Lateral violence

Aboriginal people face many challenges and some of the divisive and damaging harms come from within our own communities. This internal violence appears when people or a community feel oppressed, displaced, unsafe and have no safe frameworks to guide them.

These behaviours are not unique to Aboriginal communities. People everywhere deal with similar behaviours on a daily basis. However, lateral violence is different for us because it stems from the sense of powerlessness that comes from cultural oppression and colonialism.

This feeling of powerlessness can compound in situations of lateral violence and often means people who experience this behaviour are unable to disengage from or address the cycle of violence.

Aboriginal lateral violence is a learned behaviour, and can be evident in the workplace, communities and homes.

What is lateral violence?

Lateral violence is not just an individual’s behaviour. It often occurs when a number of people work together to attack or undermine another individual or group. It can also be a sustained attack on individuals, families or groups.

Lateral violence includes:

  • gossiping
  • personal put downs
  • jealousy
  • bullying
  • shaming
  • social exclusion or shunning
  • family feuding
  • organisational conflict
  • physical violence.

Lateral violence effects everyone, including workers managers, employers, boards, volunteers and visitors to your workplace.

Effects of lateral violence

Lateral violence is a destructive force. It undermines cultural safety and trust, and increases the isolation of targeted people. Businesses that experience lateral violence have:

  • high rates of absenteeism
  • high rates of presenteeism, when a worker goes to work but can’t do their job
  • high staff turnover
  • decreases in productivity
  • reduced quality in services
  • a lack of Aboriginal people applying for positions.

People who experience lateral violence have:

  • reduced mental wellbeing
  • low confidence
  • low self-esteem
  • feelings of isolation.

What you can do

Like all forms of violence, lateral violence can become normalised if not challenged.

Everyone at work can help ensure it does not occur. It is important to respond quickly because the longer the situation continues, the more difficult it is to address and the harder it becomes to repair relationships.

It is imperative, and forms part of everyone’s duty of care, that lateral violence is openly discussed and constructively addressed in your workplace as a group.

Significantly, transforming lateral violence:

  • needs to be addressed inside a workplace
  • is about finding your voice and helping others find theirs too
  • requires listening deeply to each other
  • means remaining open to formal and informal discussions about the situation
  • will only occur when we begin to experience ourselves as powerful and deserving of respect.

There are some basic strategies you need to do, or at least think about, if you experience lateral violence at work.

Aboriginal people - what you can do

If you experience lateral violence:

  • address your concerns with the aggressor (if you feel safe enough)
  • find out about the workplace policies about bullying, harassment and violence
  • report the behaviour to your manager or a mature colleague
  • keep a record of the negative behaviour
  • seek external advice [link to Where to find support/harassment page]

You also need to think about staying as safe as you can, including by:

  • creating a self-care plan
  • not responding with abuse or violence.

If you feel that you are under immediate physical threat remove yourself from the situation.

At community level, you might be able to involve others in developing ways to create positive change in your workplace.

If you are an employer or someone who has governance of an organisation, you have a legal duty to consult your workers on health and safety. Initiate discussions around lateral violence, or around creating good workplace mental health and wellbeing more generally. These conversations can be encouraged through staff meetings, ‘toolbox talks’ or review procedures for your health and safety plans. Our consultation section will help you find the best ways to engage your workers.

Non-Aboriginal people - what you can do

Non-Aboriginal people, particularly employers, need to do their due diligence around creating a safe and healthy workplace. This includes:

  • understanding the circumstances of your Aboriginal employees or co-workers
  • having an appreciation of the history of the community with which you are working
  • learning about the impact that history can have on people
  • being prepared to manage challenging inter-personal relationships in your workplace.

Also, don’t take behaviour personally. Deal with it by using professional and transparent procedures.

As an employer, you have a legal duty to consult with your workers. Initiate discussions around lateral violence, or around creating workplace mental health and wellbeing more generally. These conversations can be encouraged through staff meetings, ‘toolbox talks’ or review procedures for your health and safety plans. Our consultation section will help you find the best ways to engage your workers.

Remember too, that a sole Aboriginal worker will experience your workplace differently to your non-Aboriginal workers.

Further information and resources

For more information on lateral violence, including strategies to help you in the workplace, the following links may be useful:

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