If you continue to use the word “bullying” when referring to all inappropriate workplace behaviour, the debate won’t progress, says Joe Catanzariti, head of Clayton Utz’s Workplace Relations practice.
“Bullying is a funky term and the more often we use the term the more confusing the debate becomes,” said Catanzariti. “We want to move to a situation where any inappropriate behaviour is looked at. But we can’t do this with use of the word bullying,” he said.
Catanzariti said the word “bullying” evokes schoolyard images and is perhaps more applicable to blue collar workers. “We need to uplift the debate to the white collar world and look at what’s happening there,” he said.
White collar workers have become clever at circumventing discrimination laws by removing the sexual or racial element from their inappropriate workplace behaviour, Catanzariti said. “In the workplace environment we get very bad conduct by employees against each other, but when a victim lodges a sexual discrimination complaint, the action is likely to be unsuccessful because nothing in the matter fits the legislation.”
The solution is not to try and define bullying and then legislate against it, but to legislate against inappropriate conduct itself, he said. “By saying that one defined form of conduct is inappropriate you imply that all the other the forms of conduct you haven't legislated against are acceptable,” Mr Catanzariti said. “Workplace legislation should make it possible to dismiss employees engaging in what common sense would tell anyone is inappropriate conduct.”
Catanzariti also suggested that another way to deter inappropriate work place conduct would be to clearly set out types of behaviour that would lead to termination of employment. “In my view, if we codify inappropriate behaviour by setting out valid reasons for dismissal — then the conduct would drop off,” he said. Employees need to know they will lose their job if they engage in a certain type of conduct, even if they’ve been employed by the same company for 28 years, he said.
Another problem with the bullying debate, according to Catanzariti, is that it has come up in the context of unfair dismissal claims where the “bully” is seeking reinstatement with the employer.
“As it stands, I've seen employees sent back to work after winning unfair dismissal proceedings even though no reasonable person would disagree that their behaviour had been reprehensible. What recourse is there then for the victim, but to leave his or her job?”