Workplace bullying in the police force illustrates the challenges of change management

There are two newspaper reports in Australia on 21 June 2012 about the Victorian Police Force that illustrate a fractious safety culture and a major organisational and ideological impediment to reducing workplace bullying.

The Australian article ” OPI concedes failure against force’s culture” (only available to subscribers) states that:

‘The Office of Police Integrity has conceded it and other corruption fighting measures have failed to root out the entrenched culture of reprisals and mateship in pockets of the Victoria Police that seriously harms the force….”

“The OPI says current law fails to deal with why whistleblowers are targeted. ‘‘The legislated protections against retaliation do not address the root cause of reprisal — a workplace culture of misguided loyalty,’’ it argues.  “The protections are individualistic and short-term, tending to ‘look after’ victims and potential victims of reprisal rather than address why reprisal occurs.’’

“Despite the subsequent formation of the OPI and the beefing up of the Ombudsman’s powers, police still struggled to break free of the shackles of loyalty and the so-called brotherhood.’

The Age article, “A fifth of police bullied at work“, reports on a government survey circulated to 14,000 people.

‘The figures, provided to The Age, mean about 1250 of the 4200 police staff who completed the survey have seen bullying behaviour, while nearly 900 say they have been bullied.’

The Age article quotes Deputy Commissioner Tim Cartwright:

”We always encourage people to try to resolve the conflict at a local level,” Mr Cartwright said. ”So if people have problems in the workplace, the first thing they need to do is talk to each other about it.

”We’ve also tried to say that if they can’t talk to the person directly, they need to talk to someone close to the workplace, so you go to a second-level supervisor if it’s your supervisor you’re in conflict with. So a lot of the matters are minor and are resolved in that manner.”

Any strategy aimed at combating workplace bullying relies on incidents of workplace bullying being reported.  If an incident is not known about, it cannot be addressed.  If the true scale of workplace bullying is not known, it is almost impossible to prevent.

Reducing workplace bullying is even more difficult when there appears to be a substantial part of an organisation that believes it is a special case.  The Age says:

“Police union secretary Greg Davies cautioned that it was sometimes difficult to define bullying.

‘‘ While it can be difficult at times to differentiate between a lawful instruction or order within a body like a police force and workplace bullying, clearly it is more prevalent than we would like to see,’’ Mr Davies said. “

Firstly, workplace bullying has been clearly defined in Victoria for over a decade.  Bullying is defined by WorkSafe Victoria as

 “Repeated unreasonable behaviour directed toward a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.”

This definition was also included in the most recent draft national code on bullying from Safe Work Australia.

Davies’ differentiation between a “lawful instruction or order” indicates the military hierarchical structure of police forces but also acknowledges poor management skill levels.  All managers need to have their workers undertake specific tasks but these demands do not need to be “orders” and a core criteria for determining workplace bullying is “repeated unreasonable behaviour“.

Davies’ also needs to make his case that a “body like a police force” is somehow different from other workplaces, or that the rules of personnel management and respect, should be applied differently.  The Australian Defence is (again) undertaking an investigation into a culture of abuse that seems to have existed for decades.

The relationship of safety culture, whistleblowing, workplace bullying and politics in the Victorian Police Force has a long and contentious history as shown by this 2009 article in The Age and the April 2007 Ombudsman’s (damning) report into WorkSafe Victoria’s investigation of bullying accusations in Victoria Police.

The union movement continues to see tripartite consultation on OHS matters as essential for progress in workplaces and on the national agenda however the approach to managing psychosocial issues in Victoria Police does not seem to be one of co-operation.  The newspaper articles above indicate that the Force Command knows of the need to address psychosocial issues and that organisational change is required to be successful.  However the articles also seem to show that attitudes of The Police Association are an impediment to achieving sustainable change on the issue of workplace bullying.

Emergency service organisations like police, fire brigades and ambulance services have all struggled to address workplace bullying, just as other organisations based on a hierarchical command structures have struggled.  However societal expectations of fair treatment, respect and dignity at work have created ideological and procedural clashes in these types of organisations.  In the middle of these clashes are workers who have been injured through mistreatment.  Both extremes of the argument believe that they are focusing on workers but workers often seem to come second as “opponents” dig into their ideological trenches.

Is it time to acknowledge that the operation of organisations based on military, hierarchical structures is incompatible with modern values and societal expectations and are, by their nature, psychosocially unsafe?

All workplaces have their own cultures but all workplaces exist within the broader social context.  Necessary change will only come when the effects of the constantly changing values of society on specific industries and workplace are acknowledged, accepted and integrated into the strategies for change.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Workplace bullying in the police force illustrates the challenges of change management”

  1. If bullying virtually doesn’t exist in Victoria Police then how come they spend hundreds and thousands (probably millions) of dollars on external workplace relationship companies investigating the problem time and time again???????

  2. Workplace bullying is not new – Dickens offers some excellent examples of bullying, but it has become more widespread and more insidious in recent decades – perhaps reflecting changes in management practices and managerial prerogative, larger workplaces and greater pressures on labour productivity.

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