Workplace Bullying OverhaulOur online friend Bernie Althofer has written this compelling and challenging article about dealing with bullying in the workplace.

What would you do in this situation?

You have just received the call that you never expected. One of your workers has committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.

A person who has identified themselves as a police officer informs you that they are at the scene of a fatality. The police officer tells you that a witness has handed investigating officers a backpack. A search of the backpack has revealed that the deceased is employed in your work unit. The search also located a notebook containing numerous notes about bullying. The witness has told police that before the person jumped, they told the witness “I just can’t take the bullying anymore.”

  • How would you respond?
  • What will you tell investigators when they come to speak to in person?
  • Who else will the investigators need to interview?
  • Will you be prepared for the unexpected?
  • Is there any other information relevant to the situation?


This might be a situation that will confront more and more workplaces and the responses provided by employees at various levels may have an impact on Court, Commission or Tribunal findings and recommendations.  In some cases, investigating police have limited information with which to work, and depending on the circumstances of the death, a report may be prepared for the Coroner.

On the face of it, some deaths might appear to have no direct workplace connection, and an investigation report may reflect this.  However, in cases such as the situation outlined above, a full and proper investigation might identify workplace issues that are a contributing factor to the death.  It is possible that as the investigation progresses, more detailed facts will be uncovered, making it impossible to divorce the incident from the workplace.

The questions that organisations and individuals within those organisations need to identify are many but may include:

  • Is this incident actually work related?
    • If yes, what is the appropriate and relevant response that we should provide?
    • Will the organisation or its representatives be held liable for their actions (or lack thereof) if the investigation identifies a connection between the contributing factors and the death?

Is there a definitive response to each of those questions?


To gain an appreciation of the complexity of what might be involved, this discussion paper is about highlighting some issues that officers and workers might need to consider.It is also important to understand that in some cases, a lack of planning may contribute to inappropriate responses being provided that only increase the potential risk exposure to the organisation and the employees at all levels.  So what can we deduce from the situation. For a start we have a deceased employee from a work unit where you are the manager.

As the manager, you would want to be able to identify:

Is this actually work related, and if so why?

Determining a response to these questions will require an understanding about what is meant by a work place and what is work related.  It might well be that a decision is made that this is a police matter, with nothing to do with you. You would need to be to justify that response.  If it is work related, then there may be a raft of issues that need to be considered such as:

  • Do we have a policy relating to a workplace death, and if so, what do I have to do?

If the death is identified as workplace related, then in addition to a police investigation, a Division of Workplace Health and Safety investigation would also be conducted, as well as a workplace investigation.  If it is a workplace death involving bullying and the individual took their own life, there will be media interest.  In some cases, the investigation/s will uncover a raft of issues that could be potentially damaging for the organisation and decision makers therein.  It might also be the case that the notes now in the possession of the police contain ‘damning’ information about the lack of action on the part of diverse persons to whom the person turned to for assistance.


Public and private sector organisations may have different approaches to responding to such an incident.  However, it might be important to consider that the emergence of work related deaths from bullying has occurred in several States.  Organisations need to consider whether or not they plan for such events, and if so, how they plan. Many organisations conduct regular training for emergencies such as fires, bomb threats etc but few appear to conduct planning for critical events such as a workplace death.

It seems that organisations should conduct periodic training exercises so that individuals at various levels can plan for the unexpected.  Most organisations are well advanced in developing strategic, tactical and operational plans to cover a host of eventualities.  However, not all organisations include workplace deaths caused by bullying in training, audit, risk or health and safety plans. In cases there organisations have identified a level of risk exposure, it is important that the plans be ‘exercised’ to test whether or not what is included actually works.


Most organisations conduct some form of training in relation to bullying. However, few may conduct exercises whereby individuals get to practice responses in a controlled environment before they have to respond in a Court, Commission or Tribunal.  Typically, training requires employees to attend face to face presentations, or complete online training or self paced modules on a particular topic.  In addition, there has been the rise of webinars as a way of imparting information and getting audience participation.

What are the advantages of conducting such exercises such as hypothetical scenario based forums?

  1. It is a controlled environment, and it helps individuals and the organisation identify what gaps exist in their response capability.
  2. It provides participants with an opportunity to test their knowledge and understanding of policies and procedures without putting themselves or their organisation at an increased level of risk exposure.
  3. It allows officers to gain a deeper appreciation of the level of risk exposure that they and their organisation might be exposed to.
  4. It allows officers and workers to practice appropriate responses.
  5. It identifies silos that may impact on individual or organisational responses.

A well facilitated forum relies on responses provided by participants, and the scenario is ‘developed’ as responses are provided, and as the facilitator introduces new ‘facts’ relevant to the situation.

  1. It requires a minimum level of technology and handouts.
  2. It forces officers and workers to observe, listen, hear and frame responses based on other responses provided and ‘facts’ as they are fed into the exercise.
  3. It works on a ‘no blame’ approach during the forum – it is about finding out what people would do based on their current knowledge.



Traditional presentations generally involve the following:

  •        Slides, videos and discussion are used
  •        Handouts are provided
  •        Participants don’t ‘have’ to be prepared
  •        Not all participate
  •        Not everyone learns
  •       Not everyone understands their role as it relates to others
  •       Training delivered as a means of ‘compliance’

In comparison, hypothetical forums are structured in such a way that participants learn:

  •        The importance of being prepared for critical incidents
  •        The importance of expecting the unexpected
  •        The importance of listening and hearing all responses
  •        Why they need to develop deeper knowledge about policies and procedures
  •        The importance of continual learning and currency of knowledge
  •        About the impact of silos
  •       About ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ responses
  •       Who may be involved in a bullying incident

The structure of a forum generally starts with brief details about a work related incident and as responses are provided, more details are ‘drip fed’ into the scenario.  This allows organisations to gain a deeper appreciation of the depth and breadth of issues involved.



