‘NOBODY TOLD ME’ – Workplace Bullying and it’s Implications

 This is a must read article submitted by Bernie Althofer, one of our valued readers and contributors, Thank you Bernie!

Imagine you are an officer from your organisation sitting in a Court, Commission or Tribunal and using that line to justify your actions or inactions in relation to a workplace death where workplace bullying was identified as a significant factor.

How far do you think you will get if you argue that you are not accountable or responsible for the workplace death if ‘nobody told you?’

Let’s go back a few years and think about all the changes that have impacted on the public and private sector.  Let’s think about how those changes might have impacted on your role as an officer.

 You think about how the Work Choices legislation has now changed to Fair Work Australia legislation.  You have heard something about the harmonisation of work health and safety.  You know from documents that you have seen in the past that there has been considerable research and debate conducted on the topic of workplace bullying and harassment. 

You think – “Just what have I been told?”  After all, you are the Head of your organisation and “Do I have to know everything?”

Surely the senior managers across the organisation with delegated responsibilities should take the heat.  After all, as the Head, you hold them accountable for what happens in their area of control even though the business is spread across the State.  As Head of the organisation, you have to respond to a wide range of interested parties and from to time that includes the Government, stakeholders and the community. 

You start to reflect on what it is that you do know about the organisational systems, policies and procedures regarding the prevention, detection and resolution of workplace bullying.  You recall that there was an internal working party established a few years earlier in response to a Government working party looking at the implications of workplace bullying.  You were not the organisational head at that time, so is it now your responsibility to know the finer details of the policy and procedure.  After all, you did not approve the policy.  The more you think about it, the more you consider that responsibility for the policy has been delegated to the HR Director, so they should be the one facing the questions.  Surely if there were problems with workplace bullying, you would have been told.

You think about the reporting mechanisms that are in place in relation to performance.  One of the initiatives that you started as the Head of the organisation was quarterly performance reviews.  A forum chaired by you was conducted and regional managers had to present responses to operational issues.  These regional managers had to present strategies and solutions to regional issues, and from memory, workplace bullying had not been mentioned.

You start to think about some of the Committees that operate within your organisation.  You start to list them – Audit Committee and Risk Management.  The Audit Committee generally presents very detailed reports and from memory, the cost of workplace bullying has not been identified as a critical issue.  

You sit on the Risk Management Committee and an Organisational Risk Management Plan was developed and approved, based on the advice of the Risk Management Co-coordinator.  This Risk Management Plan forms the basis for Regional Risk Management Plans.  As far as you can remember, workplace bullying has never been identified as a risk.

You think about some of the systems and processes that are in place across your organisation.  There is an Employee Assistance Service with psychologists and social workers across the organisation with a support network of Peer Support Officers; there is a network of Harassment Referral Officers and a network of health and safety co-coordinators. 

You get quarterly briefings from the HR Director regarding personnel issues.  You remember that in one briefing included some details about a WorkCover claim where allegations were made regarding workplace bullying.  However, from memory, the claim was rejected on the grounds that the actions were ‘reasonable management’.

As you think about where you currently stand, you decide to seek some outside advice from a consultant colleague.  You think you are on pretty good grounds.  You don’t expect the response your colleague provides. 

You have known the consultant for some time as he used to work in your organisation.  From time to time, the consultant had participated in some of the key change projects that had been implemented.  The consultant had also developed expertise in the field of workplace bullying.  You were reasonably confident that you had the bases covered.

The consultant listened to your concerns and before you realised what was happening, you were up to your neck in questions. 

So what did the consultant want to know?

“Are you an officer under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012?”  This was a bit of shock to the system as no-one had provided any information about this.  The consultant said “You’ve been told”.

“What do you have in place to demonstrate that you can meet your due diligence requirements?” and so you told him that you had a HR Department, EAS, support personnel and health and safety personnel.  “Is that it?” he asked.

“Tell me about the policy on detecting, resolving and preventing workplace bullying” the consultant said.  You start to explain that you were aware of the policy but you had not read it recently.

“Tell how workplace bullying is addressed in the risk management planning process” the consultant said.  You tell him that there is an organisational risk management plan which is used as a regional model.

“Tell me about some of the Safety Conferences that your employees may have attended in the last two years” the consultant said.  You tell him that there has been cut backs in training across the board and that as far as you knew, no-one from the organisation has attended any external health and safety conferences.

