Good bullying advice needs grounding in prevention

Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog discussed the quality of media releases on OHS matters.  A very good one was received the other day from Firefly Marketing.  The noticeable quality of this release is that although its purpose is to promote a conference, the release provides fresh and unique comments that have stand-alone benefits.

The statement includes several comments concerning workplace bullying.

Regulator

WorkSafe Victoria‘s media manager, Michael Birt  says

“The death of Brodie Panlock has received the most media attention of any WorkSafe Victoria prosecution – ever.  The case was covered extensively by Australia’s national media but was even reported in countries from the Netherlands to Russia.  The details will stay on Google forever.  The actions of Brodie’s tormentors will follow them.”

“The big issue with bullying is that it’s not just a matter of fixing it after the problem has been identified.  Most often, the damage is done by then and can’t easily be fixed.  As with any health and safety area, prevention is better than prosecution.

“It’s important businesses realise that doing nothing comes at a huge cost.  Of course, nothing compares to what the victims and their families go through but the bullies and those who could have stopped it or spoken up pay dearly.”

The appeal of having statements from an OHS regulator spokesperson is that the agenda prevention of injury and harm in the workplace is clearly stated.  One should be able to rely on this type of message from an OHS authority.

Lawyer

Lawyers are a little more problematic because they rarely talk about prevention except in terms of avoiding recidivism.  In the past, legal advisers have promoted establishing anti-bullying policies but policies appeal to only a small section of the business community.  The case that has made workplace bullying topical in Australia was the prosecution of the owner and several employees of Cafe Vamp.  It is highly unlikely the owner had a policy on bullying or any other OHS matter.  Certainly he was not sufficiently aware of the harm that bullying can do to employees for him to stop the inappropriate behaviour of which he was aware.

In some cases lawyers are like many OHS consultants, they provide advice and then leave it to the employer or business owner to implement and enforce.  The best OHS lawyers are those who explain, assist and follow-up.

Steve Bell of Freehills says

“Businesses must appreciate that the risk associated with bullying or psychological injury is potentially fatal…  In some cases it may be difficult to properly identify risk controls, but not impossible. Businesses will be greatly assisted by taking a holistic approach.  This involves starting at the top with managerial commitment, including safety professionals and consulting with employees.”

“Bullying behaviour needs to be identified and dealt with immediately…. Make it crystal clear that bullying behaviour won’t be tolerated but go further, because on its own that isn’t going to be enough.  You also need to consider how you are appropriately supervising and monitoring the workforce for that behaviour.”

A regular control measure for workplace bullying is simple to eliminate the risk by leaving the job.  In Brodie Panlock’s case she was encouraged by a work colleague at Cafe Vamp to leave the cafe but there were personal reasons for remaining.  Employers may also be hesitant about sacking the bully as there are many legal avenues for employees to pursue claims of unfair dismissal, in some political areas, the bête noire of small business.

Steve Bell discusses the legal issues involved with terminating employment in the context of workplace bullying.  He acknowledges the technicalities and risks that exist in a small business, in particular.  His comments emphasise the need for OHS professionals to keep their OHS advice grounded in the real world of young workers, small business, and industrial relations.

“Of course, legal risks arise when terminating the employment of employees and managers.  That being said, employers must remember that safety is paramount… Managing the legal risk associated with terminating the employment of an employee will be greatly assisted if the business has set clear standards of what is acceptable and what’s not.  Employers, large and small, need to make the rules prohibiting workplace bullying very clear as soon as every new employee comes through the door.  This should form part of the standard suite of safety training provided.”

Small business operators should pay close attention to Bell’s advice that active OHS policies and procedures can reduce the complexity of dismissing staff.

“Bullying expert”

Bernie Althofer’s contributions to the media release, and workplace bullying debate, are more problematic.  According to one website Althofer is described as “an Educator and Managing Director of EGL I Assessments Pty Ltd“.  From the biography on his website, he has no formal OHS qualifications but he was a health and safety representative during his time as a police officer.

