A conference addressing the scourge of bullying has called on the federal government to give the industrial umpire the Fair Work Commission (FWC) powers to financially compensate both victims and their families for damages suffered in workplace.
This month’s National Council Against Bullying (NCAB) conference, Beyond The Schoolyard, has called for federal legislation to be amended to address what it called “a number of deficiencies” in laws about bullying, including the inability of the Fair Work Commission to hand out compensation to people found to be bullied.
NCAB Chair and former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, said the Fair Work Commission’s current powers did not include measures to financially penalise companies where bullying had occurred. The FWC can issue an order to stop bullying but Mr Nicholson said this was rarely effective.
“Quite often if you’re bullied at work in a small office environment is it really achievable to go to the Commission and ask that the bullying stop?” Mr Nicholson said.
“The chances are that you staying in that environment are negligible. You probably don’t want to go back there anyway. I don’t think it provides an impetus on employers to deal with workplace bullying.”
Mr Nicholson said that victims of bullying who pursued an action for damages under Common Law, often found the process complicated and expensive.
“It relies heavily on mediation and unless you have got someone helping you, you won’t exercise equal bargaining power. The mediation doesn’t work very well and people feel they’re being heavied,” he said.
WorkCover was another route to compensation but Mr Nicholson said he believed it only covered time when people were off work and offered limited lump sums.
He said that a better system would be for the FWC to have the power to assess the extent of damages and award a payment to cover loss of work and psychological damage.
The conference also produced a swag of additional anti-bullying recommendations, including early intervention to stop bullies as young as three years old.
Childhood development expert Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett presented her paper on bullying in settings like childcare centres by children aged 3 to 5 in recognition that pre-schoolers sometimes mount sustained bullying campaigns against other children.
Dr Neilsen-Hewett contended that it was possible to identify systematic bullying at this age, for example, a group of girls deciding to victimise several boys, and that early intervention could stamp out anti-social bullying behaviour before the bully reached school or the office.
Mr Nicholson said it was not about punishment but about trying to change behaviour, particularly because children tended to be more malleable earlier on. The aim was to get early childhood teachers to identify the problem, counsel the bully and change the bullying behaviour.
Other recommendations from the bullying conference included making bullying policies mandatory in all schools and workplaces in every state and territory; creating a specific cyber bullying offence (which the federal government ruled out earlier this year); tackling homophobic and racist bullying and getting young people more engaged in strategies to reduce bullying.