Recent comments from women in Australian politics show bullying and intimidation are rife in public life. It's a problem in corporate life too. The problem with a culture that accepts, and even encourages, bully behaviour, aside from its obvious nastiness, is that good people eventually say ‘enough is enough’ and move on to some other place that will hopefully respect them and care for their wellbeing. In the case of politics, that means we eventually get a smaller and less talented pool of people to represent our interests.

Research from beyondblue shows bullying is unfortunately widespread in Australian workplaces. From your local retail strip shop right up through to the corridors of corporate power, almost 50% of Australian employees will experience some form of workplace bullying during their lives, according to beyondblue. 

Bully behaviour comes in many shapes and sizes, from the despicable and degrading hazing rituals to which trades apprentices have long been subjected through, to the reputational destruction wrought by whisper campaigns among even the highest levels of executive management. None of it is acceptable. Too many people are hurt, mentally and even physically in some cases. The mental health toll of bullying is substantial, along with the loss in workplace productivity that goes with it.

Changing that culture requires decisive and robust action from leaders.

“Bullying is usually blamed on individuals, or interpersonal problems, or ‘personality clashes’. This is too simplistic. Bullying occurs because of cultural, organisational and structural issues in the workplace,” said beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman, in response to beyondblue’s research findings. 

“Change requires root and branch reform of organisational culture, led decisively from the top by committed, unequivocal, strong leaders and managers.”

Unfortunately, across too many organisations, we too often see little effort put into changing the rotten cultures that harbour and foster bullying. 

The recent revelations of the kinds of bullying that have gone on in the federal Liberal party probably don’t surprise those who know a bit about how the business of politics is conducted. The former Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop acknowledged as much with her recent comments in the wake of the resignation from Parliament of fellow Liberal MP Julia Banks.

“When a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says this environment is not for me, don't say 'toughen up princess', say 'enough is enough',” Ms. Bishop said.

“Politics is robust, the very nature of it, it's not for the faint-hearted,” Ms. Bishop said. “I have seen and witnessed and experienced some appalling behaviour in Parliament, the kind of behaviour that 20 years ago when I was managing partner of a law firm of 200 employees, I would never have accepted… Yet in Parliament it's the norm.”

You may not agree with her politics, but why should Sarah Hanson-Young put up with the degrading, sexist comments levelled at her by Senator David Leyonhjelm? Why would a woman, doesn’t matter what stripe of politics she represents, bother running for Parliament if she’s going to be treated horribly?

Similarly, why would a woman bother to become a board member if she’s going to be ignored or even ridiculed for her contributions? Thankfully, I have not had this experience, but I certainly personally know women who have. These are women who have come onto a board in good faith to share their knowledge and expertise and then either been treated like an adornment at best or as an existential threat to the men on the board at worst.

Seriously, why put yourself forward to run for office or be on a board or become an executive when you are liable to get treated in such an appalling fashion? 

However, it's not only the victims of bullying who lose in these circumstances; the organisations and institutions that do nothing to fix their cultures will ultimately lose out. That's because people who are bullied, including many talented people, both male and female, will simply choose to work elsewhere, for an organisation with a healthy culture that calls out and eradicates bad behaviour. 

Quite simply, organisations that offer a safe and respectful environment will better be able to attract talent, while those that ignore their duty of care will lose out in the recruitment and retainment stakes. Good talent is a valuable asset. Organisations that can't attract that talent because they have a workplace environment and culture with a poor reputation will suffer. They won't attract women, or anyone else for that matter, who wants to enjoy their work.

Organisations that look after their staff will have the edge over those that don't; especially if they're interested in attracting smart women who don't want to put up with the rubbish that still goes on in too many workplaces in regards to bullying, intimidation, and harassment. Call it market forces or just plain decency, but the days of bully culture are numbered.