Last Friday, the Intensive Care Unit at Sydney's Westmead Hospital was stripped of its training accreditation after allegations of bullying by senior medical staff.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said medical specialists have to understand that this is the 21st century.
"There is absolutely not one millimetre of room for a culture of bullying or failure to provide respect to every staff member," he said.
A few days later, an independent review into Cricket Australia — following the ball tampering scandal — found that employees were reverting to "bullying tactics, or worse, ostracising" to get their way.
There's been a 10-year effort to raise awareness about workplace bullying, particularly by the Fair Work Commission and Safe Work Australia, but it begs the question: why is it still so prevalent?
What is workplace bullying?
• Victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening behaviour
• Repeated over time
• Excludes reasonable management action like speaking to someone about poor performance
• Can dovetail with sexual harassment or racism
Source: Safe Work Australia
Bullying victims can experience severe (and sometimes debilitating) distress. They take more sick leave, try to avoid the workplace and are less able to fulfil their duties. Bullying costs up to $36 billion annually due to lost productivity in Australia.
Then there's the damage it can do to an organisation's reputation, especially if the media gets hold of a juicy story. The Australian branch of marketing giant Appco was publicly shamed as a humiliating workplace when employees filed a lawsuit.
The court heard, for example, that "the punishment for not hitting their target was to shove a cigarette up your bottom, pull it out and then smoke it.”
This may be an extreme case, but a 2018 study shows one in five workers has been bullied in the past 12 months.
Australia does not compare well
A 2016 study found Australia had the sixth highest rate of workplace bullying when compared with 34 European countries.
Respondents cited behaviour they'd experienced in the past six months, including "being sworn at or yelled at (37 per cent of respondents); being humiliated in front of others (23 per cent); and being physically assaulted or threatened by patients/clients (22 per cent).”
Bullying seems to be more common in government administration, the health care sector, defence and electricity supply. But even supposedly progressive work environments, like universities, have become hotbeds of bullying.
A quarter of 22,000 staff from 19 universities said they had been victims of harassment and bullying. Among women, it was one in three. A third of those victims said they had little faith in their organisation's complaints system.
What's fuelling all this bullying?
We used to think that bullying only happened on building sites and in the military. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has meant that bullying festered unimpeded in white collar roles. It's now ingrained. As Brad Hazzard said about Westmead Hospital, "I was told it has taken years to develop this culture and it may take some time to reverse”.
Half the respondents who reported bullying in universities said they didn't report it as they feared it would make matters worse. While men were more likely to be verbally abused, they were less likely to report it.
Meanwhile, managers were traditionally taught to lead with a firm hand and imitate a fiery Kerry Packer. This cult of "tough leadership" was imported from the US at a time when “Management by fear" was considered a legitimate motivation technique. From here it's a slippery slope to becoming a bully.
Bosses aren't the only ones who bully, of course. Peers can also. One reason could be the ultra-competitive systems that employers use to incentivise and reward staff today. Bullying could be an expression of professional jealousy, the dark side of the competitive ethos.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the broader culture of bullying in Australian society. If it's OK to sledge opponents on the cricket pitch then why not in the workplace?
Think of the "snake-pit" we otherwise call the Australian parliament. The ousting of Malcom Turnbull revealed a toxic climate among some MPs who were supposed to be setting an good example for the country.
Or what about the abusive on-air attack by shock-jock Alan Jones against Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron? That he wasn't challenged by his line-manager or even the NSW Premier tells us how difficult it is to deal with bullies. And let's not even mention Australia's schoolyard bullying epidemic that is blighting future employees and managers in their formative years.
First, the message must come from the top — people leading by example who convey a "zero tolerance" stance to bullying.
Second, anti-bullying policies and complaints procedures must be regularly communicated and actively enforced.
And third, employees must be empowered to speak up with confidence and not fear retribution. In the absence of such measures, little will change.
Peter Fleming is a professor at UTS Business School and author of Sugar Daddy Capitalism: The Dark Side of the New Economy.
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