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Workplace bullying by the “mean girls”

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Workplace bullying by the "mean girls"
“Mean Girls” in the Labor Party prompting concerns about workplace bullying

Workplace bullying by the “mean girls”

What is workplace bullying and harassment? Lets explain in some detail.

The death of Labor Senator Kim Kitching has brought spotlight to the issue of toxic workplace culture and workplace bullying. It was alleged that she was extremely stressed due to the unfair treatment she has received from her Labor colleagues leading up to the suspected heart attack. Prior to her passing,

Kitching had made multiple complaints about bullying. Even calling out three big names among her Labor colleagues and referring to them as the “mean girls”. The “mean girls”, including Penny Wong, Katy Gallagher and Kristina Keneally were quick to break their silence on the allegations and deny any bullying claims.

So what workplace conducts are of an acceptable standard and what conducts would cross the line and constitutes bullying? how do you manage parliamentarians who cannot be dismissed between elections?

Bullying at the workplace

When you are subjected to repeated and unreasonable behaviour by a person or a group of people from your workplace, which creates a risk to your health and safety, you are being bullied. Bullying behaviors can be apparent, such as intimidation or verbal abuse from your colleague. On other occasions, bullying can be subtle and hard to tell. For example, you being excluded from work-related events or you being given too much or too little work. In a way, workplace bullying can somewhat resemble the plot of the Mean Girls. The popular group not inviting certain people to social gatherings and distributing rumor’s to damage someone’s reputations.

Harassment, exclusion by the "mean boys"
Isolated at work, being excluded. This is bullying

Bullying versus reasonable management action.

But bullying is to be separated from reasonable management action. Comments or feedback you have received from your manager or your manager placing you on a performance plan may not constitute workplace bullying. If they are for genuine reasons, such as to help you improve your work or to address your performance issues. So your manager can subject you to management actions, as long as the actions are reasonable. The definition of reasonable remains unclear, nor there are any guidelines to assess what actions would be reasonable.

The term “reasonable” infers an objective standard in judging what behaviour would be reasonable or not. However it is not always a clear cut. The intentions behind certain actions can be hard to tell. Even though you may suspect that you are being treated unfairly because your manager or employer dislikes you. They can still cover up by proclaiming that the conduct is management action to address your “poor behaviour or performance” issue at work. The murky distinction between workplace bullying and reasonable management actions can sometimes bring the issue into dispute.

Is Senator Kitching being bullied?

Let’s look back at the Senator Kitching and the Mean Girls saga, is Senator Kitching being bullied? Kitching’s pick by the Labor Party was particularly controversial due to her Right-wing political agenda. As a junior senator, Kitching had been particularly vocal in the senate. She made a substantial presence on issues related to national security and Australia’s relationship with China.

Kitching had encountered some conflict with her Labor colleagues. Particularly Senator Penny Wong, regarding her tough stance on China and campaigning for sanctions on human rights violators. Kitching had been alleged to be isolated and “frozen out” by the Labor Party’s Senate leadership team. She was taken out of the Labor’s tactics committee. Kitching was given fewer opportunities to ask questions during Question time. She was demoted from the front bench.

Bullied to the point of no return. Employee feel like he's been step on
Bullied to the point of no return. Employee feel like he’s been step on.

Being excluded, ignored, given less responsibility

The treatment of Kitching in the Labor Party mirrors workplace bullying behaviors to a degree. This includes exclusion, being ignored, and being given less responsibility. There is a repeated pattern of how Kitching was subjected to unfavourable treatment by her Labor colleagues. However, the reasonableness of such treatments of Kitching stands debatable. The excuse of “tough politics” has been used by the Labor Party in denying any bullying allegations. The bullying complaints were not investigated and still haven’t been. So politicians are held to a lower standard than other workplaces in Australia.

A political party is not like a traditional workplace.

A politics career will inevitably attract pressure and challenges. Being a politician means that you will face contests about your political stance or behaviour on a daily basis. Your every move is placed on the watch and is constantly criticized by voters, the media, the opposition and even your party members. Parliamentary debate becomes part of your duty. Where you will engage in heated debates with your colleagues and politicians about the political agenda policy ought to be implemented or not. (This relates to the workplace as robust debate or discussions).

In the “Mean Girls” defence, conflicts and different voices were usual in the parliament environment and nothing Kitching faced was unreasonable. Although the boundary may not be clear, there is a perception between what is acceptable action for attacking one’s politics, and what is unreasonable for singling one out and bullying one in the party. “Tough politics” cannot be an indefinite excuse to cover toxic behaviour imposed by your colleagues.

