Bullying in the workplace special report


“People are capable of great good. And people are capable of great evil.”


This is Australian lawyer Josh Bornstein, national head of Employment Law at the Maurice Blackburn legal firm, talking about bullying in Australian workplaces.

It’s widespread. It’s a whole toxic culture of oppression that destroys lives, that damages not just the victims but those who witness bullying behaviour and the perpetrators themselves.

Working carers are often the victims of workplace bullying. Too vulnerable to stand their ground and speak out against oppressive practices, they often endure overt and covert harassment, sometimes on a long-term basis.

Research indicates that one in every two Australian employees will be subjected to bullying at some time. Forty per cent of the victims will suffer the abuse early in their careers. Thus, the cyclical nature of the abuse culture: today’s victim may well become tomorrow’s bully.

The above statistics were from a study by the University of Wollongong which found that up to seven per cent of study respondents had been bullied in the previous six months.

An earlier study at Griffith University estimated workplace bullying cost the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion annually. And that was in 2001, 16 years ago.

Most complaints not investigated

“The complaints are pretty universal all over the country. In the case of workplace bullying, the occupational health and safety watchdogs aren’t adequate,” Josh Bornstein told Fairfax reporters working on a recent special report on workplace bullying.

“And why? One, because they don’t investigate most complaints. And, two, if they do, they’re handled poorly.”

Borstein says the cases that go to court and make headlines are just the tip of the iceberg. A very large percentage of bullying victims can’t afford the cost of litigation. “There’s a huge unmet demand for legal assistance for people who suffer workplace bullying,” he told Fairfax.

NSW Government launches bullying inquiry

One case that did make it to court has become a landmark. In October last year, a woman was awarded more than $1 million in a negotiated settlement after a concerted campaign of bullying rendered her incapable of ever working again. Her employer was the NSW Government.

Now, ironically, the NSW Government has launched a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying. It begins hearings this month.

The $1 million payout victim (anonymous in news reports, but we’ll call her Mary) told Fairfax reporters she still didn’t know what provoked the campaign against her back in 2011.

“My career was going well. The agency had just paid for me to do a public service management course. I thought I was earmarked for senior management. And then this happened.”

Mary, then 41, had applied for another job within the government agency where she worked. She realised she’s made an error in filling out the form and withdrew her application. Nonetheless, her superiors, a man and a woman, insisted that she attend a meeting to explain.

But then when she sat down, they accused her of having an inappropriate relationship in the office. The next accusation was that she’d been passing off a colleague’s ideas as her own.

“I was blindsided by it,” Mary told Fairfax. “I couldn’t understand where the allegations were coming from. Had they given me some sort of notice or asked me in a less hostile environment, I could explain it. It was just incorrect. But they just kept going and going. I was sobbing and doubled over and they were still making allegations about information sharing.

“It just didn’t stop. At one point, they said we can put you in contact with the counselling service. I said I will absolutely need it after this meeting and still they went on. I don’t know why I didn’t walk out. It went on for ages.”

Campaign of humiliation

Mary was due to go on annual leave. When she returned, she found she’d been sidelined. She was parked at a desk outside the office of the team she used to manage and given nothing to do. She asked to be moved out of that department, but the campaign of humiliation was permitted to continue.

The legal firm of Carroll & O’Dea took on her case. During the five years it took to achieve a settlement, Mary and her children were kept under surveillance by agents of the insurance companies involved.

“Everything was challenged. I was pushed to the absolute limit. I’m surprised I’m still actually here.”

She said she’d hoped she’d start feeling better when her five years of ‘hell’ finally ended. “But I still don’t. I can never get those five years back. I can’t do what I used to do.”

A psychologist with 20 years’ experience in the field, Evelyn Field, says that the ‘caring’ professions are hotbeds of bullying. She sees teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors, she says, but very few accountants or engineers.

Josh Bornstein blames what he calls “command and control” workplace cultures, such models as the military and police and ambulance services, which, he says, “often produce pretty terrible bullying cases and with some catastrophic health consequences.”

Dr Carlo Caponecchia of the University of NSW agrees that bullying and harassment seemed to be endemic in “hierarchical organisations” such as emergency services and the military.

“Research shows that people in emergency services are not so much stressed by what they see on the road; it’s what happens to them back at the depot, back at the station, in relation to their colleagues, in the support they get or don’t get from the service by which they are employed.”

Devastating impact on mental health

This was the case for Cindy Modderman, who had been a police officer for 12 years before becoming an ambulance officer and who left the Ambulance Service in 2015. She had, by then, 25 years of frontline experience dealing with death and trauma.

