Workplace bullying needs harmony and good managers

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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

9 thoughts on “Workplace bullying needs harmony and good managers”

  1. Workplace bullying is a complex issue requiring complex solutions. What one person believes is reasonable management (and within their role as a manager) another believes or perceives is bullying.

    Take the case of a manager transferred to a workplace where rumour had it that the staff were in essence \’bludging\’ – simply because others perceived they were sitting around drinking coffee, reading the papers and not doing much else. The manager holds a staff meeting, tells the staff of the rumours, indicates that they(the manager) wants to talk with each employee individually and proceeds to do so in the confines of their office. No one expresses any objection and the manager soon forms the view that the rumour is ill founded. However, when the manager speaks to the last employee and says \”As a matter of interest, what do you have on next week?\” the employee says in a loud voice \”What do you want to know for?\” Further words are exchanged and the employee storms from the manager\’s office. Later, when the manager\’s workers compensation claim was investigated, it was ascertained that the employee had made a complaint that they (the employee) had been bullied.
    By now, some will be saying \’What\’s the problem?\’ As the manager reasonably believed the actions they were taken were reasonable, part of their role and one that would normally be expected of a manager. However, others saw it different.
    It will come as a surprise but the actions of the manager were found to \’be unreasonable\’. Don\’t think it can\’t or won\’t happen to – it did. If you are a manager, and have these type of discussions with an employee, make sure you diarise the conversation, responses, counter responses and anything else that happens.
    This type of situation should never happen if managers and employees are treated with respect, people have an understanding of the purpose of the questions, they understand the need to protect individual and organisational reputations, and that is not just about health and safety, but involves a lot about management and leadership.

    1. Bernie

      I agree with the scenario as an example that workplace bullying can be different things to different people. WorkSafe Victoria is spending a lot of time and resources trying to introduce some commonality of understanding to the community and safety professionals to avoid this problem.

      I am not sure complex issues require complex solutions. Instead I would say that many solutions are simple but may be difficult to implement. To paraphrase a comment on bullying in another post, some solutions, and you mention a couple, are

    2. Respect
    3. Fairness
    4. Civility
    5. Dignity
    6. This are well understood social values but they are likely to be missing from a workplace with a bullying culture and will be difficult to introduce. I think there is an advantage from working from these positive social values so that the workforce does not need educating from scratch. The workplace may look like these elements do not exist but people do know them, even though they may not be obvious.

      The task is likely to be a lot of work but the ultimate reward would be socially and economically valuable.

  2. Thought this was such a perceptive article. Entirely agree with Fast\’s view, especially with regard to educating managers on the psychological consequences of power.

    Workplace bulling is an extremely difficult thing for employers to control and manage. I found Penny Stevens equally perceptive in her observation that you don\’t have to be a leader to talk about or act on workplace bullying and that waiting for a \’leader\’ to take charge can be little more than an excuse that it is someone else\’s problem. Given me a great deal of food for thought.

    Overall, I want to read more.

    Best wishes

    Bullied by the Boss

  3. The AFR isn\’t known for having a great interest in OHS (other than NSW) which is odd since it\’s a business paper and bullying and HR issues like this should be a natural fit. So I guess I shouldn\’t be surprised that whenever it does write something that drifts into this area I shouldn\’t expect too much.

    It seems the so called \”tangle of state laws (which) hamper compliance\” seems to be a good excuse for businesses not wanting to do something. If you strip away what the law says and apply good business practice and policy, treating people with civility is pretty basic. Many companies operate across state or national borders and have standard \’house rules\’ on every other aspect of their operation. Why would a company\’s approach to bullying be any different?

    Does the AFR\’s intro to this story imply that once harmonisation comes into effect every company operating across borders will suddenly swing behind the new law and develop uniform bullying and other OHS policies? To quote Darryl Kerrigan in the Caste \”Dreaming\”.

    1. Barry

      At a workplace bullying seminar yesterday I asked a WorkSafe Victoria legal adviser how harmonisation would possibly change WorkSfe\’s approached to workplace bullying. I know that WorkSafe can be a bit smug sometimes but he said that in this area, WorkSafe Victoria was leading the way on enforcement and guidance material.

      I think that the increased prominence of psychosocial issues in the model Work Health and Safety Act will challenge some regulators and businesses. Just wait when psychosocial issues come up in the harmonisation of workers\’ compensation!!

  4. Gosh, we need all of this to remind us that civility and good manners would put paid to the majority of harassment & bullying in the work place. How we complicate things unnecessarily, a simple policy incorporating the absolute of treating people as you would have them treat you on pain of dismissal, regardless of the position in the enterprise, would go a long way to resolving the larger proportion of claims, particularly in small business.

  5. It\’s difficult to see how bullying is really a difficult or confusing issue for employers. All employers have an obligation to provide a healthy and safe working environment so far as is reasonably practicable. Clearly bullying is an OHS issue, especially with respect to employees\’ psychological health, but it can also be a physical hazard in a worst-case scenario.

    A policy that defines what constitutes bullying behaviour, states that it is unacceptable to the employer and provides clear complaint handling procedures that are adhered to and fully supported by management would be needed.

    Numerous resources about bullying and how to develop appropriate policies, how to train complaints people and managers etc are available through state WorkCover authorities and other resources.

    Ideally, staff should be consulted in developing anti-bullying strategies and policies – elected Health and Safety Reps and/or the Health and Safety Cttee at the workplace would be good places to develop these. Commitment of management at all levels is paramount to having effective anti-bullying policies.

    Equal opp legislation deals with sexual harassment and usually defines it. Whilst there may well be overlap between SH and bullying behaviour, SH is something quite different and probably needs separate policies/strategies to deal with it.

    1. Karen
      I think some employers may struggle on workplace bullying, and psychosocial hazards more generally, for the same reason many OHS professionals do – unfamiliarity. Many OHS professionals are great on engineering solutions but when it comes to people, they struggle.

      The exact inverse is the case with HR professionals and few OHS regulators and almost no professional associations are trying to blend the two. Yet such an integration is essential to address the multi-faceted causes and control solutions that are required by psychosocial issues such as workplace bullying and stress.

      I agree that OHS legislation in this area is the dominant legislation but many anti-bullying advocates are not comfortable with this dominance. They are more comfortable working through harassment, psychology, discrimination and human resources; what some OHS professionals may describe as the \”soft arts\” (some may even think \”the dark arts\”).

      The OHS harmonisation program of the Federal Government looked at a large range of legislation that dealt with safety, not only the OHS legislation. The intention was to harmonise the OHS laws across the industry-specific laws of mining, rail, maritime and others. I am not sure if they also looked at business-related laws that have a safety management impact like EEO, discrimination, disability……..

      A major deficiency that I have written about before is that the OHS harmonisation process was on safety laws not about safety management. If it had included safety management, the \”soft arts\” would have been included, and Australia would probably have been better for it.

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