Allegedly, other Labor senators had voiced their concern regarding the treatment of Kitching being “disgusting”. And needless to say, the treatment Kitching was subjected to had added to her stress in leading up to the deadly heart attack.

co workers gossip behind her back.  This is a form of bullying
A young woman sits along at coffee break as her co workers gossip behind her back. This is a form of bullying

Bullying risk to health and safety

The risk to one’s health and safety brought by bullying is obvious. Being bullied at work adversely impacts one’s health and wellbeing. The stress, the anxiety, and the self-blaming that come from being bullied. Or excluded by your workmates can place a tremendous toll on your mental health, which in turn will also influence your physical wellbeing. The verbal abuse or intimidation can make you fearful for your safety. For Senator Kitching, it was alleged that the stress she suffered from bullying exacerbated her pre-existing conditions in inducing the sudden heart attack.

So you have been bullied, what next?

For many people, the obvious way of dealing is to speak up and make complaints about the bullying behaviour. Senator Kitching did so. She complained to a workplace trainer about her treatment after a workplace training, saying “What are you going to do about the fact that I am being bullied?” She also raised her concerns about her unfair treatment to other Labor colleagues, including the deputy Labor leader Richard Marles.

It does not seem like Kitching’s comments and voicing have been effective in mitigating the bullying behaviour by her fellow party members. Her allegations of bullying within the Labor Party only came under the spotlight after her sudden death. Even so, the Labor leaders are ready to dismiss any accusations and enquires into Kitching’s treatment and refuse to conduct any formal investigations about the party’s workplace culture.

Complaining about bullying

For many other workers, the revenues for complaining about bullying can be stranded. Bigger companies or organisations might have better anti-bullying policies and formal complaint procedures in place. They may also have human resources or people and culture department in house to deal with complaints related to workplace bullying. They can have the resources and capacity to conduct investigations and implement policies to address bullying behaviors. Dismiss employees where appropriate. Having said that, it is not guaranteed that there would be no bullying in bigger companies, or they would be competent in eliminating workplace bullying.

Small business bullying

People who work in small businesses tend to be more unfortunate when it comes to being bullied. There might not be a human resources department in a small business. They don’t have any procedures in place regarding making complaints and dealing with complaints. Workers in small businesses tend to find that their only way to address their concerns is to speak to their manager or supervisor.

This can become complicated when the very person who bullies you is your manager or supervisor. Speaking up or making a complaint in this circumstance will not only alleviate the unreasonable treatment but can instead exacerbate the bullying behaviour or even lead to the worker being dismissed.  Many people have expressed their concerns about speaking up and making complaints internally in fear of the adverse consequences and look to external resources in seeking help for being bullied.

Targeted bullying. Its a form of mob rules
Targeted bullying. Its a form of mob rules. Employers can get into a situation, they originally ignored this behaviour. Then its out of control, everybody in on the joke or bullying and the employer doesn’t know what to do now.

Fair work anti-bullying avenue

The Fair Work Commission can enforce anti-bullying laws and facilitate conciliation between employees and employers to stop workplace bullying according to the Fair Work Act 2009. Workers can engage the Fair Work Commission to stop bullying by putting in an application to stop bullying or sexual harassment (Form 72). (we can be retained to do this for you)

The application allows workers to explain their circumstances by listing the bullying behaviour they have been subjected to and addressing their concerns about the risk to their health and safety. The employer will also be given an opportunity to provide a response to the employee’s application. After receiving the application, the Fair Work Commission will invite the worker, the employer and potentially any representatives to attend a conciliation conference.

It is a private and voluntary discussion between the parties to encourage dispute resolution. And since it is an informal and private discussion, employees have the proper platform to voice their concerns and advocate for their desired outcome. This can be the implementation of a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, adjustment to workplace procedures, or simply just to stop the bullying behaviour.

If a resolution is not reached during private conciliation, the application would proceed to a formal hearing where a formal order to stop bullying can be made by the Fair Work Commission. A formal stop bullying order offers workers more security in protecting them from workplace bullying and deter any future bullying behaviour. However, it must be noted that the Fair Work Commission cannot order financial compensation for workplace bullying.

help is here
Help is here, give us a call.

Conclusion: Workplace bullying by the “mean girls”

I haven’t written much about bullying in recent times. The death of Senator Kim Kitching, and the controversy surrounding this and brought the issue back into new focus. If there are any positives out of her death, maybe this will change how people / employees treat each other. Bullying impacts can be serious, we know that. Politics’, should not be excluded from fair and just processes and how we treat each other. It is not a blood sport. People who work for political parties, that is their workplace and act within the laws. Politicians are educated people, reasonably well paid, they should get it.

Have a query, been dismissed for complaining about bullying. All Fairwork Matters, probation concerns, abandonment of employment concerns, sick leave, whatever give us a call. advice is free, prompt and confidential.

Call 1800 333 666

Bullying when working from home, click here

Types of workplace harassment, click here

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