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Ask Maddy: How to deal with workplace bullying

ANMF (Vic Branch) Assistant Secretary Madeleine Harradence answers your workplace, professional, health and safety and membership questions.

Workplace bullying is a significant psychological hazard and a risk to the health and safety of many nurses, midwives and carers. Everyone has a duty to ensure that workplace bullying does not occur. Everyone should be treated with tolerance, dignity and respect.

It is important to understand that the terms ‘discrimination’, ‘harassment’ and ‘bullying’ have different legal meanings and avenues for redress. Members should contact ANMF for assistance early, as these matters can be complicated. It is possible for a person to be bullied, harassed and discriminated against at the same time. However, unlike ‘bullying’ which must be repeated to meet the definition, ‘discrimination’ and ‘harassment’ need to occur only once for a claim to be made.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination is treating or proposing to treat someone unfavourably because of a personal attribute protected by law. Personal attributes protected under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 include (but are not limited to) disability; parental status or pregnancy; race; age; physical features such as height or weight; sexual orientation; and industrial activity such as raising concerns about work rights or entitlements. Discrimination can occur at staff selection, promotions, rostering and leave approvals. Discrimination can be direct or indirect.

What is harassment?

Harassment involves unwelcome behaviour that intimidates, offends or humiliates a person because of a particular personal attribute such as race, age, gender, disability, religion or sexuality. Sexual harassment is associated with unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It is against the law.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. (WorkSafe Victoria
– A guide to Employers – Workplace Bullying
(March 2020)).

How does bullying occur?

Bullying in health services can occur:

  1. downwards from senior staff/managers to workers
  2. sideways bullying between workers
  3. upwards bullying from workers to supervisors/managers.

Bullying behaviours can be intentional or unintentional and they can be directed at an individual or a group of workers. There are a range of direct and indirect behaviours which, if repeated over a period of time, may form a pattern of bullying.

These include:

  1. abusive, insulting comments or offensive language (this includes face-to-face, phone, email, text messages and social media)
  2. humiliating or putting someone down in front of others
  3. spreading malicious rumours or misinformation about someone
  4. changing work rosters and leave to deliberately inconvenience a particular employee(s)
  5. deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities
  6. excessive scrutiny at work, unjustified criticism or complaints
  7. setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  8. setting tasks that are unreasonably above or beyond a person’s skill level
  9. withholding information that is vital for effective work performance.

What is not considered workplace bullying?

The following is not considered workplace bullying:

  1. a single incident of negative behaviour (however it can potentially escalate so should not be ignored)
  2. low-level workplace conflict – not all conflicts/disagreements have negative health effects or pose a risk to health and safety (but if not managed properly, they can escalate and become bullying)
  3. reasonable management actions conducted in a fair and reasonable manner.

Managers/supervisors are required to undertake management actions at times to effectively direct and control the way that work is carried out and to provide feedback on an employee’s performance. However, these should be conducted in a fair and reasonable manner. Examples of reasonable management actions may include:

  1. transferring a worker for operational reasons
  2. informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance when undertaken in accordance with workplace policies or agreements, such as performance management guidelines
  3. informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
  4. deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process is followed and documented
  5. implementing organisational changes or restructuring
  6. termination of employment.

What can I do if I am experiencing bullying?

If you feel bullied at work, you should seek assistance immediately as advice and assistance can often prevent the situation from escalating.

It is important to keep a written record of your concerns, including details of dates and witnesses, and how it makes you feel. You should also read your employer’s policy concerning bullying and inappropriate workplace behaviour.

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing workplace bullying, you should refer to ANMF’s Workplace bullying – a guide to assist members, available for members only on the ANMF website.

Members can contact ANMF Member Assistance by submitting an online member assistance inquiry form