The Australian Financial Review on 24 March 2010 includes an article (only available through subscription or hard copy purchase) that states that the “tangle of state laws hampers compliance” by business on the issue of workplace bullying. Harvard Business Review reports on how to cut through the distractions and attend to a root cause of workplace bullying.
Practical benefits of OHS law harmonisation
Blake Dawson’s Jan Dransfield is reported as saying the overlapping of state and federal laws confuse employers on the issue. Significantly Dransfield points out that harassment includes bullying but is defined independently. This is an important point as recently some OHS training video companies have been promoting videos on the theme of harassment as workplace bullying products, further confusing the issues. (SafetyAtWorkBlog discusses sexual harassment and OHS elsewhere).
The importance for specificity is shown by Dransfield who says:
“There is no specific piece of legislation that prohibits workplace bullying as such…. It’s a term that is often used imprecisely [and] gives rise to a myriad of legal risks for employers.”
Penny Stevens of Hall & Willcox recommends a tightening of grievance and complaints procedures.
In the article, an occupational psychologist says that workplace bullying usually stems from a “leadership vacuum”. What this means is that staff actions and relationships need to be overseen by a manager who is active in their obligations on OHS and human capital. One does not need to be a “leader” to listen, talk and act on workplace bullying. In fact, leadership may place too much emphasis on the issue being handled only by the leader rather than fixing it oneself. This procrastination for due process is often an excuse for not controlling a workplace hazard when it occurs.
Some business advisers should be more familiar with OHS law and practice so that they would know that consultation with employees on all OHS issues is a legislative obligation and not some warm attractive concept that has emerged from the dust-bunnies in the latest management tome.
It is hoped that through the secondary process of harmonisation of OHS guidance material and, perhaps, regulations, workplace bullying may get the uniform national approach that it requires.
Perceptive (and useful) HBR article
An 18 March 2010 article in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog provides useful guidelines on avoiding the workplace bullying culture before it emerges (a very OHS/preventive approach). Author Nathanael Fast says that a root cause of workplace bullying is the issue of power. He says:
“In our studies, the power holders who felt personally incompetent became aggressive, not because they were power hungry or had domineering personalities but because they were trying to overcome ego threat.” [URL added]
According to Fast this cuts across those who see “personality traits” as the cause. If this is the case, there will be many workplace bullying “experts” who are revising their PowerPoint presentations.
Fast is one of the few writers on the issue who provides possible solutions to the problem, at the source, the organisational and managerial structures. Fast writes that one should recruit with a broader understanding of “competence”. Dealing with the issue at the recruitment stage effectively eliminates the hazard from ever appearing in the workplace (Hierarchy of Controls, anyone?). Below Fast’s suggestions are paraphrased:
- Do not appoint on technical nous or tertiary qualifications alone and do not misinterpret arrogance for confidence.
- Do not expect managers to be 100% suitable immediately. Introduce them into the organisation and their role. Inductions should be far more than “there’s your office, the kitchen’s over there and the toilet is down the hall”.
- “Focus on core values”
- Make sure that the design of the job does not push ” unrealistic expectations onto individual leaders.” Fast suggests teamwork. I would suggest that there are many managers who fail to delegate tasks, often, due to their insecurities over their own competencies. Even in OHS where there are health and safety representatives and committee structures, managers often hold on too much.
- “Educate yourself and your managers about the psychological consequences of power.” This is likely to have other benefits in terms of customer relationships, corporate expectations and establishing some degree of dignity and respect at work.
There is considerable overlap between Fast’s suggestions and OHS management.
- Investigate the source of the hazard.
- Introduce safety at the design phase, ie recruitment, or earlier.
- Consult with employees and managers.
- Induct and support new employees.
Fast has been able to look past the “leadership vacuum” and do something about address the cause.
Leadership is not the problem in workplace bullying. Employing the wrong people for the wrong job at the wrong time seems to be far more important.