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Workplace bullying is a growing problem. Here’s how to handle it

Reports of a culture of bullying at beauty giant Mecca have come to light today, along with claims of discrimination, racism, harassment and favouritism from former and current employees.

According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, an external culture specialist has been appointed at the company and will visit stores to make recommendations on areas of improvement for the business. An anonymous workplace complaints hotline has also been set up.

Workplace bullying is becoming an issue of greater urgency in business, but what can CEOs do to minimise the risks for staff and maintain a safe work environment for everyone?

Why is it important to stop bullying?

CEOs and managers of workplaces have a duty under work health and safety legislation to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that employees are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including workplace bullying.

In many Australian states, company officers, including CEOs, have a further obligation to exercise due diligence to ensure these standards of workplace safety are being met.

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

While often allegations of bullying are unfounded or arise from a misunderstanding, it is clear that allegations, whether legitimate or otherwise, can create substantial risks to Australian business, both legal and otherwise.

Indeed, the Productivity Commission has estimated that in addition to the costs of defending a workplace bullying claim, the annual cost of the impacts of workplace bullying to employers and the Australian economy is estimated to be in the range of $6 billion to $36 billion. These costs can include direct and indirect costs such as:

  • High staff turnover and associated recruitment and training costs
  • Low morale and motivation
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Lost productivity
  • Disruption to work when complex complaints are being investigated
  • Costs associated with counselling, investigations, mediation and support
  • Damage to the reputation of the business

Further, a breach of safety obligations can create the risk of criminal liability, carrying significant penalties. For example in April, according to WorkSafe Victoria, a retail manager was convicted and fined $7500 for bullying a storeman.

Who is best placed to respond?

The risks of workplace bullying are particularly prominent in retail environments, where employees work in dynamic, fast-paced customer-facing roles where it can be challenging for CEOs and managers to effectively supervise staff to ensure standards of appropriate workplace behaviour are met.

Compounding this, retailers typically employ some of the most at-risk workers, including juniors, trainees and casuals, which can further increase the prospect of such vulnerable workers being targeted.

Commonly, matters of human resources management (including directions around appropriate workplace behaviour) are delegated to HR practitioners, and CEOs will not have any oversight or input into such matters.

However, without having an appropriate appreciation of how these matters regarding safety are being effectively and proactively addressed within the workplace, company officers may fall foul of their obligation to exercise due diligence. Another common pitfall is where complaints of workplace bullying are left unaddressed, particularly where the CEO has not been updated as to the complaint.

Management must ideally proactively identify unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying occurring, implement control measures to manage risks, and monitor and review the effectiveness of the control measures. Retail CEOs must verify that these measures are in place and are being implemented on an ongoing basis.

How can you stop bullying before it starts?

To manage and prevent workplace bullying in your business, we recommend that CEOs and managers:

  1. Lead by example and demonstrate a clear commitment to identifying, preventing and responding to workplace bullying
  2. Implement a workplace behaviour policy, and training staff on the policy both on commencement of employment, and at regular intervals during employment
  3. Ensure that safety matters, including allegations of workplace bullying, are reported to management
  4. Address unreasonable behaviour and reports of workplace bullying as soon as possible and appropriately depending on the circumstances.
  5. Seek feedback when workers leave the business through, for example, exit interviews
  6. Monitor incident reports, complaints, workers compensation claims, patterns of absenteeism, sick leave, staff turnover etc to establish regular patterns or sudden unexplained changes
  7. Recognise changes in workplace dynamics between workers, customers and managers
  8. Provide leadership training for managers and supervisors, and facilitate teamwork, consultation and cooperation
  9. Design safe systems of work by clearly defining jobs and seeking regular feedback from workers about their role and responsibilities
  10. Review and monitor workloads and staffing levels to reduce excessive working hours/expectations
  11. Hold regular scheduled discussions about culture and workplace behaviour at management meetings, board meetings, staff meetings, and health and safety committee meetings

Georgie Chapman is a workplace relations and safety lawyer at HR Legal, which works with many organisations in the retail industry.

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