The consultant says “I think you should listen to what I am going to tell you, and then you will have to make up your mind as to whether or not you have been told”.   The consultant opens up and tells you this.

“Since I left your organisation, I have been presenting papers at various health and safety conferences across Australia.  It seems to me that the converted have been going.  I have not seen anyone from your organisation at one of those Conferences.  There have been key note speakers there speaking on the harmonisation of work health and safety legislation.  Unless you have been provided with regular briefings, you may not be aware of the changes regarding officers.  You may not be aware that as an officer, you have to do certain things to meet due diligence requirements and this might include getting out of your office and going to the workplace and asking questions.  I can also tell you that I have the luxury of reading comments made by workers on various websites.  Some of the comments are very direct and by tracking these comments, I can tell you that it would appear that there is a workplace culture where bullying is tolerated to the point of acceptance.  Why is culture even on the radar?  According to some legal professionals that I have spoken to, workplace culture is the next big thing to be raised in litigation.  You should also be aware that current employees from your organisation have contacted me in relation to the way they are being treated.  On the face of it, it appears that you may have some managers who are abusive and aggressive, with very little understanding of current legislative requirements regarding discriminatory conduct, bullying and harassment.  Some of your employees have even stated that HR personnel have said “If you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave”.  I can tell you that these employees believe that these managers are your ‘pets’ and that no-one is game to speak up.  If you look at some of the readers comments on the websites, it is fairly obvious that there are comments being made are about your organisation.  You should also know that a number of your employees have contacted not only me, but also legal professionals and told them about the toxic culture that exists.  These employees have been seeking advice about a class action.  I can go on.  However, you should know this if you believe that your systems and processes are working.”

Feeling a bit off colour about has just been said, you say “Why wasn’t I told?”

The consultant said “Look, a lot of your employees hold you in high regard.  They just think that you have a lot of ‘pets’ and they believe that if they speak up about how your ‘pets’ really are in the workplace, you won’t take any action.  I should also say that in some organisations, some people who are being bullied or mistreated in the workplace won’t report any form of inappropriate behaviours because they believe that no action will be taken or that they will be further victimised, threatened or harassed.  In some cases, some of the targets/victims quite openly state that they only want to tell their story once, and not have to relive it.  Frankly, it appears that you have a problem with your workplace culture, some management and communication practices, and to put it bluntly, you have been told”.

Taken aback, you said “What do you mean I’ve been told?”

The consultant said “Look, at a recent conference a lawyer made the same statement.  You have been told about the harmonisation process because it is on the internet, it has been in the newspaper, and there have been communications about the changes.  You really only have until the 31st December 2011 to get an understanding of the new Work Health and Safety Act and what you have to do.  If an incident occurs on the 2nd January 2012, you have to be able to justify your actions or inactions.  You know, it might be a case that you don’t know what questions you should be asking, or why those questions are even important.  See, I know that you know what are the right questions to ask in relation to operational matters”.

Feeling somewhat traumatised by these revelations and the openness displayed by your consultant friend, you go back to your office.  Obviously, the time frame is getting shorter so what do you do?  You devise a plan to find out why you weren’t told by your key advisers.  You make a phone call and set a course of action.

Could this be reality or just a little bit of pie in the sky to create a bit of fear?  Everyone has choices to make, and for every action there is a reaction and a consequence.  Ignoring the changes being created through the harmonisation processes could have some very real consequences for officers.  Every organisation may have a different way of addressing the realities of where they are now compared to where they need to be.  Delaying tactics and hoping the changes will all go away might not be the best course of action.

So, if push comes to shove and you are sitting in a Court, Commission or Tribunal, will you be one of those who say “No one told me”, or will you be the one who says “Yes, I was told, this is what I have done and this is why I did that”.

Bernie Althofer AFAIM © 2010


P: 0419 661 421


So, what are your thoughts and comments on this article?

About the Author

Joanne Wallace is our resident "Safety Guru". Joanne has provided advice on safety management for the past 10 years and written hundreds of articles on safety issues and tips. Joanne has experience in many industries ranging from manufacturing, food processing, timber milling, retail, office and wholesaling providing her with knowledge and experience managing risk and injuries in these industries.

Comments (7)

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  1. Mina says:

    This arictle is a home run, pure and simple!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Working on the follow up.