Althofer self-published a book on workplace bullying in October 2009.

Althofer says that “in Australia, there is no uniform definition of what is and what is not workplace bullying.”  He is right but Australia currently has a fragmented OHS regulatory structure over nine jurisdictions and this lack of uniformity is a broad problem being addressed by the Federal Government.  An exact definition is not necessarily required in order to control a hazard.

Bullying has common properties throughout the OHS guidelines that currently exist, of the which the latest is from the Australian Capital Territory and released within the last fortnight.  A major characteristic is that it is a repetitive action.  One sure way of stopping bullying developing is to not tolerate any instance of occupational violence or verbal abuse.  Do not let such behaviour become repetitive.

Althofer advocates a risk management approach to counter workplace bullying.  He recommends the framework of ISO 31000.  There is some merit in this but very few companies in Australia would be familiar with this international standard or its Australian equivalent.  Few small businesses would even have copies of the relevant OHS legislation or guidances.

Better and more relevant advice to business would come from referencing the Work Health and Safety Act that will be introduced as a national model sometime in 2010.  Why apply principles from a non-mandatory guideline when similar principles exist in a local piece of legislation to which companies and workers must comply?

The safety conference, at which Althofer will be speaking, is for OHS professionals so his message may be targeting that audience.

Basics

With all this professional advice begin thrown around it is useful to try to cut through the rhetoric and, after each opinion is offered, ask

“how will the information prevent me, or my child, from being bullied at work?”

By asking this question, by keeping focused on the elimination of the risk, it will be possible to filter out those who talk about workplace bullying from those who are doing something about it.

Kevin Jones

Note: Kevin Jones has undertaken work with Firefly Marketing in the past.

4 thoughts on “Good bullying advice needs grounding in prevention”

  1. bullying can be a good and a bad thing for your children. but it can also make the people being bullied at school or home very sad so please read this before you do something stupid or dumb.

    your sincerly steven evans

  2. Kevin
    Of course a risk management process is the best approach to tackle this risk, especially the concepts of an adjustable framework, commitment by senior management and management at local levels. However, I am a bit concerned regarding the comment \”….very few companies in Australia would be familiar with this international standard or its Australian equivalent\” concerning a recommended framework. The issues are:
    ISO 31000 is substantially based on AS/NZS 4360;
    AS/NZS 4360:2004 has been superseded by AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009;
    The guidelines advocate adapting the ISO framework to organisation requirements not vice-versa; and
    Obtaining information about, and familiarisation with, the ISO is not difficult.

    1. Ian

      I am not sure about \”of course\”. I try to avoid the term as it can limit the consideration of options even unpalatable ones.

      I think that the OHS regulators are a little slow in informing business, large and small, about the relevance of ISO 31000. AS 4360 gained far more attention and promotion during its development and introduction, perhaps because it was an Aussie world-first but also because we had some ownership of the Standard. It is a little like word processing software receiving heaps of attention when Microsoft produced something new. But when similar software was available through open source there was less less hoo-haa on a product even though though there could have been more widespread impacts.

  3. Kevin

    I appreciate your valuable comments. I am a strong believer in prevention but I am also aware that workplace bullying is a complex issue requiring complex solutions. It is not just a matter of having a policy and putting in an intranet. My experience in speaking with victims, alleged bullies and managers/supervisors is that in some cases, there is some poor management practices, failure to address workplace conflict, gaps in expectations (sometimes because job/positions are not clear, or because of poor performance management practices). I also think that WorkSafe Victoria are doing some great proactive work in relation to workplace bullying. Even if we all have some discussion about how different systems and processes can be used to suit various contexts and situations, we should be able to share and learn. Is the system perfect? No, I don\’t think so, but if anyone of us sits on our hands and don\’t try and improve what is currently happening, it shall be an interesting legacy we leave.

    Keep up the good work and hope to talk with you at the Conference.
    Bernie

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