Cafe pays ultimate cost of workplace bullying

by 11 Feb 2010

Turning a blind eye to workplace bullying can lead to tragic consequences and criminal charges, an occupational health and safety lawyer has warned.

Following the suicide of a waitress who was the victim of workplace bullying, the Victorian Magistrates’ Court issued a total of $355,000 in fines to the victim’s employer, the owner of Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn.

“The decision demonstrates one of the many costs associated with failing to appropriately manage bullying and harassment in the workplace,” said Penny Stevens, partner, Hall & Wilcox Lawyers. “According to a recent draft report released by the Productivity Commission, ‘psychosocial hazards’ such as bullying and harassment in the workplace tend to be more costly on average than claims for less serious physical injuries, both in relation to direct costs and time taken off work.”

The owner of the cafe and four other workers pleaded guilty to failing to take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons and to failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment.

In what the magistrate described as “the most serious case of bullying”, he said he would have doubled the penalties had the defendants not pleaded guilty.

According to Stevens, workplace bullying and harassment is not given the same attention in Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) legislation as managing other physical hazards, such as manual handling, working at heights and dangerous substances.

“This has led to additional uncertainty being placed on businesses about the extent of their duty of care and how to address such hazards,” she said.

“Eliminating workplace bullying and harassment is an integral part of any employer’s organisational OH&S commitments,” she added. “The Cafe Vamp decision sends a clear message to employers, company directors and employees that allowing or participating in workplace bullying can lead to tragic results and criminal charges with significant penalties.”

According to Stevens there are a number of steps which HR can take in companies to prevent bullying and tragic circumstances like this which include:

Ensure they have robust policies and procedures on bullying and harassment which clearly detail the consequences of such behaviour;

Ensure employees are aware of the impact on their employment if they are found to have bullied others in the workplace;

Ensure they have a grievance/complaint procedure that is confidential and communicated to employees;

Review their bullying policies and procedures regularly to ensure compliance and relevance to their particular workplaces;

Train and re-train employees in those policies and procedures; and

Monitor employees' mental health and safety and act quickly on any unacceptable behaviour and complaints.

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