Considering organisational violence may provide a more effective path to controlling psychosocial issues at work 3

Vaughan Bowie is an Australian academic who has chosen workplace violence as his major area of interest. Bowie came to general prominence earlier this century with several books and his contribution to the WorkcoverNSW guidance on workplace violence.

Cover from Proceedings_3rd_Workplace_Violence_2012His research has taken him to look at “organisational violence” and in October 2012, he addressed the 3rd International Conference on Violence in Healthcare (the proceedings are available HERE) on the topic in a presentation called “Understanding organizational violence: The missing link in resolving workplace violence?”

Bowie writes, in the conference proceedings (Page 155), that

“Initially much of the workplace violence (WPV) prevention and management responses focused on criminal violence from outside organizations. At the same time there was also a growing concern about service user violence on staff especially in the human services area. A later stage of this development was a growing recognition of relational violence at work.  This includes staff-on-staff violence and aggression, bullying, horizontal violence, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Models based on these areas of WPV have been developed by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC) and the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) and other regulatory bodies. This presentation will show that the current models and responses based on these types of WPV are inadequate and ineffective because they largely ignore the fact that organizational culture and management style have a direct contributory effect on the types of violence experienced by employees, third parties, and service users.  The findings demonstrate that what at first appears to be criminal, service user or relational violence at work may in fact be the outcome of a type of ‘upstream’ organizational violence trickling down in a toxic way triggering further violence.” (emphasis and links added)

Bowie says that organisational violence involves

“ .. organizations knowingly and unnecessarily placing their workers or service users in dangerous or violent situations and or allowing a climate of verbal and physical abuse, bullying or harassment to thrive in the workplace.”

He concludes that, amongst other issues:

“The implications for WPV and safety practice of this presentation are that the current ineffectual or damaging approaches focusing on personal pathology need to include an organizational perspective.”

Australia’s recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying made passing reference to occupational and psychological violence but Bowie sees not to have appeared at, or made a submission, to the inquiry, although one would have expected any literature review undertaken by the Parliamentary Committee would have come across Bowie’s work.

Bowie’s research places much greater emphasis on the role that corporate management and corporate structures play in the promulgation of workplace bullying activities.  The Parliamentary Inquiry seems quite soft on recommendations in this area.  There is plenty of discussion of additional information, tools and definitions but little action on how to motivate companies to change.  The increased attention to due diligence in Australia’s Work Health and Safety laws may help but this places great emphasis on corporate leadership when Bowie’s research has indicated that even more is required.

Cover of Organizational Violence Vancouver FinalPart of Bowie’s actual presentation to the conference (not available online) states that:

“Responding to WPV [workplace violence] requires that organizations first take responsibility for their own role in generating WPV and recognize the impact of organizationally generated trauma on staff and service users.”

This exceeds the due diligence obligations outlined in Section 27(5) of the model Work Health and Safety Act.  Tooma and Johnstone summarise this definition as including:

  1. “Knowledge of work heath and safety matters.
  2. Understanding of the nature of the operations of the business and the hazards and risks association with these operations.
  3. Resources and processes.
  4. Information regarding incidents, hazards and risks and responding in a timely way to that information.
  5. Legal compliance.
  6. Verification of the provision and use of these resources and processes.” (page 110)

But there is nothing here that creates the level of self-analysis by executives recommended by Bowie.

Recent Work Health and Safety laws place greater importance on the role of risk management in modern companies but Bowie says, in his presentation, that in relation to workplace violence, risk management procedures can

  • —”[be a] Mechanical approach to human issues
  • —May be ineffective with ‘internal’ violence
  • —Stifle… innovation in workplace violence management
  • —Downgrade.. importance of therapeutic relationships
  • —Minimise ‘Dignity of Risk’”

(“Dignity of risk” is a healthcare-centred concept that should be explored further in occupational health contexts.)  Risk management often ends up understating a risk to a level that conforms to the ideological and financial will of a corporation rather than illustrating difficult decisions that have the longer-term sustainable benefit.  The elimination of workplace bullying and violence must be seen as a long-term strategy built on short-term organisational reforms.

Bowie does list some characteristics of how workplace violence can trickle down corporations:

  • “—Chronic worker/management conflict
  • —Aggressive and authoritarian management style
  • —Inconsistent application of staff management policies
  • —Ineffective vertical and horizontal communication
  • —Inconsistent action and decisions by senior management
  • —Ineffective grievance procedures
  • —Perceived unjust treatment of employees
  • —Lack of mutual respect amongst separate work teams/departments
  • —Ethnic tensions
  • —Increased workloads & diminishing resources “

Many of these characteristics will be familiar to OHS professionals and anyone else involved in the management of psychosocial hazards such as fatigue, stress and workplace bullying.

Whether one agrees with Vaughan Bowie’s use of the work “violence” in this broader organisational context is less important than acknowledging that there are researchers looking at contemporary occupational issues but from slightly different perspectives. There are many lessons from these perspectives and they may allow for the refinement of interventions and control measures.

It would seem that Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into workplace bullying has missed the benefit of Vaughan Bowie’s research and perspective but the Government has yet to respond to all the recommendations and is yet to release its next version of the Workplace Bullying Code of Practice. The next few months are set to be turbulent ones on this issue.

Kevin Jones


  1. Having clear channels of communication established can help facilitate a conversation in case an issue of workplace violence occurs. Employees should know of ways to report incidents, perhaps anonymously, to keep upper management in the loop. Communicating and taking early action can help limit and prevent workplace violence issues.

  2. Normalisation of organisational and societal violence (in various guises) is so endemic that sometimes it’s hard to get far enough back to get sufficient perspective to recognise it for what it is.
    Many examples can be seen in our MSM of behaviours that should attract a red light from someone (anyone), but don’t, because they are ‘entertaining’. The ubiquitous passive spectator can’t be ignored in this equation.
    From Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen to some of our milder ‘reality’ workplace-based shows, to variations of ‘The Apprentice’, to the behaviour of our Parliamentarians in Question Time – the requirement for people to check their values at the door in order to impress or intimidate in the mode of the now long-discredited ‘Winning Through Intimidation’ model seems to be held up as the way to get ahead.
    No wonder organisational violence is trickling-down everywhere we look.

  3. Interesting read – was left wondering one thing. What kind of monster unites power point presentations and comic sans? That’s workplace violence right there 😛

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