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Interpersonal relationship aspects of the practicum


This discussion looks at issues arising from the interpersonal relationship aspects of the practicum, specifically bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, and strategies for handling these. Bullying and harassment are dealt with together, while sexual harassment is dealt with separately. While bullying and harassment are similar behaviours, harassment is usually directed at an individual because of race, gender or some other ‘difference’, and bullying tends to be non-discriminatory – anyone will do. Information about how to deal with isolation, or ‘feeling left out’ in the workplace is also included. Deliberate isolation of an individual by other workers constitutes bullying.

As with all aspects of your placement, preparation and adequate information can help you handle interpersonal relationships in the workplace. If problems do arise, however, you need to take the initiative to overcome them early.

Two basic strategies for dealing with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the practicum are:

  1. Be well informed and aware of your rights: legislation - look for laws the bully may have broken, e.g. laws against discrimination, sexual harassment or physical assault; the workplace Codes of Conduct; the University’s and your professional association or union’s policies and procedures in relation to bullying and sexual harassment. Refer to Your Work Your Rights that provide this information. You may find these conflict resolution tips useful.
  2. Take the initiative - do something about it. Again, Your Work Your Rights provides advice to help you address these issues.

How comfortable would you feel about taking direct action to overcome conflict in your work placement? Read the article ‘Conflict is the problem; confrontation is the cure’, fill in the survey at the end of it, then put your thoughts into your Portfolio.

Two basic strategies for dealing with isolation/feeling left out are:

  1. Make a special effort to communicate with other staff members in a friendly manner – share your stories and food, seek their advice on how things are done in the workplace, and try to set up a support network.

  2. Seek help from the workplace supervisor and the practicum coordinator.


Bullying is intended to intimidate or harass someone. Generally it involves persistent behaviour, although a single incident can be enough to destroy a person’s confidence, particularly in a new environment. Despite common perceptions, bullying is not just a ‘blue-collar’ phenomenon. It is also common in white-collar environments such as teaching, social work, health professions, public administration, banking and insurance.

Some workplace cultures may have ingrained bullying behaviours, and people who have worked in that environment for a long time may accept this as normal. Bullying may be overt, such as throwing objects, shouting abuse or threatening disciplinary measures, or covert, such as belittling someone behind their back, continually ignoring them or placing unreasonable demands on them. It may take the form of:

  • Verbal, physical or written harassment - sarcasm, threat, intimidation, verbal abuse, bad mouthing, physical or indecent assault, stalking, sending obscene material through the mail and making nuisance phone calls, or sending offensive emails.
  • Manipulation.
  • Isolation - deliberately excluding someone from consultation or communication. Failing to return phone calls or respond to memos. Rumour mongering so no one will speak to you. Cutting you off from support systems. Cutting you out of the social network.
  • Assignment to unpleasant work, constantly changing work goals, setting impossible deadlines or targets.
  • Inappropriate or unfair criticism, or punishment. Acting in a condescending manner.
  • Discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.

For a more in-depth description of bullying and sexual harassment, look at Bullying At Work as well as the Australian Public Service Commission legislation relating to maintaining a harassment free workplace.

Besides the main strategies for dealing with bullying given in the introduction, you can also seek input from other employees or work placement students, seek support from personal networks - fellow students, family, friends, co-workers - and change the way you respond to the bullying. Where it takes the form of teasing or practical jokes, try responding with humour. You may also suggest to the supervisor that he/she draws the workplace management’s attention to resources such as ‘Help managers reduce bullying’ and ‘Bully free workplaces’ to seek effective strategies for reducing and dealing with bullying.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is harassment of a sexual nature. It may consist of a single incident and can be very distressing. It is distinguished from consenting or welcome sexual relationships by coercion, threat, unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favours, other unwelcome sexually explicit or suggestive written, verbal, or visual material, or unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Specific examples of what may constitute sexual harassment include, but are not limited to:

  • Derogatory remarks based on gender.
  • Subtle pressure for sexual activity including repeated requests for outside social contacts after a person has indicated no interest.
  • Unwelcome patting or pinching; constant brushing against another employee’s or student’s body; ‘friendly’ arms around the shoulder; repeated ‘accidental’ brushes or touches.
  • Deliberate assaults or molestations.
  • Demanding sexual favours accompanied by implied threats or promises concerning an individual’s employment or academic status.
  • Explicit offers of money or rewards for sex.

You can use the strategies for dealing with bullying to deal also with sexual harassment. See also Sexual Harassment. In severe cases (e.g. sexual assault), seek legal action by making a formal complaint to police. Revisit the legislative, University, professional association, union, Equal Opportunity and Employee Ombudsman web resources in the introduction for comprehensive information about sexual harassment and how you can deal with it.

If all strategies to deal with bullying, harassment and isolation in the workplace do not solve the problem, as a last resort you can ask the practicum coordinator to remove you from the workplace.

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