“But the behaviour I was subjected to in the workplace had a far more devastating effect on my mental health than anything I’ve ever seen over that 25 years,” she told the ABC recently.

She had been subjected to four years of constant bullying and harassment from the time she started working in the ambulance control centre in Newcastle in 2011. The cruellest nastiness was a succession of taunts about her daughter who has an intellectual disability.

Her locker was broken into. On one occasion a phone-book was thrown at her head.

Complaining to management did her no good at all. The attitude at that level was that she must be flawed in some way.

“Management didn’t want to listen,” she said. “All they did was throw counter-allegations at me about things I had apparently done wrong.”

Evelyn Field sees bullying as a health risk, not just to the targets but to witnesses and perpetrators as well. But it’s the victims who pay the highest price: she cites increased risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies. There are physical effects too, she told Fairfax. “Two thirds put on weight, that’s pretty standard. A third would lose hair, a third to half would have headaches, blood-pressure problems, skin problems, gastro problems … Some people will go on to have fibromyalgia, cancer and heart attacks.”

Higher rates of depression, anxiety

Georgie Harman, CEO of beyondblue which sponsored the University of Wollongong study, agrees: “We know that those who experience and perpetrate workplace bullying have higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and health problems such as cardiovascular disease.”

She said such attempts as had been made to deal with the issue were achieving little.

“The strategies and policies tend to target individuals, including the perpetrator and the victim, not the organisation that allows the bullying to occur. We need to be targeting the organisations where there is a culture of bullying and to be empowering employees through communication.”

The bottom line is that there are people who get off on humiliating others. They inflate their own egos by belittling other people. They feel good when they can make somebody else feel bad.

Josh Bornstein sums it up like this: “You can try to find very sophisticated reasons for workplace bullying,” he told the ABC. “But sometimes it’s about just something as banal as personal dislike or jealousy, and then a desire to bring someone down.”

It’s very likely that many witnesses appearing before the parliamentary inquiry will advise that change has to come from the top. Evelyn Field concludes: “At the end of the day bullying is about poor management and a toxic culture. The fish rots from the head down.”

If you are being bullied, harassed or discriminated against because of your race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or because you have a disability or are pregnant you can contact the Australian Human Rights Commission. Call 1300 656 419


The Commonwealth Fair Work Ombudsman can provide information and advice about Australia’s workplace rights and rules and the protection you have against harassment and discrimination. Call 13 13 94.


SafeWork NSW can provide advice and help if you are experiencing workplace bullying. Call 13 10 50.


Dealing with fatigue in the workplace

Employers and workers need to be mindful of the impact of fatigue in the workplace.

Employers and workers need to be mindful of the impact of fatigue in the workplace.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission has handed down a decision that sends a clear message that all parties must cooperate to guard against fatigue and ensure safety at work.

According to SafeWork NSW, fatigue is ‘a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion which reduces a person’s ability to perform work safely and effectively’. 

Research tells us that a lack of sleep (i.e. fatigue) has comparable affects to alcohol consumption:

  • 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05
  • 21 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08
  • 24-25 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.10
  • Between 0.05 and 0.08 blood alcohol content, every person suffers impairment in tasks requiring skills, vigilance and precision.
Fatigue in the workplace therefore needs to be carefully managed as all jobs require skills.

The case before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (Grafton v Waverley Council (No.2) [2017] NSWIRComm 1020) was about Phillip Grafton, a full-time employee of Waverley Council.  During the day, he worked as a ‘Public Place Cleaner’. At night, Mr Grafton also worked full-time as a night-filler at Woolworths.

Mr Grafton injured his wrist and took extended time off work. He made a workers’ compensation claim, and through that process, Council became aware of his second job. They tried to get Mr Grafton to reduce his hours, but he refused. Council terminated his employment for serious misconduct; disobedience. He brought a claim for unfair dismissal to the Commission, which failed.

You can go and look up the case to see the Commission’s reasoning, but in short, the Commission sided with the Council in finding that the termination was not harsh, unreasonable or unjust.  

The Council’s directions to Mr Grafton to reduce his hours ‘were lawful because his work with Woolworths had the potential to conflict with his Council duties, in the sense of his ability to carry out those duties in a safe manner, without risk to himself and others,’ the Commission said.

The point about the case is that employers have a legal duty of care to protect the health and safety of all employees at work.

Had Mr Grafton been involved in an accident that caused harm to others, because he was fatigued, there could have been very serious consequences.

But workers also have some responsibility to ensure that their acts and omissions do not affect others.  Some personal responsibility needs to be taken and employees must cooperate with employers.

Disagreements at work are inevitable – what to do

Most of us spend a considerable percentage of our time at work.

