EXCLUSIVE: The Corporate “Karen” Epidemic: Rise in Workplace Bullying Leaves Employers with $36 Billion Bill

We’ve all crossed paths with them – the infamous corporate “Karens” unleashing chaos in workplaces through a medley of bullying and intimidation tactics.

From subtle power plays like flooding inboxes with cc’d higher-ups to unrestrained temper tantrums that leave staff in tatters, these workplace maestros of misery know no boundaries in creating an office inferno.

Mastering the dark arts from gaslighting to gossiping, these corporate nightmares are proving to be the stuff of escalating challenges for employers, as research suggests their impact is soaring, especially Down Under.

The latest World Risk Poll reveals that Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of workplace bullying, with a staggering 47.9% of people experiencing some form of harassment during their career. Credit: Shutterstock.
The latest World Risk Poll reveals that Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of workplace bullying, with a staggering 47.9% of people experiencing some form of harassment during their career. Credit: Shutterstock.

The latest World Risk Poll reveals that Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of workplace bullying, with a staggering 47.9% of people experiencing some form of harassment during their career.

Adding to this workplace drama is the jaw-dropping cost, estimated at a whopping $36 billion annually, as reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

But who exactly is a “Karen,” and how can you effectively manage these workplace disruptors?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines “Karen” as a pejorative term that has stormed into the corporate lexicon. Picture a middle-aged woman exuding an air of superiority and entitlement, who’s hell-bent on micromanaging and policing the behaviour of those around her.

The term rose to prominence in 2019, fuelled by a wave of viral memes.

Australia is one of the top 10 countries with the most Karens, according to a study by UK business comparison company Bionic. It ranked 7th globally with at least 70,000 Karens wreaking havoc across the nation. The US, which has a vastly larger population, came in 1st with a whopping 1.5 million Karens.

Adding to this workplace drama is the jaw-dropping cost, estimated at a staggering $36 billion annually, as reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Credit: Shutterstock.
Adding to this workplace drama is the jaw-dropping cost, estimated at a staggering $36 billion annually, as reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Credit: Shutterstock.

Veteran human resources manager “Teresa,” who spoke to BACKCOVERNEWS.COM under the cloak of anonymity, revealed that bullying complaints at the media company where she works have skyrocketed by a staggering 60% in the past year alone.

“Bullies or ‘Karens’ are a universal menace and it’s important to note that men can be Karens too,'” Teresa said.

She underscored how the ongoing cost-of-living crisis has become a catalyst, providing bullies with a tool to exploit the vulnerability of individuals who desperately cling to their jobs in a struggling economy.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recognises workplace bullying in all its forms – verbal, physical, social, or psychological abuse by employers, managers, or even colleagues.

Each year more than 7000 Aussies are compensated for work-related mental health conditions, according to Safe Work Australia. Over a five-year period, 41% of these claims were attributed to harassment, bullying or exposure to violence.

In Australia, employers have a legal obligation under the Fair Work Act 2009 to provide a safe and healthy work environment, which includes preventing workplace harassment.

Some states and territories have also enacted their own occupational health and safety laws that require employers to take steps to prevent and address workplace harassment. However, there is no federal or state legislation that specifically mandates harassment prevention training.

Last week, the government’s Closing Loopholes Bill, which promises to make workplaces safer, passed in the Senate.

While laws to discourage workplace bullying have been strengthened in recent years, employment experts acknowledge other protective measures are sorely needed.

A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations recognised that more needs to be done to combat violence and harassment at work.

“The Australian Government condemns all forms of workplace violence and harassment, including bullying and sexual harassment,” they said.

“Workers should never have to choose between their safety and their pay.

“Workers can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop bullying and sexual harassment at work. They can also report cases of bullying and sexual harassment to the workplace health and safety regulator in their state or territory in addition to Commonwealth, state and territory human rights and equal opportunity commissions.”

Clinical psychologist Sarah Purvey said the impact of workplace bullying can be detrimental as it can affect sleep, appetite, motivation, relationships and coping skills, according to health insurance company HCF. These symptoms can contribute to depression and anxiety.

“If workplace bullying is causing any of these symptoms or if you’ve started dreading going to work, it’s time to address the issue,” she said.

Researchers at the University of South Australia say they have developed a novel diagnostic and response solution to address the need for more protective measures, providing a simple, evidence-based approach to recognising and addressing bullying issues in Australian workplaces.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Michelle Tuckey, previously said the key to curbing workplace bullying lies in understanding such behaviour can rarely be blamed on isolated individuals.

“Workplace bullying is often mistaken as a problem between staff members, an interpersonal problem, when evidence shows it’s really a reflection of how the organisation functions,” Assoc Prof Tuckey said.

“It’s a cultural issue, a systems issue – if you have a healthy culture and healthy systems, then you don’t get a lot of bullying, but if you don’t have that culture and those systems, bullying is more common.”

Building on six years of research, Assoc Prof Tuckey and her team have devised a method to help businesses develop the sort of cultures that prevent bullying at work.

“We’re taking a safety risk management framework and treating bullying as a work health and safety hazard, following the normal risk management approach, which is to identify hazards, assess the level of risk, implement risk controls, and then monitor and evaluate,” Assoc Prof Tuckey says. “An important feature of our approach is the involvement of staff and managers in each stage.”

During 2021–22, Australian agencies recorded 627 complaints from employees about individual types of harassment and bullying. This represents a slight increase on the number recorded in 2020–21 (615 complaints against individual types of behaviour), according to government data.

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