THE agency that investigates workplace bullying in Victoria has been accused of fostering its own culture of widespread bullying, sparking calls for an independent inquiry.
An investigation by The Age into WorkSafe has revealed a toxic environment at the watchdog, with staff complaining of being bullied by their bosses and a culture of fear.
WorkSafe’s union has handled almost 100 bullying and stress complaints against the agency in the past five years, with more than 20 so far this year.
Senior WorkSafe staff say they know of eight bullying-related complaints currently before, or heading to, Fair Work Australia.
“People are really scared to talk,” said a recently resigned WorkSafe staff member, one of 20 current and former employees, union workers and safety experts interviewed by The Age. ”How can we tell other people how to deal with bullying in their workplaces when we don’t?”
The Community and Public Sector Union has called for an inquiry into WorkSafe’s culture. The call was backed by a WorkSafe inspector. ”We think the culture’s rotten. I would welcome an inquiry and I would be prepared to give evidence.”
This comes as a key executive – who was accused of bullying and discrimination- resigned suddenly recently.
As the regulator, WorkSafe might be expected to be an exemplary employer, but the treatment of its own 1140 staff throws doubt more broadly on its ability to recognise and tackle workplace bullying, a Baillieu government priority.
Morale has plummeted at WorkSafe, with this year’s employee survey result – one of the worst for years – described as “disappointing” by chief executive Greg Tweedly.
Compared to the Australian average, WorkSafe employees were more likely to feel negative about working relationships, leadership and direction. One in three staff believed management did not care about their health, safety and wellbeing.
The Age investigation revealed widespread distrust of WorkSafe’s approach to internal complaints. When a consultant is commissioned to investigate, the terms of reference and the final report are kept secret from the complainant.
In one case involving a complaint of bullying, the human resources department discussed a ”creative option” of offering redundancy to the complainant. In several cases, the WorkSafe-appointed investigator refused to interview witnesses suggested by the complainants.
Union state secretary Karen Batt said her complaints to Mr Tweedly and the WorkSafe board had gone unheeded, and she now wanted an inquiry into the agency’s culture.
Ms Batt said WorkSafe should call in trained health and safety inspectors from other states to investigate internal complaints. ”The current process means WorkSafe is unaccountable. When the regulator has the problem, where do you go? The staff at WorkSafe should have the same rights as other workers to have their health and safety rights addressed independently.”
Some WorkSafe staff described the general culture as toxic and poisonous. ”The regulator needs to practise what it preaches – and lead the way on workplace bullying,” said one staff member.
An inspector told The Age that one WorkSafe department contained “the biggest bullies in the organisation“. The department
was trying to pressure a long-term inspector who had a significant medical issue to resign. WorkSafe has denied the claim.
Some said bullying existed only in pockets. “I didn’t have the experience of it being widespread,” said a former employee, who was aware of alleged bullying by a director of junior staff.
Mr Tweedly, in an interview with The Age, denied WorkSafe had a bullying problem, backed his managers and described the internal dispute processes as robust. Any complaints, he said, were probably related to “hotspots” of change.
After years of overseeing the best workplace safety statistics in Australia, WorkSafe in 2007 set an ambitious five-year plan, and change, Mr Tweedly said, was necessary to meet these “big, hairy, audacious goals”.
“It’s a tough thing to change people’s jobs and we try to do it with as much empathy as possible, but we are here to serve Victorians and so change is something we are always going to do,” he said. Worksafe’s latest figures show that while its own employees are lodging fewer compensation claims, the cost per claim has doubled due to ”very complex stress claims”.
Jillian Ramsden, who was sacked hours after she lodged a compensation claim for bullying at WorkSafe, is taking her case to Fair Work Australia. “I don’t think I ever felt more isolated in my entire life,” she said of her three-month stint in the health services area. “It is a very toxic, cold, hard place and I suspect it comes from the top.”
Her lawyer, Maurice Blackburn’s Josh Bornstein, said WorkSafe needed fundamental cultural change. He is campaigning for better anti-bullying laws.
WorkSafe’s advisory line was swamped by a 300 per cent increase in calls about workplace bullying after its prosecution of the men who taunted waitress Brodie Panlock at Hawthorn’s Cafe Vamp. The teenager committed suicide, prompting the enactment of ”Brodie’s law”, enshrining workplace bullying in the Crimes Act. But WorkSafe has had less success prosecuting cases that contain no aspect of physical assault – the large spectrum of cases involving behaviour risking psychological harm. WorkSafe has only successfully prosecuted one such case, Mr Tweedly said.
