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Workplace Violence & Threatening Behaviour

In July 2016, Eddie Maguire came under fire due to his comment about holding Caroline Wilson’s head under water. Unless you were completely off-line in 2016 or living Henry David Thoreau’s life as documented in Walden, you had an opinion about it, or heard about it. The opinions varied from ‘it’s just a joke’, to feminist vitriol, to calls for Eddie to give up his crown as President of Collingwood Football Club and media personality.

There is no doubt that Maguire went too far, crossed a line. Words like that should never be thought—as I believe that such thoughts hint at an undesirable character —to say nothing of being spoken out loud. But it brings to mind a wider culture within society that it is hard to change. Violence towards women, both external to and within the workplace, is still a horrifying part of our culture; Maguire’s distasteful and thoughtless comments highlight this fact. Within the workplace, women are still exposed to violent tendencies from men who work around them.

Sadly four years after Eddie’s disgraceful comment, when we’re trying to work out how to live and work in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recession, the Black Lives Matter movement and the post Harvey Weinstein conviction reality of the #metoo movement, violence against women is still commonplace.

Public Services International has found that sexual assault, insults, humiliation, discrimination, and contradictory workplace orders or workplace isolation are sadly ‘natural’ aspects of work relationships. What makes this fact even sadder is the realisation that many women are afraid to report their attackers, because they don’t know they can turn to, who they can trust to tell without of fear of losing their jobs. Even worse, some women have got used to it, believing that violence is inevitability, that it ‘is part of their jobs.’

Many years ago when I was a rooky manager I was threatened with violence at work. The business where I worked was being reviewed, supposedly a spontaneous and unannounced review, by a powerful industry expert, a person who was well known and highly influential in this particular city where the company operated. The review was a big deal, and both the owner of the business and the second-in-charge (2IC) were understandably nervous about the outcome. On the day of the review, we got a heads up that it was happening, which I’d discovered through the grapevine, and—as a loyal and dutiful employee—I told the 2IC that I’d heard the reviewer was on their way. The 2IC leaned over me, close, so close I could smell his breath, and whispered threateningly, but with a smile, that if stuffed this up, he would take me out the back and kick my head in.

I was stunned. I didn’t understand where this threat had come from; I thought I’d done the right thing by alerting him. In fact, I was so shocked I actually started to wonder who would believe me if I told them. Who would believe me? The 2IC was a charming, intelligent man and well respected in his profession. I was, after all, still young and naive, and it was my first foray into middle management. Perhaps, I thought to myself, this was the way the employment world turned. I felt that it was my problem to deal with alone as none of my female friends had ever mentioned such experiences at their workplaces.

Now I know what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour at work. Violent behaviour is not, and should never be, ok at work. It is not acceptable behaviour in any workplace. Violence against anyone at work can have a significant impact on both the person in question and the organisation. It can affect the employee's work performance, cause poor physical and mental well-being, lead to time off work and can, at times, result in the person resigning, rather than continue in a place where they feel threatened and unsafe (Office for Women, SA Government).

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) provides a clear picture of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in Australia workplaces. The 2018 National Survey results indicate that 33% of people who had been in the workforce in the previous five years said they had experienced workplace sexual harassment.[5] Women (39%) were more likely than men (26%) to have experienced workplace sexual harassment in this period.[6]

The Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 defines workplace bullying as repeated unreasonable behaviour by an individual towards a worker that creates a risk to health and safety. The Act also identifies intimidation, as well as physical threats of violence, as bullying under the act. The Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 was in part written to ensure that everyone has the right and ability to work in a safe workplace free from violence. The size of the workplace doesn’t matter; whether you’re working in a huge corporate structure or in a smaller organisation, such as my experience.

I now know that there are options available to me as an employee to deal with violent and/or physically intimidating behaviour. I can:

· Go to my direct manager

· Go to a different manager, but with similar authority

· Contact my Union or Industry Organisation

· Contact my state or territory Equal Opportunity Commission

· Contact Work safe in your state or territory

· Contact the Australian Human Rights Commission

· Contact the Fair Work Commission

· Contact the Police

Sometimes, especially when I hear comments like Maguire’s, I feel depressed and I think Thoreau had the right idea: to retreat into the woods, to live apart from society, completely alone and exist solely on what can be foraged nearby.

But I don’t think it would work, I know it definitely wouldn’t work for me. Humans are a social people, and regardless of whether we are introverted or extroverted we still need connections—positive connections—with others. And for many of us, those connections come through the relationships and interactions we have with people in our workplaces.

Workplaces have been identified as key environments in which to undertake preventative action to reduce violence against women and to support women and non-binary individuals who are experiencing or escaping violence. Workplaces can play an effective and important role in supporting all people – no matter what gender you identify as - to remain safe, stay in work and be able to access specialist support services, even when the violence is coming from within the workplace.

Even though workplace violence affects all industry sectors and all categories of workers, Public Services International identifies the health sector – where women make up the majority of workers – as the best illustrator of the seriousness of the situation. The following data is incredibly significant when you consider the COVID-19 pandemic and the health workers who are our last line of defence against this insidious virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calculated that violence in the health sector makes up a quarter of all assaults that take place in the workplace. A recent report from the United States discloses that 54% of emergency nurses reported experiencing violence in the workplace within the seven days of their participation in this study alone.

“When nurses are asked where this violence comes from, they point to patients and visitors on the one hand, and their colleagues and superiors on the other. In fact, work-related violence, and the steady increase thereof, is also due to external factors. It intensifies in situations of war and economic crisis, but it is also a consequence of privatization and austerity measures, which bring with them more deregulation and increased flexibility that translate into violence towards workers in general”.

Enough is enough, to anyone else who engages in violent behaviour that is ‘only a joke’ but in fact demeans, humiliates, threatens, bullies, harasses, discriminates, victimises and assaults other people. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work. And if you don’t feel safe, you now have a list of people outside your workplace you can call.


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