WORKPLACE bullies watch out

News >> Employment Practices Liability

WORKPLACE bullies could face jail for the first time in Queensland.

Industrial Relations Minister Cameron Dick has announced a new workplace bullying reference group to advise whether laws in Queensland should be strengthened.  In a potential  major shake-up to workplace laws, bosses and staff who victimise workers could be left with a criminal record instead of fines in industrial courts.

It is intended that the group will ensure that Queensland’s framework for dealing with workplace bullying remains valid and effective in modern-day workplaces.

Asked to evaluate tough new Victorian legislation and approaches from other jurisdictions will be the Queensland Council of Unions, a peak retail group, legal and academic experts.Victoria announced legislation to provide jail terms of up to 10 years for workplace bullies.  Bullying at work is a significant social and legal issue with corporations spending vast amounts on training, compliance, insurance and in some case legal fees and financial settlements.

While there are employment liability policies to defend allegations of a mistake made in the process or against allegations, they will not cover proven deliberate breaches of the law.

British papers were full of claims that the young Kate Middleton had been terrorised at school. Back then peer-to-peer harassment in the playground or the dorm was frowned on but usually resulted in victims toughening up or, as appears likely in Middleton’s case, shifting schools. The same occurred in the workplace, where aggressive bosses rarely lost the battle with their employees.

I myself have had many bosses and fellow employees who enjoyed bullying. I handled it once by simply walking out on the company. Another time, I stood up to the bully boss who enjoyed yelling at me and for that I got dismissed. Then if you have sunk into depression you can miss out on the short notice period to lodge an unfair dismissal claim.

If you make the allegations public, or complain to their Boss, despite numerous past examples, they can attempt to sue you for defamation. Even if you successfully defend the matter it will cost you a fortune in legal expenses.

But then your reputation is tainted and it becomes extremely difficult to find new employment. Then, if you are even luckier, they might send threatening letters accusing you of stealing intellectual knowledge and warning you to stay away from their clients.

All of this makes life very stressful, often leading to a loss of confidence and esteem and even depression. It can lead to marriage breakdown and even suicide.

Someone should be held accountable and thumbing your nose up at the present laws is not good enough. Maybe the threat of gaol terms will be a deterrent but I doubt it.

I survived and decided eventually to set up my own business and be my own Boss but not everyone is able, motivated or skilled enough to do that.

In any case most complaints are made under occupational health and safety laws; discrimination laws; or unfair dismissal laws. While perpetrators can already be criminally prosecuted, the Baillieu government’s move brings the behaviour specifically under sections of the Crimes Act covering stalking. It is also aimed at catching cyber bullies.

The laws introduced earlier this year were sparked after the tragic case of Brodie Panlock, 19, who committed suicide after being bullied at work. A court heard that for a year, staff at a Melbourne cafe spat on Brodie, poured beer over her and held her down to drench her with cooking oil.

Mr Dick said Queensland had existing laws to address workplace bullying, but wanted to know if an enforceable code of practice implemented in 2004 was still effective. Victims can complain under several instruments and serious cases, such as assault, are already covered under the Criminal Code.

Mr Dick, who said he watched Brodie’s Law closely, was not convinced Queensland needed to criminalise bullying but would keep an open mind. He wants to check if there are gaps  in the current Workplace Health and Safety laws. He said there were also questions about staff who were bullied after work via social networking sites.

A report will be handed to Mr Dick by December 2011 but whatever changes, I doubt bullying will go away.