  3. Thankyou for this insightful article, Bernie. Let’s make sure this gets distributed throughout our organisations.

  4. Melissa Littleford says:

    Dear Bernie,

    Bravo Bernie – your article is crystal clear!

    I say, bring on Federal reform with regard to Anti-Bullying LAWS across Australia.

    I am left wondering how Work Cover will be able to enforce/check compliance/monitor for consistent information with Employers (The Work Health and Safety Act 2012).

    Furthermore i believe a need exists to ensure that ’employees conveying the truth to Work Cover’ still have a safe and healthy working environment whilst on Workers Compensation. Yes, this is another area of debate.

    kind regards,
    Melissa Littleford

  5. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone is listening, and then I read the comments and see that people are taking note. Sad to say, but this whole issue of bullying in the workplace has been going on for too long. I also think that there are many people concerned about the current economic climate and don’t know which way to go because they need their job. I also think that with a little bit of guidance and support, and gathering of evidence along the way, come early 2012, organisations should not be surprised when the litigation starts. I would like to think that between now and then, individuals at all levels of an organisation test their knowledge of workplace bullying policies and procedures. After all, workplaces have been busy testing systems and procedures for physical hazards so why not test for psychological hazards. It is a bit too late once one is sitting in a Court, Commission or Tribunal trying to justify a response from some left field question. As many other sources have quoted, denial is not a river in Egypt. The lack of reported incidents does not mean it is not happening. It should mean that the right questions are not being asked because someone doesn’t know what they are.

  6. I would like to think that people wouldn’t turn up unprepared at a Court, Commission or Tribunal. If you are sitting giving evidence, you might never know what type of question will come your way. You should always cover the basics e.g. job/position description, induction program, performance management, workplace bullying/harassment policy and procedures. However, from what people have told me about their experiences and how past history has been used against them, being prepared seems to be the order of the day. Victim/targets, alleged bullies, the organisation, the medical and legal professionals, the family/friends/associates, the investigators and the media could all end up being confronted with having to respond to how they managed an incident. It seems to be an open secret that some people have seen the ‘money’ reportedly paid out in high profile cases, and they want their share. Victims/targets can probably increase their chances of getting a bigger share if they can build a case, and alleged bullies probably stand a greater chance of ‘getting off’ if they can demonstrate that their actions were reasonable management. Organisations probably would like it all to be resolved without media attention and that might be the case in many situations. However, the minute allegations arise where sexual harassment, patterns of covering up, failure to investigate incidents are identified, they will looking for the real story. Of course, there is no easy solution. However, I would be looking for skeletons to use against the organisation, or I would be looking to bury the skeletons so deep that no-one would even know they had existed. Think about those who know where the skeletons are, how those skeletons can be used, and think about the legal processes that could be used to access those skeletons.

  7. Recent discussions seem to highlight the reality of how people can be treated in workplaces, not only in relation to workplace bullying and harassment, but also when they want to raise concerns. It seems that in some workplaces, resolution options are used to silence ‘complainers’ or ‘whingers’ as they are sometimes called by people who should know better. It is equally annoying and even frustrating when it is obvious that systems and processes are not working, and there is an apparent lack of will to make them work. Individuals should not have to contact external providers to find out about policies and procedures that should have been communicated internally, or even how to find them. The amount of time spent on resolving workplace bullying and harassment incidents could be better spent. For example, whilst training is often seen as a cost, perhaps if it were viewed as an investment, attitudes might change. Dealing with issues as they arise and not waiting for them to develop into a festering sore affecting many, might just create some belief that the organisation is serious about stamping out all forms of inappropriate behaviours. If people want to test how employers and employees might react to a workplace death caused by bullying or harassment, ask them how they would explain the death to a loved one, or will they just leave it to the police? Employers and employees have to understand that the legal implications involved in responding to a workplace incident are becoming increasing onerous. Once the name of an individual appears in flashing lights in the media, a certain amount of mud is thrown and it does stick. It does not matter one iota if you are the victim/target, the alleged bully or even an officer, you can pretty much guarantee that nothing will ever be the same again. You can follow internal policies and procedures, cross your fingers and hope for a good hearing. You can run sessions where employees at all levels get to practice responses to allegations in case there is a realy case. You can walk around in denial pretending it won’t happen. No doubt many organisations put a lot of faith in their internal policies and procedures, their training programs and their support networks, but what if that is not enough? Do they even get some one in every now and then to shake the tree and put some pressure on the system or process to test it?

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