Most workplace bullying claims dubious at best

by HCA25 Jul 2011
The number of workers claiming to have been bullied has skyrocketed, with complaints to WorkSafe Victoria more than doubling to 6,000 in the past year.
The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that no action was taken in the past year on the vast majority of complaints, as most fell well short of what constitutes workplace bullying under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Some instances of ‘bullying’ cited by complainants included missing out on a pay rise, not being greeted by their boss, and being sacked after assaulting a manager.
Executive director of health and safety at Worksafe, Ian Forsyth, said the huge surge in complaints can largely be attributed to greater awareness about bullying.
In the past year, 6,000 bullying complaints were made to WorkSafe, but only 10% were referred to the bullying response unit. From those referrals, just one resulted in an inspector visiting a workplace to carry out further inquiries.
''I think what we are seeing is that the term bullying is being used quite loosely in the community now in many instances to describe something that has 'gone against me' or 'that I haven't liked' or something that 'I haven't wanted to do','' Forsyth said.
''As a result, we are seeing a mismatch between what is being labelled bullying and what would really constitute bullying under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”
The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines bullying as ''repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety'', and a newly passed bill has put bullying as an offence punishable with up to 10 years of jail.

Many of the complaints have been referred to other organisations such as Fair Work Australia, which deals with issues relating to industrial disputes, unfair dismissal and employment conditions, and the Australian Human Rights Commission, which deals with issues such as equal opportunity and discrimination.
''We're certainly not saying that these people aren't suffering from some form of ill treatment or some form of injustice or that they're not genuinely feeling that they've been disadvantaged or put under pressure. But in the vast majority of incidents these types of behaviours which they might describe as bullying are not going to meet the criteria for us to investigate or prosecute.''

Dr Mary Casey (Doctorate of Psychology), a conflict resolution specialist, has authored a new workbook, How to Deal with Master Manipulators, which identifies the following checklist for dealing with problematic work relationships:

  1. Be aware & think rationally: Be honest with yourself about how you feel in your relationship. Look at it with clear eyes. Pain is better than denial.
  2. Set boundaries: Make it clear to them what you will and won’t accept both verbally and behaviourally.
  3. Observe only outcomes: Don’t try to second-guess the meaning behind their words or actions.
  4. Be clear & specific: Don’t assume they can read your mind. Ask for what you want precisely; ensure your body language backs your words.
  5. Keep them responsible: When they try to shift the blame, re-focus on their behaviour and the issue at hand.
  6. Accept no excuse for inappropriate behaviour. Remain focussed on the issue you are trying to confront.
  7. Stand your ground: Repeat the same statement until they realise you will not change your mind or the subject.
  8. Act fast: Deal with the issue as soon as it happens. If you bottle it up and address it later, you will be emotional and play right into their hands. Or, worse, they’ll say they don’t remember.


  • by Bernie Althofer 27/07/2011 11:02:22 AM

    Based on this article, it would appear that 90% of complaints made to WorkSafe were handled in a manner other than referral to the bullying response unit. It may well be the case that a number of these complaints were referred back to the workplace for investigation, follow up or some other action. It is interesting to note that whilst there is a published definition under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, various interpretations suggest different meanings. It is somewhat problematic for individuals and organisations to understand what is and what is not bullying or harassment, when there are variances in understanding basic concepts. It may be the case that there is still considerable educative work to be undertaken so that there is a better understanding of what constitutes bullying, and even reasonable management. Given recent discussions and inquiries by individuals seeking advice regarding actions they can take in relation to workplace bullying, it appears that there may be cases where management practices and/or communication are contributing factors that lead individuals to believe they are being bullied. In reality, some of these cases may be more actionable if allegations were made regarding constructive dismissal, discriminatory actions based on a range of attributes, or some other employment related issue. In any case where there is a hint of workplace conflict caused by any form of inappropriate behaviours such as bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination, action should be taken immediately. Delaying or avoidance tactics may only result in damage to organisational or individual reputation. If a manager says to an employee, "As a matter of interest, what do you have on next week", be prepared in case the employee makes an allegation that they were bullied. Be prepared for decisions that suggest the actions were unreasonable.

  • by Dr.Peter Gorman 2/08/2011 3:20:12 PM

    I agree whole heartedly with Bernie.I wonder of those who did not make the cut,sloped off somewhere else when in reality they were not advised to go to the Ombudsman to untangle the mess by the employer

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