dejected by yet another round of bullying by my boss, I replied: "Yes."

"Oh," he paused. "Well, university degrees don’t even mean anything. Even a homeless person can get a university degree."

The above was just one conversation of several in which I was bullied by a former employer.

We were a modern day David and Goliath. My former boss was the mighty Goliath, whereas I was David. Only, I was David without even a mere slingshot at my disposal.

"Bullying in the workplace has a huge impact on employees," says psychologist Jon Wilson, director of 3 Pillars Asia Pacific.

"It can cause employees to withdraw from their job. Employees can become depressed and develop anxiety. I’m also certain that it results in added absenteeism. Bullying is very destructive."

"Workplace bullying undermines employees’ wellbeing," says organisational psychologist Hui-Lin Tan.

Bullying is generally thought as a type of behaviour that involves repeated acts that attempt to humiliate or intimidate another person. Typically, it occurs where there’s an unequal power distribution between two people.

Griffith University researchers estimate bullying is likely to occur to one in four employees at some point in their careers.

WorkSafe WA’s website says an average 600 claims for workers’ compensation are lodged for time off as a result of bullying and violence.

Yet workplace bullying appears to be a taboo subject – something that employees don’t feel comfortable discussing. Why?

"People don’t talk about workplace bullying because they’re afraid of losing their jobs," Ms Tan says. "As well, employees often feel that if they say something, nothing will be done to fix their situation, so there’s no point in speaking out."

According to the Employment Law Centre of WA, if you’re bullied, you should make a diary note of the bullying incidents. Make sure to include the time, date and specifics of the incident. You can also inform your employer about the bullying orally or in writing. You should also keep a copy of all the correspondence between you and the bully. This shows the attempts that you made to solve the problem. It may also be useful if you decide to take legal action.

"Workplace bullying is a very serious issue," says Toni Emmanuel, principal solicitor at the Employment Law Centre of WA. "It has a devastating effect on our clients. We consider that the current laws don’t sufficiently protect employees from workplace bullying."

The Employment Law Centre’s recent submissions to Safework Australia on the National Model Work Health and Safety Act, Regulations and Codes of Practice state that existing occupational safety and health legislative schemes in WA and across Australia do not give employees sufficient protection from bullying.

Section 19 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 says that employers must maintain a workplace where employees are not exposed to hazards.

Employers who are found guilty of exposing their employees to hazards can face fines of $250,000 and two years of prison, according to sections 3A and 19A of the same law. If they are found guilty for a second time, they can face stiffer penalties.

Bullying can be considered a "hazard".

Last year, a Victorian employer and three of his employees were convicted of bullying a 19-year-old employee, Brodie Panlock. Ms Panlock’s coworkers put fish oil into her bag and on her hair and clothes. They also called her "stupid", "fat" and "ugly"and encouraged her to commit suicide. They mentally and physically bullied her for months.

The result? Ms Panlock committed suicide. A tragic end to a short life.

Magistrate Peter Lauritsen fined the employer and three coworkers $335,000 with no jail sentence, describing it as "the most serious case of bullying".

So what did I do when faced with my own bullying?

I’d love to say that I respectfully and professionally told my boss that their behaviour was unacceptable. I’d love to say that after I did this, they apologised profusely and blamed their behaviour on stress.

However, I’d been brought up to obey authority. Not once had anyone prepared me to stand up to authority. I admit it. I took the cowardly approach. I quit.

They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. In the jobs that I’ve had since the bullying experience, I have had exemplary bosses who treated me only with fairness and respect. Moreover, I believe I am now strong enough to stand up for myself – like J.

J was bullied regularly by her employer. J’s employer made comments about her weight and told J to "suck it up, princess". J fought back. She told her employer "that’s not a constructive response" and stood up to her employer nearly each time she was rude to her.

While that may be possible for some people to do, it may not be for others.

But hopefully those others realise that bullying is not something that they should have to put up with.

They have options to choose from to deal with it. If only Brodie Panlock had known that.

Marilyn Krawitz is a solicitor, university lecturer and post-graduate student