Workplace Bullying – Against the Law?

WorkplaceBullying 10-29-13When I was recently in Australia, I had the opportunity to give a seminar in Canberra (the nation’s capital) about the dynamics of workplace bullying and high conflict personalities. The program was sponsored by the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators Australia – Canberra chapter (see photo with organizers). As part of that program, I also spoke on a panel with a lawyer and a regional director of the enforcement agency for their workplace bullying law. In Australia, it is against the law to engage in workplace bullying or to allow it to continue – which is quite different from the United States, where there are no state or federal laws against workplace bullying (yet!). Several states have such bills in their legislatures, but none have passed yet. The Work Health and Safety Act in Australia states that managers can be personally individually fined from $100,000 to $600,000, depending on how serious the offense. Comcare is the agency in charge of prosecuting those who have violated this tough law. Their regional director explained that companies and individuals cannot insure themselves against such liability. It is a truly personal responsibility and upper level administrators cannot simply claim they didn’t know about bullying – they can be fined if they “should have known.” However, the law is just a few years old, so that no one has yet been found responsible for paying such a fine. But they expect a current case that is progressing through the system may be the first with such strong action.

Apparently, with recent cutbacks in the public sector jobs, there has been an increase in “psychosocial injuries” at work, including bullying and harassment claims. Comcare indicates that such claims are four times higher in the public sector than in the private sector, with a 30 percent increase over the past three years. (The information cited here was reported in the following newspaper article by Noel Towell, Public Service Reporter: Bullying warning for PS managers, The Canberra Times, Sept. 27, 2013.)

Since the United States does not yet have anti-bullying laws, it was encouraging to me to see the strong emphasis on “psychosocial” issues in the workplace in Australia. As a social worker, I was trained to understand and recognize the significance of how people relate to each other in families and at work. One thing I learned was that it takes real consequences to motivate change for patterns of bad behavior – not just a lecture from a counselor or a judge. It will be very helpful to see the progress of consequences and what we can learn from the Australian experience.

One other note: A concern of mine with people who have high conflict personalities (HCPs) is that they often feel that they have been abused when in fact they are the abusive person. So I asked the audience, which included several investigators of harassment and bullying claims, what percent they thought were brought by someone who was actually a harasser or bully themselves. The answer I got was that in approximately 40% of cases, they have a strong concern that the person bringing the complaint may be actually harassing or bullying someone else by bringing the complaint. This is about what I expected. It is not an argument for throwing out such laws, but rather an argument for strengthening the laws to include consequences for complaints brought for frivolous or harassing purposes.

Since HCPs have many cognitive distortions (for more on this, see my book High Conflict People in Legal Disputes), it is important to maintain a healthy skepticism and truly investigate the facts when anyone claims that someone has abused them. In many cases this is true and there needs to be consequences. But in some cases these claims are not true and need to have consequences for false statements recklessly made or knowingly false.

Eyes wide open needs to be the motto when it comes to bullying and any kind of abuse. I learned a lot on this trip and look forward to visiting Australia again next September.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the author of several books, including It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything and BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute, which provides training on managing people with high conflict personalities and personality disorders. His website is: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.