Workplace bullying tragedy sparks worldwide wake-up call
Teenage waitress Brodie Panlock felt so powerless after months of torment by co-workers that she threw herself off a three-storey building.
Ironically, her death and the international scrutiny that followed have caused a major rethink of the role of managers in the personal relationships of co-workers, the need for business to understand the mental state of employees, and even how we talk to each other at work.
The fines imposed on Ms Panlock’s employer and bullies are a wake-up call for Australian workplaces, says bullying expert Bernie Althofer, ahead of his April 22 address to the Safety in Action Conference.
“Out of sight and out of mind, the real level of risk has not been assessed and executive officers remain blissfully unaware of the impending damage to individual and organisational reputations because they failed to address a problem.”
Mr Althofer is part of a line-up of experts at April’s Safety in Action Conference who will discuss the legal and practical implications for managers and safety professionals.
Court-imposed convictions and fines are just the tip of the iceberg for employers of bullied staff members, according to conference sponsor WorkSafe Victoria.
“The death of Brodie Panlock has received the most media attention of any WorkSafe Victoria prosecution – ever,” says WorkSafe Victoria media manager, Michael Birt.
“The case was covered extensively by Australia’s national media but was even reported in countries from the Netherlands to Russia. The details will stay on Google forever. The actions of Brodie’s tormentors will follow them.”
Birt points out that the goodwill of the café where Ms Panlock was bullied has been undermined and put the owner and his family in a position where they are reportedly selling up and moving interstate.
“The big issue with bullying is that it’s not just a matter of fixing it after the problem has been identified. Most often, the damage is done by then and can’t easily be fixed.
As with any health and safety area, prevention is better than prosecution.
“It’s important businesses realise that doing nothing comes at a huge cost. Of course, nothing compares to what the victims and their families go through but the bullies and those who could have stopped it or spoken up pay dearly.”
The publicity prompted an immediate 300 per cent increase in calls to WorkSafe Victoria’s advisory service regarding bullying. The regulator has a dedicated bullying team and offers a Prevention and Responding to Bullying at Work guide.
OHS lawyer and senior associate at Freehills Steve Bell will tell Safety in Action Conference delegates that psychological injuries deserve the same attention and risk management rigour as physical injuries.
“Businesses must appreciate that the risk associated with bullying or psychological injury
is potentially fatal,” he says. “In some cases it may be difficult to properly identify risk controls, but not impossible. Businesses will be greatly assisted by taking a holistic approach. This involves starting at the top with managerial commitment, including safety professionals and consulting with employees.”
Mr Bell says all workplaces need to have a clear workplace behaviour and bullying policy that is well understood by employees and supported by appropriate training, which sets a standard for acceptable behaviour and provides tools for concerned employees to raise issues and have them dealt with.
“Bullying behaviour needs to be identified and dealt with immediately,” Mr Bell says.
“Make it crystal clear that bullying behaviour won’t be tolerated but go further, because on its own that isn’t going to be enough, he says.
“You also need to consider how you are appropriately supervising and monitoring the workforce for that behaviour.”
Mr Bell says that reacting to complaints alone is inadequate. In fact, he says when an employee’s behaviour presents a risk to health and safety, termination needs to be considered.
“Of course, legal risks arise when terminating the employment of employees and managers. That being said, employers must remember that safety is paramount.”
“Managing the legal risk associated with terminating the employment of an employee will be greatly assisted if the business has set clear standards of what is acceptable and what’s not. Employers, large and small, need to make the rules prohibiting workplace bullying very clear as soon as every new employee comes through the door. This should form part of the standard suite of safety training provided.”
Defining bullying though, is not as simple as it sounds, says Bernie Althofer.
“In Australia, there is no uniform definition of what is and what is not workplace bullying,” Mr Althofer says.
“The meaning of ‘reasonable management’ is open to interpretation and some individuals believe that ‘reasonable management’ is in fact ‘workplace bullying’. This is one reason why bullying is not included in the risk management process by some organisations.”
Despite the challenges for employers attempting to protect staff members from bullying, Mr Althofer says the process should begin with a thorough risk assessment in line with the new international standard ISO 31000.
“Risk management may not provide the magic bullet required to prevent workplace bullying,” he says, “however, the frameworks provided through ISO 31000 and the health and safety legislation give organisations a substantial process that, if implemented properly, will provide some reassurance that reasonable efforts are being made to prevent, detect and resolve workplace bullying.”
Bernie Althofer and Steve Bell will address the Safety in Action Conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre on April 22.
The Conference is conducted by peak OHS professional body, the Safety Institute of Australia, in partnership with WorkSafe Victoria and sponsored by Downer EDI.
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