March 12, 2020

A new target for workplace bullying: older workers

It goes without saying that we all know the ‘app store’ is not a real place. But Patrick (not his real name) didn’t know that. There was a running joke in the office about the time he wondered aloud when Apple or Telstra or whoever ran them was going to open an app store in his suburb.

Patrick was a seasoned veteran of the media and marketing industry. A walking encyclopedia of grammar, history, politics and wisdom. But his workplace was changing rapidly, with a younger, digitally savvy workforce taking over. He didn’t know how to tweet, or why you’d want to, he had tried valiantly but couldn’t get his head around web self-publishing.

“Maybe it’s time to retire, Patrick”, became an oft-repeated phrase in the office.

Ageism at work

Patrick, like thousands of workers in Australia in the older age bracket, are being laid off, forced to retire or being sidelined into mundane roles to encourage them to think about calling time on their career. The modern workplace is supposed to enable and support diversity and inclusion. But this is not always the reality.

A national survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) in 2015 revealed more than a quarter of Australians aged 50 years and over had experienced age discrimination in the workplace during the past two years.

Fuelling this is a form of age discrimination based on stereotypes about older people: too slow, don’t learn fast enough, their skills are outdated and so on.

Discrimination often becomes bullying, and ageism as a form of discrimination is perhaps one of the more subtle but no less damaging forms of workplace bullying that is an unacceptable safety issue that can damage a person’s mental and physical health.

What is bullying?

To understand if a person’s behaviour is bullying, the behaviour must be:

  • Repeated: it’s persistent over time.
  • Unreasonable: it involves actions that are victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening.
  • A risk to health and safety: this includes psychological distress.

Bullying can be confused with harassment or discrimination but can also be a combination. Such as when a person has been treated poorly because of a personal characteristic, like their age, and that is protected under anti-discrimination laws.

The Human Rights Commission survey found cases where older people had experienced bullying in the forms of social exclusion, constant belittling, excessive criticism and some instances of derogatory language and name-calling.

Denial of access to flexible work arrangements, reduced career progression and a sense of being targeted for redundancies during organisational restructures were also reported as forms of bullying.

At Foye Legal, we are seeing cases of older workers being pushed out, overtly or subtly through unachievable targets or role changes. In one case, a person resigned because they suffered depression as a direct result of their boss setting unachievable goals: the person was set up to fail, with damaging consequences for their mental health. This is not acceptable and is a breach of the employer’s responsibility.

A positive workplace

Why does it happen? Negative attitudes and stereotypes abound across society, so chances are that attitudes in the workplace are simply a reflection of a more commonly held views. In a culture that worships youth, it manifests as an attitude that signs of age mean you are no longer useful. Given we’re working to 65-plus, it’s common for workforces to span multiple generations.

A workplace with poor or no corporate values, lack of employee training around inclusivity and respect in the workplace is a one-way street to a toxic work culture that allows ageism – and other -’ism for that matter, racism, sexism and so on, to flourish.

Developing workplace values sound like a complicated affair, but here’s a start: a fair go. Isn’t that a value that Australians relate to and can endorse?

Workers compensation

If you think you are being bullied, first look up your employer’s policies to see what procedures you need to follow to make a complaint. Outside of any formal avenues you need to go down, here are three things you can do to help you through the process, particularly if you want to lodge a compensation claim.

  • Document everything: keep a diary of events, including any action you’ve taken.
  • Get support: look for support services, such as those through a union that may offer an avenue to talk to someone and help you manage the emotional toll.
  • Seek advice: if you don’t feel you are getting the answers you need, seek legal advice. Someone who is experienced in workplace law and compensation will be able to give you confidential advice and information about what laws your employer may have broken and whether you may be able to sue them for compensation.

Everyone has the right to have a workplace free from bullying. As lawyers, and as a firm, Foye Legal is committed to helping create fair and equitable workplaces and protect people’s rights.

Story By

Diana Foye