Workplace bullying: What you’re up against if you complain

If you listen to information and advice about workplace bullying from government-funded health and safety regulators and other agencies, you could reasonably assume that Australian workers are well protected from bullying by strong laws, clear policies, robust and ethical processes. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Acting on their bullying can be highly risky for employees. The complaints process is far from plain sailing and complainants’ expected outcomes are rarely achieved.

Below is a sample of what you might encounter if you decide to pursue a complaint. It’s information that would be helpful to know before you get started but most of it is currently withheld from victims of workplace bullying.

Others are also deprived of this information, including employers, victims’ families, and health and welfare professionals who support victims.

  • Most employees don’t report their bullying because they believe it will be a waste of time; they either put up with it or resign.
  • Reprisals against a complainant from employers, alleged bullies and their supporters are common, irrespective of whether bullying allegations are justified or substantiated.
  • Most complaints about workplace bullying don’t fit the definition of bullying used by Australian workplace health and safety regulators, thereby leaving many if not most complaints difficult to prove.
  • Most bullying is carried out deviously without witnesses and, therefore, difficult to prove.
  • In most instances, witnesses to bullying, including formerly close colleagues of the complainant, will be reluctant to come forward because of their perceptions that their involvement will jeopardise their own well-being at work.  This is even when they believe the complainant’s allegation is justified.
  • Most complainants do not provide enough detail in their complaint for it to be properly tested via an investigation.  ‘My supervisor regularly bullies me’, for example, isn’t enough.
  • Most employers have little understanding of workplace bullying, how to prevent it and how to deal with it when it happens, so it’s likely they’ll bungle complaints and investigation processes.
  • Managers on whose watch bullying has occurred don’t welcome complaints because they see them as a serious threat to their reputation and careers as do the managers who appointed or promoted a bully to a position of responsibility. 
  • Employers’ responses to bullying complaints will be influenced by their perceptions of who is the greater value to the workplace – the complainant or the bully.
  • Because most bullies are supervisors or managers, generally they can provide a better defence than their victims can present a complaint.
  • An organisation with a culture of bullying will likely cover up the problem rather than address it. This may involve twisting the truth, blaming, demoting or sacking the complainant, and generally making their work life difficult and often intolerable.
  • In some instances, quitting is the safest option for a bullied worker, especially if they’re employed in a toxic workplace where a culture of mistreating staff prevails.

Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces provides detailed explanations of each item and many others you’ll encounter. It aims to address critical limitations in current information and advice so that those most impacted are better prepared to prevent and/or address bullying at work.

Book cover: Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces

Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces by Dr John W. Murphy with Barrie Thomas and Dr Max Liddell is available at leading booksellers worldwide or ask your favourite bookstore.

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