Some staff said the culture worsened with the appointment of a particular executive who had overseen restructures in a division of WorkSafe.
“We witnessed a culture of fear,” one employee said. ”People were intimidated in meetings. On a day-to-day level, people were in tears constantly.”
Manager’s conduct left worker hurt, anxious and depressed
IT STARTED with little things. School teacher-like red pen corrections on the WorkSafe staffer’s work and being isolated in private rooms for one-on-one meetings that normally took place in an open-plan office.
Before long it escalated to aggressive criticism in front of workmates and questions about performance.
In 2009 the employee, suffering from depression and anxiety, lodged a formal bullying complaint against a senior manager at WorkSafe.
WorkSafe, the organisation charged with investigating workplace safety – including bullying – was faced with investigating itself.
The bullying complaints were subject to an independent investigation but not fully substantiated, with the staffer saying she was denied natural justice. More than 10 witnesses the complainant suggested for the probe were not interviewed.
But the story did not end there.
What started as claims of bullying led to allegations of discrimination against a WorkSafe executive.
Around the time of the 2009 bullying investigation, the WorkSafe employee moved to a different section of the authority. About a year later, the complainant was allegedly told by her new manager that an executive had tried to interfere with the change to that new role.
The executive allegedly called the manager while she was travelling to a WorkSafe-sponsored netball match to tell her not to give the bullying complainant the new position.
That conversation was allegedly heard by a third party.
The Age has been told that learning about that phone call left the complainant physically and emotionally unwell, with high levels of anxiety. By April 2011, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and decided to leave WorkSafe.
Before leaving, she lodged a complaint alleging she had been discriminated against for raising the original 2009 bullying allegations, citing the phone call from the executive.
The complainant has asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate after WorkSafe is believed to have told her that it could not make a decision on whether to prosecute itself.
The WorkSafe employee declined to comment on the bullying and discrimination allegations when contacted by The Age but said the safety authority had a ”toxic work environment”.
Agency accused of not working to its own workplace guidelines
YOU’VE probably seen the ads. The contemplative middle-aged father with a back injury slowly returns to work on his doctor’s advice, backed by a broody Dido soundtrack.
The tag line: ”More often than not, helping an injured worker get back to work sooner is the best medicine.”
But does WorkSafe itself listen to its own advice?
The Age has learned of one bullying case where a WorkSafe employee wanted to return to the office while on stress leave to catch up with colleagues but was allegedly told to stay away.
The WorkSafe staffer first reported the bullying in early 2009, with a stress claim accepted.
In a letter to WorkSafe chief executive Greg Tweedly, the staffer told of how she returned to work during a five-week stress leave period to have a coffee with colleagues and start the process of returning to work.
The staffer was told by an email from a WorkSafe executive to stay out of the office.
The staffer wrote to Mr Tweedly in 2010: ”This devastated me and is in stark conflict with the message in your Return to Work advertisements which encourages employers to ring their injured workers with words of encouragement and to make them feel that they are welcome back into the workplace.”
And there’s more.
Based on information contained in a secret personal file, provided to the staffer during the protracted handling of her complaint, the staffer learned of an internal WorkSafe human resources department meeting in early 2009.
That meeting discussed the bullying allegations and the ”creative option” of offering a redundancy as a response. In October that year, the staffer was made redundant.
(A performance review rated as ”needs to improve” was subsequently overturned by a WorkSafe executive.)
Unhappy with her treatment by WorkSafe, the staffer wrote to former WorkCover minister Tim Holding in October 2009, asking him to investigate.
It took Mr Holding’s office nine months to investigate, finding that one of WorkSafe’s agents had provided advice that breached workplace laws, and WorkSafe agreed to change some of its processes on internal allegations.
The staffer summed up her case in the letter to Mr Holding, saying: ”WorkSafe should apply the same guidelines to bullying within their organisation as they are required to do externally.”
[Source: David Rood and Melissa Fyfe September 19, 2011 Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/bullying-alleged-at-worksafe-20110918-1kg5r.html#ixzz1bl0qans8]
And so, I guess it is no wonder that we, workcover victims are bullied to death by our workcover insurance case manager(s)….
A complaint to WorkSafe about bullying by a workcover insurance carrier just gets passed along to the next big bully….