Let’s all stand up to the bullies

Parents may be able to sue schools that fail to act when their  children are bullied. Photo / NZ Herald

Bullies beware. Beware also those who allow bullying to take place in the environments over which they have control.

Two unrelated news stories this week should have served as a sobering warning to both groups of people.

In the first, Dr Janis Carroll-Lind, principal adviser to Children’s Commissioner John Angus, told a forum on bullying in Auckland that parents may be able to sue schools that fail to act when their children are bullied. That’s because schools are what lawyers call in loco parentis – literally, in the position of a parent – and therefore are accountable in the same way as a neglectful parent would be accountable.

The very next day, a report appeared of a study, in which Auckland, Massey and Waikato universities had collaborated, showing that one person in five had experienced bullying in the workplace.

Tellingly, the levels of bullying were found to be notably higher in the education and health sectors, where one might have expected an ethos of care to prevail.

Both reports should be sounding warning bells in the corridors of management. Workplace bullying imposes intolerable stresses on its victims and, like sexual abuse within families, it can be self-perpetuating because the person inflicting the harm is more powerful than the person enduring it. Victims of workplace bullying typically do not make an official complaint, for fear of making matters worse when they are disbelieved and their tormentors’ denials are accepted.

There is plenty of legislative firepower on the side of employees in this matter. The landmark 1995 case in which the Department of Labour prosecuted the insurance company FAI Metropolitan Life related to an employee who had suffered the debilitating injury known as occupational overuse syndrome (OOS). Fifteen years later it would be a very foolhardy employer indeed who did not ensure that employees’ workstations and work practices were up to standard.

But what that case also underlined was the responsibility imposed by the Health and Safety in Employment Act of 1992, which requires employers to “take all practical steps to provide and maintain for employees a safe working environment”.

It’s a requirement that anyone would take for granted when it applied to making sure stairs were not slippery, for example, or toilets were cleaned or a vehicle fleet was well maintained. But it will not require any great jurisprudential leap to find that allowing someone to be bullied in your workplace is no less grave that putting them at risk of falling down the stairs.

The law alone is not enough to deal with the problem, of course, and neither should it be. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once told a story of his schooldays in which he found “a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy”.

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