Most of us spend a considerable percentage of our time at work. Unfortunately, for quite a few of us, that time, eight hours a day, 40-something hours a week, can be a living hell.

In too many workplaces, the pervading culture is that it’s a war zone, not a co-operative endeavour. Competition for advancement is one thing; ratbag backstabbing skulduggery is altogether another. But in too many environments, it’s the law of the jungle that prevails.

So, it’s a management problem? True. And it’s also true that in some workplaces it’s management itself that is the problem. But attitudes need to change all the way down the ladder if ‘work’ is not to be a toxic environment.

Maybe, just for a start, the language needs to be modified. The word most commonly used in discussion of workplace toxicity is ‘conflict’. It might take the fever out of a situation if it was referred to as ‘disagreement’ and accepted as inevitable. And, of course, it needs also to be recognised that everyone’s entitled to their view.

A common situation in which workplace ‘conflict’ arises is when there’s a radical alteration in management structure. We might call this the ‘Superman Syndrome’. The business isn’t doing well, morale is low, the future bleak; the operation stumbles along from day to day. In comes the new-broom hero: There’s going to be some big changes made. There will be one way to do things: her way, or his way. It’s a matter of shape up or ship out.

This is an extreme example maybe. But that’s the ethos that governs very many workplaces.

Change is imposed without consultation. It’s enforced by warnings, threats and punishments, up to and including dismissal. Life can become, literally, a fight for survival.

Some organisations have codes in place to eliminate bullying and harassment. But more often than not, the boss is exempted – and there’s a trickle-down effect. At best, it may be that coercion replaces bullish command as a management method.

So, just for a start, the fundamental perceptions need to be adjusted. The key word is ‘empathy’. The bad seed may be planted at the very first encounter.

“I’m the boss,” Mr or Ms Management assumes. “I am a superior being in relation to this mere Worker Bee.”  

“He/she’s a boss,” Worker Bee assumes. “He/she’s a bully who thinks he/she’s better than me.”

It’s assumed from the outset that they have nothing at all in common: they’re members of different species.

It may seem to be stating the obvious, but wouldn’t things work better if they talked to each other? And things would work better still if they actually listened to each other.

If Mr or Ms Management accepts that Worker Bee may have views on the way things are run and that those views might frame a contribution to the operation, that shifts the relationship away from the customary war footing. If Worker Bee accepts that Mr or Ms Management has a job to do, that he or she is the one who has to make the final decision, then a truce becomes possible.

Both sides need to be prepared to listen. Both sides need to recognise that they have the right to speak to the other and be listened to.

Maybe business organisations, be they corporations or backyard workshop operations, also hospitals, universities, schools etc., need to function more like families than military establishments.

Ah, but then, some families are as dysfunctional as the most blinkered, brutish sweatshop. The same things apply in that situation too. Attitudes need to change. Ears need to listen, mouths need to be permitted to speak.           

Pollyanna pie-in-the sky? All too simple? But maybe life doesn’t need to be as complicated as we so often make it.

Praise versus criticism in the workplace and at home

Praise or criticism? Which has the most power to change behaviour?

Which is more effective in improving individual or team performance: using positive feedback to let people know when they’re doing well, or offering constructive but critical comments to help them when they’re off track?

Research* published in Kim Cameron’s book, Positive Leadership suggests that this is a trick question. The answer, as one might intuitively expect, is that both are important.

The factor that makes the greatest difference between the most and least successful people at home and at work appears to be the ratio of positive comments “I agree with that,” for instance, or “that’s a terrific idea”, or “I love it when you smile”, to negative comments like “I don’t agree with you” “we shouldn’t even consider doing that” “that colour looks terrible on you”, “that report is full of mistakes”, “I’m sick of clearing up your mess”.

The highest-performing teams made only one negative comment to six positive ones, while the poorest performing teams made three negative comments to every positive one.

That is not to say all criticism is bad. In fact, it is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and ‘groupthink’.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has conducted its own research on praise and criticism. It found that constructive criticism could help leaders overcome serious weaknesses.

The key word here is serious. HBR provides 360-degree feedback to leaders. They have observed among the 50,000 or so leaders in their database that those who’ve received the most negative comments were the ones who, in absolute terms, improved the most.

Specifically, their aggregate data showed that three-quarters of those receiving the lowest leadership effectiveness scores – and who made an effort to improve – rose on average 33 percentile points in their rankings after a year. That is, they moved from the 23rd percentile (the middle of the worst) to the 56th percentile (or square in the middle of the pack).

It seems the people who get the most negative feedback have the most room to grow. It’s far harder for someone at the 90th percentile already to improve so much.

