The devils you know: the impact of workplace bullying

May 1st, 2017

At one of the first Christmas parties that Peta went to after joining the real estate industry, she was beckoned over to be shown a video on someone’s phone.

It depicted a bestiality scene involving a woman and a horse.

“It was shocking. Everybody was laughing and it was clear to me that this was something that I also needed to find funny too if I wanted to fit in with this group,” she says.

“Due to the long working hours, people didn’t have much of a social life outside of work and spent lots of time with each other. I was grateful for the social life and wanted to fit in.

“The industry was very male dominated and many of our interactions were based around alcohol. There was a fair bit of hazing.”

After Peta was promoted, the bullying got worse.

“That’s when the ‘gaslighting’ really started. Despite being a high performer, I was publicly criticised every Friday at the leadership meeting. It was a kind of ritual shaming and humiliation,” she says. “I learned to constantly blame myself and agree with the perpetrators. ‘I will try harder’, I told them. “When staff left the organisation, I was told it was my fault. When new staff joined the office, they were forewarned that I was ‘difficult to work with’.”

As time went on, Peta was told not to attend team meetings. She wasn’t invited to Christmas parties or whole team parties, either. She was deliberately ostracised.

“By the end of 2010, depression overwhelmed me. I had a perpetual, anxious fear of everything and couldn’t get out of bed. My doctor put me on medication. Even today, I still suffer PTSD from everything that happened,” she says.

“The company fired me and I took it to the Fair Work Commission, but it didn't turn out in my favour.”

Employment lawyer Josh Bornstein has heard many such stories.

Over more than a decade, he has handled hundreds of workplace bullying cases.

“People are capable of great good and people are capable of great evil,” says Bornstein, the national head of Employment Law for legal firm Maurice Blackburn.

“You can try to find very sophisticated reasons for workplace bullying, but sometimes it's about just something as banal as personal dislike or jealousy, and then a desire to bring someone down.”

Under our legal system, Bornstein explains, workplace bullying is constituted by repeated unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or employees that poses a risk to their health or safety.

Bornstein notes he’s turned away more clients than those he’s acted for.

“Not everybody can afford to see a lawyer in the private sector. There's a huge unmet demand for legal assistance for people who suffer workplace bullying,” he says.

Precisely how common is a matter of some dispute. A 2012 federal government report into workplace bullying suggests its prevalence in Australia cannot be determined because of a lack of data.

A more recent study conducted by mental-health advocacy organisation beyondblue and the University of Wollongong found almost half of Australian workers will experience some form of workplace bullying during their careers.

To access the full report click on the special report Devils you know

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