New public sector bullying guideline

In late-December 2010, the State Services Authority issued a new OHS/HR publication entitled “Tackling Bullying“.  The guide is aimed squarely at the public sector but should be of interest for any organisation that has a large number of office-based staff.

This guide is a good example of how the OHS guidelines can be tailored to specific industries and circumstances.  The “further resources” section also includes a considerable number of hyperlinks to current bullying documents.

Public servants often have a very different approach to psycho-social issues of bullying and stress because the public service is a unique work environment where considerable resources have been traditionally devoted to staff welfare.  In some ways, this uniqueness can provide a level of sensitivity to OHS issues that is not reflected in other industry sectors.  One graph in Tackling Bullying (below) illustrates both a high incidence of bullying and/or a high awareness of bullying.

The guide also includes a case study that is not unique and illustrates a vital point of understanding and risk perception that all companies need to emphasise – the application of the term “bullying” to non-bullying activity:

“During a culture diagnosis, a number of staff complained to the consultants that bullying was one of the things that they were unhappy about.  On closer investigation, it seems that the word ‘bullying’ may have been used too readily as a way to describe managers who were clear with staff about what was expected of them in their role and who were not afraid to confront staff over issues of non-performance and then follow through with performance management.”

There is a fear in many managers of being accused of bullying when they are trying to be honest or need to discipline an employee.  The challenge is to criticise without insulting but many managers weaken the message by being overly cautious and achieving much less than they wished.

Managing workplace bullying is one of the biggest challenges for businesses and executives and there are few who are comfortable with the process.  Tackling Bullying will help these managers to handle their personnel better but it will not achieve this by itself and specific training should also be undertaken.

Such training should not be a lecture or seminar on the issue without roleplaying, for it is the interaction with staff where the perception of bullying can be created, or the underling concern over bullying is inflamed.  The practical circumstance of talking with a staff member over a performance or psycho-social matter is fraught with traps and often these can be avoided by practicing communication techniques, as well as not trying to deal with these issues in isolation and calling on an OHS or HR colleague to sit in.

As Tackling Bullying says, bullying can have a long-lasting effect on people and needs to be handled carefully and effectively.

Kevin Jones

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