Draft bullying code and cultural measurement

cover of 2013 DRAFT-COP-Preventing-Responding-Workplace-BullyingSafe Work Australia has released its latest draft code of practice for preventing and responding to workplace bullying for public comment.  There are many useful and practical strategies in the draft code but workplace bullying is only a small element of the more sustainable strategy of developing a safe and respectful organisational culture.

The definition in the May 2013 draft code is a tidied up version of the September 2011 definition:

“…repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of  workers that creates a risk to health and safety.”

The lack of difference in these definitions is a real positive given the complaints, primarily, from the business community since 2011.  The significance in both definitions is that there must be a direct relationship between the behaviours and health and safety risks.  This could be substantially difficult to prove, particularly if , as in  most cases, it is the recipient of the bullying who needs to prove this.

Harm Prevention

Consider, for a moment, that this code of practice is used for establishing preventative measures and not just used for disproving a court case, these definitions can help establish a benchmark for creating a safe organisational culture.  A company needs to take reasonable steps to prevent “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of  workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.  How can this be achieved?

The 2013 draft says that the risk of workplace bullying can be managed by

  • “early identification of unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of bullying
  • implementing control measures to prevent the risks and respond to workplace bullying, and
  • monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the control measures.” (page 9)

But this is unlikely to be achieved without a major overhaul of the human resources and personnel management practices of many companies. And why undertake such a process just on the potential hazard of workplace bullying?  If bullying is a symptom of systemic organisational problems, surely those more widespread problems should be addressed; problems, such as fatigue, disrespect, lower-than-expected productivity, stress, excessive workloads, unreasonable hours, and many more.

Safety Culture

Many inquiries into industrial and workplace incidents have identified the lack of a strong safety culture as a major contributor to the events.  Indeed, the 2011 draft code stated that

“The risk factors that make it more likely for bullying to occur involve:

  • organisational culture
  • negative leadership styles
  • inappropriate systems of work
  • poor workplace relationships, and
  • workforce characteristics.” (page 9)

The May 2013 draft code makes no mention of the concept of “culture” in the manner of the 2011 code.  Although, on page 19,  in the context of incident investigations, the 2013 code says it

“…may involve mediation, counselling, changing working arrangements or addressing other organisational issues that may have contributed to the behaviour occurring.”

Those organisational issues are not listed in this draft code.

Many of the bulletpoints above are mentioned in the 2013 code but definitely not with negative connotations.  The risks are acknowledged between the lines, such as, “negative leadership styles”, for instance.  The 2013 code recommends

  • “promoting positive leadership styles by recruiting managers who are competent in people management
  • providing training for managers and supervisors on:
    • communicating effectively and engaging workers in decision-making
    • providing constructive feedback both formally and informally
    • effectively managing workloads
    • people and performance management.” (page 12)

The promotion of a positive implies the current existence of a negative but businesses and executives are not comfortable with acknowledging negatives or failures, even though OHS prosecutions are of breaches, failures to comply with the law.  The 2013 code would have had more “punch” if the need for the positives was shown by a listing of the negatives, as occurred in the earlier draft.

The findings of a deficient safety culture often results in organisations throwing their hands up and interpreting the findings as the modern equivalent of an Act of God, in that “culture? How can we affect that?”, or the board grants them a huge amount of money to “fix the problem”.  Both these scenarios occur after an incident when preventing the incident and the associated harm, can be achieve by establishing a safety culture in the initial phases of a business. Retrofitting anything, including a safe culture, is always more expensive that designing it in at the outset.

Measurement of Safety Culture

iStock_000007295238XSmallWorkplace bullying and a host of other workplace hazards can be prevented by including the need for a positive safety culture in any organisation or project from the start as shown by the London Olympics.

At a recent construction industry safety conference the need to include safety at the design, tender and procurement stage of projects was widely acknowledged. Safety culture can be measured by various safety climate tools and culture surveys, such as that from the Health and Safety Laboratories or Work Health and Safety Queensland, New Zealand or Loughborough, and there is no reason why such tools should not be applied at tender stage to establish a benchmark from which safety performance can be measured regulatory throughout the project or business operation.

Certainly, the initial measurements will be rough and require readjustment once the project or business commences however it would establish a baseline for a project-specific culture that would not otherwise exist.  By introducing such performance parameters at this early stage the adjustment of performance indicators by factors other than safety is avoided.  By focusing on the measurement of safety culture in this fashion, the (over) reliance on outmoded lag indicators is diminished and there is an effective measurement of the lead indicators (also an important research area for ISCRR).  The need for effective measures should not be underestimated.

According to WorkSafe Victoria, leading OHS indicators can include

  • Evidence of OHS policy and OHS objectives

  • OHS criteria in purchasing guidelines

  • Consultation and participation

  • Conduct of internal audits/inspections

  • Staff training

  • Health and safety representative training

  • OHS perception survey that could include:

      • the level of support and recognition of health and safety representatives
      • workplace consultation and participation
      • management commitment
      • awareness of OHS policies
      • reporting of incidents and injuries

Almost all of these lead indicators are reflected in the text of the May 2013 workplace bullying draft code of practice.  The tools to address workplace bullying AND its potential organisational factors already exist and are at little cost to business other than a commitment to the procedures.

The “new” world of occupational health and safety, particularly, in Australia revolves around managerial due diligence and positive OHS duties on senior executives.  The days of reacting to an unknown workplace hazard, such as bullying, are over as executives are obliged to directly seek out knowledge of the hazards in their own workplaces and, perhaps, those hazards created by their own personnel and the people they appointed.  They need to be able to demonstrate not only their efforts but the quality and safety benefits of those efforts.

This can be done in a piecemeal strategy related to specific codes of practice, such as Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying, but a coordinated approach is more cost-effective and more likely to exceed compliance with the various OHS/WHS laws.  Exceeding compliance also builds a positive corporate reputation and may make one’s company an “employer of choice”, a criterion that many companies and professions cherish (and market).  Such an approach will also prevent harm, the ultimate aim of OHS laws and codes of practice, an aim of which the community needs constant reminding.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

One thought on “Draft bullying code and cultural measurement”

  1. The Code addresses \”the risk of bullying\” which is ambiguous, differs from, and is not shorthand for, \”preventing or minimising SOFARP the risk of harm arising from bullying and occupational violence\”. For example, it is conceivable albeit unpalatable that there are workplaces where bullying occurs but at levels where it does not pose a risk to health and safety. In these situations the Code as written would have effort being expended to reduce bullying, notwithstanding that no risk to health and safety is evident nor foreseeable.

    In terms of a breach of the WHS Act, some bravery would be required to write a Notice based on the Code\’s litany of control measures: \”I observed job and role ambiguity, unproductive workplace relationships, a lack of dignity and respect in the workplace, and a lack of feedback. I formed the opinion that there exists a foreseeable risk of psychological injury…\”

    I\’m glad that as OHS professionals we are in this space, but all the ducks need to be lined up before Notices are served on every workplace in the land, from the Senate and House of Representatives on down. Ambiguity will not help.

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