The effectiveness of a hypothetical scenario based forums depends largely on the structure of the forum, as well as the depth and breadth of the participants.  Ideally, a selection of organisational employees from the CEO through to workers allows each to hear responses to specific questions.  It might well be the case that each individual has a specific belief that the response they provide is appropriate and relevant, whereas in reality, the different responses provided only serve to identify gaps in knowledge and practice.

A typical organisation would see the following participants being involved:

  • Board member/s
  • CEO
  • Executive manager/s
  • Operations manager
  • Director, HR/Finance/Administration
  • Corporate Risk Management
  • Corporate Legal Advisor
  • Audit manager
  • Ethics adviser
  • Manager/supervisor
  • Investigator
  • Policy officer
  • Workplace Health and Safety Manager/Officer
  • Workplace Trainer
  • Workers
  • Support Personnel
  • Union representative/s

This range of personnel is indicative of those who may be involved in responding to a workplace death and workplace bullying incident.  In a typical organisation, some of the above personnel may have had a direct or indirect involvement in preventing, detecting or resolving workplace bullying.  It is important to break ‘cones of silence’ or even ‘silos’ that impact supporting individuals who may have been the subject of workplace bullying.

Responses provided by participants in these forums may identify improvement opportunities in the following areas:

  •        Bullying and harassment
  •        Code of Conduct
  •        Performance management
  •        Management practices
  •        Communication
  •        Managing risk in communication encounters
  •        Consultation/ consultative practices
  •        Hazard/ risk factors
  •        Workplace culture
  •        Cultural issues
  •        Mental health
  •        Risk management
  •        Policy implementation
  •        Training records
  •        Right to information
  •        Access to records
  •        Confidentiality
  •        Silos
  •        Planning
  •        Response to a workplace death
  •        Gaps in policies
  •       What actually happens in the workplace
  •        Audits/assessments/review
  •        Court, Commission and/or Tribunal decisions/findings

In some cases, a facilitator will ‘draw out’ organisational taboos that ‘everyone’ knows about, and there is a collective ‘silence’ regarding these taboos.  These taboos are sometimes identified when people say ‘well everyone knew but…’.  In a paradoxical sense, there may be an organisational paralysis in those organisations who ‘want to be seen doing the right thing’ but are paralysed because the workplace culture is such that hazards or risks are also regarded as ‘taboos’.  Organisations that conduct scenario planning may often be seen as taking risks by encouraging open and transparent discussions that are interpreted by some as ‘airing dirty linen’.  However, given Court, Commission and Tribunals decisions and findings that have occurred in the past two years, and given the introduction of new work health and safety legislation, and the planned introduction of new ‘bullying laws’, there is an increasing need for organisations to ‘exercise’ their policies and  procedures.  There are also an increasing number of legal professionals being engaged by individuals seeking redress for wrongs imposed on them. In addition, there are an increasing number of organisational skeletons that pose potential increased levels of risk exposure.



Officers and workers need to understand that it is only a matter of time before they have to respond to a work related death where bullying behaviours are identified as a contributing factor.

Officers and workers need to consider the following:

  • Developing an emergency response plan allows individuals at all levels to test their knowledge
  • Hypothetical scenario based forums provide an opportunity for interactive learning in a non threatening (but confronting and challenging) environment
  • These forums help organisational officers and workers identify barriers that exist across work units e.g. silos, and the forums also help ‘table’ institutionalised restraints
  • Officers and workers need to understand the complexities of issues involved in the prevention, detection and resolution of a raft of issues that can contribute to a workplace death
  • Courts, Commissions and Tribunals can and do make adverse findings and recommendations that impact on individual and organisational reputations
  • Sitting in a Court, Commission or Tribunal pleading ‘nobody told me’ or ‘I didn’t understand’ might not be the most appropriate response if a death has occurred on your watch
  • The level of confidence they have that current systems and processes in place for the prevention, detection and resolution of workplace bullying are sufficient to reduce the risk of a workplace death occurring because of bullying behaviour
  • The level of confidence they have that responses they provide will not create any increased level of risk exposure to themselves personally or to their organisation
  • The level of confidence they have that the responses they provide will address concerns investigators may have regarding their level of knowledge or understanding of related work units
  • The ability of in-house training providers to address currency of knowledge in relation to the diverse range of issues associated with workplace bullying and the potential risk exposures associated with a death

Some organisations may make a conscious decision to ‘risk it’ by not exercising their policies and procedures.  However, given the potential level of risk exposure that individuals and organisations could face when a Court, Commission or Tribunal makes adverse findings about perceived shortcomings in responses to a critical incident, it makes sense to identify improvement opportunities and rectify them in a non-adversarial situation.  The decision that officers need to make are based around whether or not they can rely on maintaining the status quo when it comes to creating awareness and educating all those who work in the organisation, or do they step outside the boundaries and investigate hypothetical scenario based forums.


Bernie is the Owner/Managing Director and founder of EGL I ASSESSMENTS PTY LTD.

After a career of almost 35 years as a police officer he transitioned to the role of a workplace bullying consultant.  Bernie has over twenty years’ experience providing advice, guidance and support to victims/targets, alleged bullies and to line managers/supervisors in the public and private sector.

He is the author of Resolving Workplace Bullying Survival questions and helpful hints from cubicles to boardrooms.





P: 0419 661 421

About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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