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Bully to you: Defining workplace bullying

feature-bully-200The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment’s inquiry into workplace bullying has delivered some important recommendations which should now be enacted.

The endorsement of a common national definition of bullying – that for it to be called bullying, behaviours have to be repeated, unreasonable in the context, and cause a risk to people’s health and safety – is a significant step forward.

This definition was already essentially in place in most Australian jurisdictions, with some slight divergences, but commitment to a national approach is the only way forward. Perceptions of a definitional quagmire can’t be allowed to detract from preventing this workplace hazard any longer.

Further, the report’s recommendation that Safe Work Australia’s forthcoming National Code of Practice on Workplace Bullying be adopted and embedded in workplaces across the nation is also a step in the right direction.

Codes of practice outline what is known about an issue, and what duty holders should do to fulfil their duties. They are a foundation for everyone involved – business owners, workers, regulators – to know the kinds of processes that should be expected to be in place relative to the scope and nature of the workplace.

Support for the definition and National code are particularly interesting when considering what has recently occurred in Victoria. Victoria is not part of the National harmonisation of work health and safety laws, of which the adoption of common regulations and codes of practice is a part.

Last month, Victoria revised its definition of bullying (it used to mirror the definition that has been recommended above), and significantly rolled back the nature and content of its guidance material.

The ubiquity of national approaches to almost everything in the Committee’s report, leaves Victoria’s position in stark contrast to where the rest of the Nation appears to be heading.

Safe Work Australia is the statutory agency responsible for improving workplace health and safety across the country. It gets the guernsey for carrying out most of the report’s recommendations.

Its recommended tasks include:

  • Developing guidance for employers; developing an accredited training program for managers and health and safety representatives.
  • Producing an annual national statement of progress on managing psychosocial hazards at work.
  • Developing an accredited training program for health and safety inspectors.

Add to that the unenviable cat-herding task of garnering agreement from state and territory health and safety regulators on a uniform approach to compliance and enforcement relevant to bullying. All of these tasks are important, and highlight that bullying is a key health and safety issue.

But these are massive undertakings. Safe Work Australia will need substantial additional resourcing, and consideration of strengthening of its role, process and mandate.

The centrepiece of the report is the development of a National advisory service, which can provide assistance to a range of stakeholders regarding the best available options and resources for them. This is of course a welcome addition, and should go some way to delivering consistent and reliable information without making people feel that there is nowhere to go, or that they’ve been cast onto a carousel.

An independent investigation referral service will assign an investigator an organisation when requested, overcoming real and perceived biases. This is a real step forward in engendering some trust into bullying management processes, which have been beset by conflicts of interest and unfair processes.

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