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Bullied to death

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A recent and horrifying example of workplace bullying is that of a 19 year old café worker Brodie Panlock who was, in the words of a newspaper headline, “bullied to death”. Ms. Panlock was physically and mentally bullied by staff at the café where she worked. Examples of bullying include fish sauce being poured over Ms. Panlock’s hair and clothing and the repeated taunting of Ms. Panlock to the effect that she was “fat and ugly”.  Further, the owner of the café failed to take appropriate steps to prevent or stop the bullying. In one instance when Ms. Panlock was being bullied by staff the café owner told them to “take it out the back”.

Ms. Panlock became so distraught by the workplace bullying that she threw herself from the fourth story of a car park and as a result died in hospital.

WorkSafe took action against café staff and the café owner for breaches of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004. Three staff members pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to failing to take reasonable care for the heath and safety of a person and  the café owner pleaded guilty to two charges including failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment. Staff and owner were fined a total of $335,000. The Magistrate said that he would have doubled the fines if the parties had failed to plead guilty.

Employers should note that:

  • The Victorian Government has this month launched the “Respect at Work” campaign that will involve more than 40,000 snap workplace inspections by WorkSafe focused on preventing bullying in the workplace.
  • The NSW District Court recently awarded more than $500,000 in damages to a bar worker who developed a severe psychological condition after being subjected to what found was sustained intimidation, bullying and harassment by her supervisor. The Court found that the bullying had caused ”disabling and ongoing psychiatric problems”.

Figures that highlight the destructiveness of workplace bullying in Australia include:

  • 2.5 million Australians experienced workplace bullying during their working lives;
  • The cost of bullying to Australia measured in terms including loss of productivity and absenteeism is  estimated to be up to $15 billion per year; and
  • The average cost to small and medium business per bullying case is $15,000 to $30,000.

However, bullying can be difficult for an employer to deal with for reasons including:

  • Bullying behaviours can be subtle and subjective and therefore difficult to “pin down”;
  • It is often the word of the victim versus the word of the bully; and
  • Witnesses including the victim are often unwilling to become caught up in the process of investigation.

The case of Brodie Panlock demonstrates that employers need to be proactive and thorough in their approach to preventing workplace bullying or they may face the risk of legal prosecution and significant penalties. Employers should:

  • Have zero tolerance for workplace bullying;
  • Put an anti-bullying policy in place;
  • Provide training to ensure that staff are aware of their rights and responsibilities and can take appropriate action if bullying problems occur; and
  • Make sure that they take steps to address bullying even if it is thought that taking such action will not be “easy”.

Please contact one of our Workplace Relations lawyers if you wish to discuss your current workplace policies/procedures/training requirements or if you have a current workplace bullying problem.

Author: James Hooper