When does 'rough and tumble'​ become bullying?

The top two results returned in a Google News search I ran last week on the term bullying linked to the following headlines: “Parents say their ‘bashed boy’ is a victim of bullying” and “Hancock: This isn’t bullying, this is democracy”. The difference between these two circumstances couldn’t be more stark. And the two headlines are an example of why the term bullying is becoming increasingly meaningless, when it’s never been more important to be clearly understood. At one end of the spectrum we have parents going through unimaginable horror with a child in a coma, arguably as a result of bullying and at the other end is a female member of parliament effectively calling her colleagues weak for stepping down from their roles in the face of bullying, for giving up. The space between these two categorisations of bulling is cavernous.

In the last couple of weeks alone, we’ve seen and read story after story with ‘bullying’ in the headline. From suicide rates in schools linked to bullying, to three Liberal women quitting due to bullying from their own colleagues, to the bad behaviour of a group of grown women belittling other women’s appearance and behaviour on the reality TV dating show, The Bachelor.

So, when faced with such broad use of the term, across so many different circumstances, what does bullying actually mean? When is something bullying and when is it robust engagement? When is it unprofessional communication and when is it criminal? When is it just two people who don’t like each other all that much engaging in the ‘rough and tumble’ of a tough workplace such as the parliament and when does it trigger legal rights?

What is bullying in the workplace?

From a workplace perspective, the definition of bullying is quite clear. Someone may be bullied at work if a person or group of people repeatedly act unreasonably towards them and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. All of the usual tests apply about what is reasonable and what is not – what would a reasonable person believe in the circumstances? A risk to health and safety clearly includes mental health, but does not include reasonable management action.

Employees who have been bullied can seek redress through the Fair Work Commission or the state health and safety regulator. There are also certain states which contain anti-bullying legislation in their Crimes Acts, such as Victoria’s Brodie’s Law which was introduced after the suicide of Brodie Panlock following relentless bullying in her workplace.

What steps should we take to prevent bullying?

1.      Address it - Whenever I deliver training to teams about anti-bullying, I encourage them to address the behaviour directly, as soon as they can. I talk about the snowball effect – one little comment or barb might not be a big deal, but as the behaviour continues, each event rolls up with the last and the snowball gets bigger and faster and eventually there is no stopping the thing. Act early, have the uncomfortable conversation – the person may not understand the effect their behaviour is having on you. If this doesn’t resolve things, talk to your manager or HR Department or Health and Safety Representative.

2.      Prepare for it – workplaces should ensure they have robust policies in place that set the standard for behaviour in the workplace and that everyone is trained on these expectations. If you have events in the workplace that might result in times of increased stress, such as major change or projects, ensure there are adequate support mechanisms in place such as an Employee Assistance Provider and systems to monitor employee health and safety. Ensure you have clear reporting and response procedures in place.

3.      Set a standard – the saying, the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept was used to great effect by Lieutenant General David Morrison when addressing sexism in the Army in a speech that went viral in 2013. It applies here. If you want a workplace free from bullying, make sure you are modelling what behaviour is acceptable and calling out any behaviour you see that doesn’t meet that standard. A simple “hey, that’s not on, we don’t speak to people that way here” when you come across an exchange that’s not acceptable can be enough to start changing the tone and culture of a workplace. 

If you would like some advice on how to combat bullying in your workplace or training for your workers, drop me a line and we can talk about how Corvus Group can assist.

kim@corvus.com.au or 0427 214574