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HG Paper: Eliminating Workplace Bullying and Harassment - Apr 2009

Like most Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) risks, the ‘elimination’ of the risk of bullying (or ‘harassment’ – for present purposes the terms are interchangeable) from workplaces is, theoretically, straightforward.
Putting aside for one moment the ‘5 pillars’ of the risk management process identified in legislation and related materials (for a primary statement of the ‘5 pillars’ see section 27A (1) Workplace Health and Safety Act 1995 (Qld); for ‘workplace harassment’, see Prevention of Workplace Harassment Code of Practice 2004), effective elimination of the risk of bullying and its consequences from the work environment requires two things:

  • firstly, the establishment of appropriate risk management systems and processes; and
  • secondly, their rigorous application.

Within the ‘5 pillars’, the establishment of systems and processes incorporates hazard identification, assessment of risks, development of controls, and monitoring and review of the system), while their application picks up implementation of the controls.

Of course there ends the simplicity. At least three difficulties arise that are not necessarily common to the management of other safety risks.

Firstly, the nature of ‘bullying’ is that it is the kind of behaviour that can be difficult to identify as occurring. In many cases, differing perceptions will mean that what one person regards as ‘bullying’, another will regard as inoffensive or wholly appropriate or both. In other cases perpetrators might attempt to disguise deliberately malicious behaviour in some other, ostensibly legitimate, process.

Secondly, unlike some other forms of more discrete risks, bullying is impossible to isolate as a ‘stand-alone’ or ‘once-off’ risk. Unlike installing a guard on a particular machine or designing a specific process for the safe undertaking of a specific hazardous activity, the system for managing the risk of bullying has to cover the entire organisation – from CEO to nightwatchman and everyone in between (including contractors).

Thirdly, various other ‘formal’ business systems and processes – usually with little or no safety focus at all – have the potential to give rise to bullying incidents. The result is that each of these systems and processes must incorporate the bullying system controls, and, the bullying risk management system must accommodate them. In other words, any business system for dealing with people needs, at some point, to recognise and deal with the risk of bullying incidents and, where necessary, feed into the bullying risk management system.

In organisations that have a proper appreciation of their obligations, problems arising out of bullying incidents do not generally occur because the employer has failed to establish appropriate systems and processes. Rather, problems occur because something has gone wrong in the application of a relevant process.

This paper looks at both systems and processes on the one hand, as well as their implementation on the other. At the end of the paper, some real life cases and endeavours are considered to draw on some practical observations, to illustrate what can go wrong and why, particularly in the implementation of relevant systems and processes more so than in their establishment.

While each of the states and territories have their own regulatory systems applicable to workplace bullying or ‘harassment’, this paper is based on the law in Queensland.

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