Bullied to death: workplace bullying alleged to be a contributing factor in father’s suicide
According to John Boardman, Director Workplace Relations at iHR, both employers and employees have an obligation to create a safe working environment. If an employer or employee observes inappropriate workplace behaviour, they have an obligation to report this behaviour just as if they discover a trip hazard in the workplace.
An ongoing inquest by the Victorian Coroner into the suicide of a young father highlights the importance of employer implementing and constantly reviewing workplace anti-bullying measures. The young father, who was the manager of a large supermarket’s shelf stacking team at a regional store, was found dead in a grassy reserve near his home in regional Victoria in December 2013. It is alleged that the deceased was bullied daily by a fellow store worker in the months prior to his suicide. The bullying allegations include that the store worker was openly hostile and aggressive towards three employees, including the deceased.
In November 2015 the store worker was jailed for six months after being found guilty under Victoria’s Brodie’s Law (an extension of the application of the stalking provisions in the Victorian Crimes Act to include acts of serious bullying) of bullying two of the three colleagues over a three-year period between 2010 and 2013. This did not include the deceased.
The bullying allegations include;
- making highly offensive and derogatory remarks to the employees’ faces or while they were in earshot;
- swearing at the employees;
- threatening the employees; and
- undermining the employees’ authority and refusing to perform even the most basic tasks.
In sentencing, the magistrate said the bullying made his victims’ lives a “living hell”, and delivered a strong rebuke to the supermarket chain’s handling of the situation and failure to be more proactive in addressing the problems that made the store an unsafe workplace.
WorkSafe Victoria said it had investigated the company over alleged bullying at the store but the agency determined that the company had appropriate policies and took reasonable actions to address inappropriate behaviour, and there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. The decision is now under review by the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions after the family sought an appeal. The company also kept the employee on for a period after he was jailed for bullying, provoking the ire of the Victorian Police Commissioner, who indicated that this sent the wrong message to the victim, fellow employees and the community.
In the case of the bullied employee who committed suicide, the deceased’s spouse has lodged a request with the Coroner’s Court for an inquest into her late husband’s death, amid concerns he was “subjected to sustained workplace bullying without any meaningful intervention by the employer”. It is also claimed that the Coroner is in possession of reports revealing police had identified bullying as a reason for the deceased’s decision to end his life
Irrespective of the outcome of the inquest, such a tragedy highlights the importance of employers doing everything within their power to prevent workplace bullying. Allegations such as this can significantly damage the lives if victims, as well as the employer’s brand, and negatively impact team morale.
John Boardman advises that the ramifications of proven bullying complaints include individual fines as well organisational fines, not to mention irreparable damage to the reputation of the relevant company HR practitioner. Employers can minimise the potential for disputes such as this by investigating all bullying complaints thoroughly and ensuring all employees undertake appropriate anti-bullying training.
Other actions that employers can take to prevent workplace bullying include ensuring:
- all new employees undertaking a formal induction process and all staff having read and understood relevant policies and procedures;
- that bullying policies and procedures reflect current legislation;
- that managers have the skills to address inappropriate workplace behaviour; and
- appointing workplace Contact Officers and providing appropriate training to them.
iHR believe prevention is the best cure. Attend iHR’s Anti-Discrimination and Bullying Training for Managers Workshop to both face-to-face and online to learn how managers can play a key role in preventing and effectively managing bullying and discrimination issues in the workplace, including management techniques and styles that can reduce the risk of workplace issues and litigation.