Media Release: It will take more than legislation to break the bullying cycle from school to work


This Monday 3 June is ‘Know Bull’ Awareness Day and there is no doubt that as a nation we are becoming more aware, and less tolerant, of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

In recent years we have seen governments begin to take bullying seriously and legislating against this damaging practice. It began here in Victoria in 2011 when Brodie’s Law was brought in following the suicide of Brodie Panlock, who had been subjected to serious workplace bullying. At the federal level, Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has announced that anti-bullying legislation will be introduced imminently.

Both governments should be applauded for taking measures to deal with bullying and especially for recognising that bullying should be a criminal offence not just something that’s generally frowned upon. But, prosecuting incidents of bullying after they’ve taken place does little for the victims.

Instead, industry and workplaces should take it upon themselves to prevent bullying before it becomes entrenched.

This is easier said than done, as any boss who has had to manage a bullying allegation in their workplace knows. The ‘he said she said’ nature of bullying makes it very hard to act with certainty to find a resolution.

Eradicating bullying behavior from workplace is a Herculean task but something must be done to stem the rising tide of bullying incidents which are being reported. According to the Bully Free Australia Foundation as many as one in every 10 employees across the country are being impacted by bullying.

Our organisation, which is a network of employers of apprentices and trainees across Victoria, has taken the step of partnering with the Bully Free Australia Foundation to put in place a program to prevent bullying among new entrants to the workforce.

We hope that by educating and supporting the current generation of apprentices and trainees we can arm them with the communication skills and confidence to avoid, or at least to cope with, conflict in the workplace.

It’s easy to forget that apprentices and trainees are still young, even though they are entering the adult world of work. They aren’t just learning trade skills they are also learning how to behave and fit in in the workplace. And so these young adults need support and guidance to develop healthy working relationships with their bosses and colleagues.

Conflict in the workplace looks different to the types of bullying young people may have been exposed to at school. More often than not these days bullying among school children happens online, like sending inappropriate images on Facebook or harassing kids on Twitter. But for apprentices and trainees, and other employees, bullying is more likely to take the traditional forms of verbal or physical harassment.

By teaching apprentices and trainees to recognise bullying behaviour early on we can set them up to better avoid being subjected to and dishing out unacceptable behavior at work throughout their careers.

Our partnership with the Bully Free Australia Foundation, will include training a network of 200 field officers who mentor our 8500 apprentices and trainees across the state. This training will provide them with new ways to support both the apprentices and their employers to prevent bullying and to help them negotiate positive working relationships.

Sadly, workplace bullying is not an uncommon problem for apprentices and trainees, and can drive some young people to drop out of their training program altogether.

A study from the National Council for Vocational Education Research found that almost a quarter of apprentices and trainees who dropped out did so because they felt they had been bullied at work. Some of these apprentices described being criticised or felt they had not received positive feedback on their training. Even when bullying is not a factor, problems with the employee/employer relationship are by far the most common reason for apprentices and trainees to drop out, accounting for 86% of non-completions.

Taking on an apprenticeship is a big commitment for young people, it involves three to four years of work and study. It’s also a significant time and financial investment from their employer, so it is in the interests of everyone involved that the apprentice can work and learn in a positive workplace. Improving the relationships between apprentices and their employers will help to prevent non-completions.

If government is serious about improving apprenticeship completion rates it should get behind this initiative to support young people in continuing their training by equipping them with the communication and relationship skills they need to succeed at work.