What HR can learn from teenager’s tragic death

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Stamping out workplace harassment is high on the agenda for many HR professionals – but what if victims refuse to speak up? The tragic case of Alec Meikle proves that employers must actively promote a no-tolerance policy – even in the absence of any official complaint.

The 17-year-old Australian committed suicide after allegedly suffering months of abuse from senior colleagues at Downer EDI’s – his parents are hoping their son’s untimely death will raise awareness of the workplace bullying.

“The Coroner noted Alec's treatment at Downer was a substantial contributing factor to his depression,” they said in a statement. “We hope the media attention surrounding this matter, and having the evidence heard publicly, leads to a greater awareness of the possible devastating consequences of harassment.”

An inquest into the circumstances surrounding Meikle’s death heard allegations that employees at the train manufacturer told Alec explicitly that he would be violently sexually assaulted if he made too many mistakes on the job.

It was also reported that Alec has been burnt with a welding torch, sprayed with adhesive spray and had his welding mask sprayed with flammable liquid so it would catch fire while he was working.

Alec confided in his father about the abuse but said he was keen to handle the issue himself – “he wanted to be a man,” explained his father.

Joydeep Hor, managing principal at People + Culture Strategies, says leaders should not get “too caught up in complaints having to be formalised or go through a particular process.”

“If you have slightest inkling – even through gossip – that bullying is occurring in your workplace, you’re better investigating it rather than turning a blind eye,” he said.

Hor also said that Meikle’s is an example of the sad reality there remains an unspoken code of silence in many industries. 
“In certain industries, people know they can make complaints but they’re worried about being victimised as a result,” he explained.

“Mega corporations will generally be able to tick all the boxes, but often when dealing with remote locations…people don’t know these policies exist or look to comply with them.”

Hor added that employers must ensure all employees are aware that when anti-bullying policies are breached, serious steps will be taken to penalise it.

“It’s important not only that bullying is openly spoken about, but that it is made it clear through training that it will not be tolerated in your organisation,” he said. “Employees need to know that if they are found to be bullying they will lose their job.”

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