ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 9, Winter 2013

The bully’s apprentice

Bully's apprentice

Inexperienced and usually young apprentices are vulnerable to bullying and unlikely to speak up. But the issue hasn’t gone unnoticed and is the subject of research into bullying of apprentices in the workplace.

Workplace bullying can have many consequences for the perpetrator, the victim and the workplace.

Yet bullying at work is still prevalent, and apprentices have been identified as an easy target.

WorkSafe Victoria and the Higher Education and Skills Group of the Victoria Department of Education commissioned ACU Associate Professor of Management, Darcy McCormack to conduct research into the bullying of apprentices.

“Apprentices have two main characteristics that make them especially prone to such behaviour – their relative youth and their powerlessness,” said Associate Professor McCormack. 

The project is looking at why apprentices and trainees who are bullied or harassed at their workplace are reluctant to speak out, as well as why those who witness the bullying and harassment of others are reluctant to take action. The research also helps to identify key influencers that any government anti-bullying strategy or campaign should target.

“The purpose of the project has been to inform government policy making. The research examines [whether] there are any viable enhancements that can be made to government policy that will make it easier for apprentices and trainees to speak out if they experience or witness such behaviour.

“The industries covered in the research included hairdressing and beauty, health care assistants, building and construction, engineering, automotive, and hospitality.” 

The research team comprises Associate Professor McCormack from ACU’s Faculty of Business, Dr Nick Djurkovic from Swinburne University of Technology and Associate Professor Gian Casimir from the University of Maastricht.

“A steering group was established for the project that included the researchers, Higher Education and Skills Group, WorkSafe Victoria, Australian Industry Group, Group Training Association of Victoria, Incolink, Victorian Trades Hall Council, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, and the Victorian TAFE Association.

“We interviewed approximately 50 apprentices and trainees using semi-structured interviews, and then surveyed approximately 330 apprentices and trainees using a quantitative survey. A fully-funded specialist counselling service was made available to the subjects of the research to provide support and advice,” said Associate Professor McCormack. 

The aim of the research was to make recommendations that will lead to policy changes and ultimately result in a reduction of the bullying and harassment of apprentices and trainees.

Workplace bullying can be work-related and include personal attacks, social isolation, verbal threats or spreading rumours. In general, about one in three people are bullied at work. The research found that the apprentices and trainees encountered a range of bullying, varying from subtle harassment to physical attacks. 

“The bullying was found to take many forms – ranging from pranks, taunts, social marginalisation and  intimidation, through to direct and severe abuse, and humiliation. However, most of the behaviour was nonphysical,” said Associate Professor McCormack.

“The effects of the bullying were also wide ranging. They included not wanting to go to work, fear of going to work, feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, nervousness in the presence of the perpetrator, and not knowing what to do. Many of the victims don’t even consider taking action to address the bullying.

“In several cases the main perpetrators were found to be supervisors or bosses and work colleagues. It is particularly difficult for an apprentice, generally someone who is young and inexperienced, to stand up for themselves against someone in a position of power – such as their supervisor or a more experienced colleague.”

“Through the research we have been able to discover detailed information on the nature of the behaviours, the effects of the behaviour on the targets and why the targets often do not speak out. We were also able to determine who the targets are most likely to confide in.

“Some key reasons for not speaking out include fear of exacerbating the situation, fear of job loss and not knowing who they can trust. Among the findings were the critical roles played by parents and close friends – speaking out requires great trust in the individual being confided in. An additional finding was the effects of the support offered by older work colleagues. 

“While we are unable to discuss the recommendations in detail at this stage, the report found valuable information on this important topic and we were able to make recommendations to government regarding anti-bullying training for apprentices/trainees, managers/supervisors and staff of organisations hiring apprentices. We have also made recommendations on the targeting of public education strategies.”

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