But clearly those benefits potentially come with serious costs or the amount of negative feedback that leads to high performance would be higher.

Negative feedback is important when the organisation is heading over a cliff, to warn an employee that they’d better stop doing something horrible or start doing something better right away. But even the most well-intentioned and necessary criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative.

It can change behaviour, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.

Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigour, determination, and creativity.

Perhaps that’s why HBR has found with the vast majority of the leaders in their database, who have no outstanding weaknesses, that positive feedback is what motivates them to continue improvement.

In fact, for those in the database who start out above average already (but are still below the 80th percentile), positive feedback works like negative feedback does for the bottom group. Focusing on their strengths enabled 62 per cent of this group to improve a full 24 percentage points (to move from the 55th to the 79th percentile).

The absolute gains are not as great as they are for the most-at-risk leaders, since they started so much further ahead. But the benefits to the organisation of making average leaders into good ones is far greater, because it puts them on the road to becoming the exceptional leaders that every organisation desperately needs.

As an interesting aside, it is noteworthy that this research is echoed in an uncanny way by John Gottman’s analysis of wedded couples’ likelihood of getting divorced or remaining married.

Once again, the single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. And the optimal ratio is amazingly similar – five positive comments for every negative one.

For those who ended up divorced, Gottman found the ratio was 0.77 to 1 – or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.

Clearly in work and life, both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. If some inappropriate behaviour needs to be stopped, or if someone is failing to do something they should be doing, that’s a good time for negative feedback.

The key is to keep the opposing viewpoint rational, objective, and calm – and above all not to engage in any personal attack (under the disingenuous guise of being “constructive”).

So, lead by example – both at home and at work – and endeavour to move the proportion closer to the ideal of about 6 to 1 by your own example.

*The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model, published by American Behavioural Scientist.

How to shine at your next job interview

Every job interview is a potential doorway to a new life.

Job Interview
Every job interview is a potential doorway to a new life. Your job is to impress. Being well informed and well-practised will help you relax, be more confident, articulate and successful.

Here are some interview tips that may help our working carers who are seeking a new job.

Practice makes perfect  

You will have the most confidence going into an interview if you have practised well beforehand in an interview setting. This is where your best friend, partner, mum, dad or the cat come in handy! Sit them down and give them a list of potential questions and ask them to grill you, while you sit across the table and answer.

Well okay, maybe not the cat, but if that is your only audience, ask yourself the questions and direct the answers to the mirror! You should dedicate a few hours each day to practising for interviews.

Another idea is to pay for a career development or recruitment service that offers mock interviews.

Try and get interviews with lots of similar organisations – even if you don’t want that particular job – the practice will be beneficial and you will have much more confidence when that dream job comes along.

Keep a list of how you answered each question and reflect on how you could answer better next time.

Prepare a structure you can use to answer questions

You need to have a well-developed structure for answering questions – especially problem-solving questions – and memorise it.

You need an idea of how to start. Sitting there blank-faced will not help you one iota.

Always repeat the question to the interviewer. You want to be sure you understand it and have all the relevant details. This will clarify your thinking and buy you a little bit of time to get your thoughts in order.

Tell them any assumptions you are making. Be clear what the OUTCOME or OBJECTIVES are that they wish to achieve in the given scenario. Don’t be afraid to ask any clarifying questions.

Even if you don’t know HOW to solve the issue, give them the APPROACH you might use. Discuss the trade-offs of the approach (authority to act/staff conflict/time/space/complexity of issue/likely consequences of two different courses of action and so on).

They are more likely to be interested in your thought processes and approach than the ultimate solution you propose.

Create a bank of pre-rehearsed answers for standard questions.

Give job hunting dedicated time

Make sure you have enough time in your schedule to invest in your job search process. You should be checking job ads every single day.

Set aside necessary money for travel expenses (you may have to pay fares if the job interview is distant).

Be prepared to get on the bus, train, plane or drive halfway to the moon and back to attend interviews. Be on time, even if it means being an hour early.

Always, always call if you are going to be late or cannot make it – whatever the reason.

Get well informed

You need to treat every job interview as a test of your knowledge – and study for it.

Read articles or borrow books from the library about the industry in which you are seeking a position.

You need to be informed about the main issues facing that industry; the global implications to Australian businesses, the main problems your organisation is likely to be facing in their marketplace – even if it doesn’t directly relate to your particular position. What is government policy relating to that particular industry? What is the ‘bible’ for that industry? Read it!

Follow these tips and you will be prepared and relaxed for any interview, which will significantly increase your chances of getting that job. Good luck in your next interview!