CSIRO bullying case shows the complexity of the issue for all of us

For some time the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has been plagued with accusations of bullying and harassment.   A researcher began court action in 2011.  An anonymous website “Victims of CSIRO” was established in 2012 and provides a timeline of disgruntlement for back as far as 2002.  In May 2012, Liberal politician Sophie Mirabella, raised the issue of bullying in criticism of the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  In July 2012, Comcare issued an Improvement Notice to CSIRO following an investigation

”thoroughly reviewing the workplace systems relating to the prevention and management of bullying behaviour at CSIRO”.

In September 2012, CSIRO whistleblowers spoke of bullying. The CSIRO Staff Association reported anecdotal evidence of increased bullying and harassment in late 2012.

In August 2013 HWL Ebsworth released the independent report  (the Pearce report) which, according to the CSIRO, found

“no major or widespread issues with unreasonable behaviour or bullying in CSIRO”.

How does that work?

Unions have said that the findings of this report should be a “wake up call to CSIRO management” but from CSIRO’s response to the report it would seem the call was heard some time ago.  What this report seems to have found is that the CSIRO has been deficient in its handling of personnel problems.  This has virtually been acknowledged in the CSIRO’s response to the report.  The CSIRO emphasises eight key areas of attention from the report:

  • “Respecting confidentiality; inform and support those involved in Phase 1 and Phase 2
  • Examine how we allocate resources and people in our matrix structure
  • Improve procedures for people treatment including grievance, misconduct and whistleblower procedures
  • Train and empower out managers and people to report, investigate and act on incidents relating to the treatment of people including training our managers in how to support people suffering from psychological illness
  • Central reporting, analysis, investigation and close out of actions that relate to the unreasonable treatment of people with consideration for due process and confidentiality
  • Learn the lessons of past complex cases and review the Psychological Health and Wellbeing report of 2008
  • Use external investigators for all formal cases
  • Advise people of the outcomes of investigations with appropriate considerations of confidentiality.”

If one can stomach some of the phrases used above, in terms of OHS and personnel management, these areas can be summarised as:

  • Be respectful,
  • Take workplace mental health seriously,
  • Identify psychosocial hazards, action them and close them out,
  • Learn from past history/mistakes/incidents,
  • Investigate fairly and independently, and
  • Communicate effectively.

It may also be possible to add to the list the increasingly popular concept of “just culture“.

Cover from Comcare PsychosocialBut the summarised points above are not radical.  These are common elements of the OHS obligation to eliminate or minimise physical and psychological harm in the workplace and are basic elements of any safety management system.  In fact several of them formed the basis of the CSIRO’s mental wellbeing program that was written up by Comcare in 2009 as a case study illustrating how to “understand the causes of psychological injury in the workplace”.

The case study says that in 2009

“Comcare research discussion group participants indicated that CSIRO has a culture of support and awareness of mental health, which has resulted in employees feeling comfortable about discussing mental health issues. Participants also reported that CSIRO management’s response to psychological injury has developed over time, creating more comfortable, trusting relationships that are conducive to open and honest communication in the workplace. The resulting culture helps to sustain employees, deepen the organisation’s understanding of the causes of psychological distress, and promote CSIRO as an employer of choice.” (page 25)

The workplace bullying saga at CSIRO casts serious doubts on the evaluation of CSIRO’s mental health strategy by Comcare for its Beyond Working Well guide.  Perhaps it was a case study of intentions and not of application.

The CSIRO case shows the traps associated with workplace bullying.  One person’s bullying can be another’s performance management.  Such a situation can be exacerbated if someone begins a campaign of complaint or destabilisation.  As Dennis Pearce says in his independent report:

“We regret that efforts were made by some persons to dissuade others from making submissions to out investigation, seemingly on the basis that they did not think the investigation was independent of CSIRO.  These people said that there should be a “judicial inquiry’ into CSIRO and the allegations of workplace bullying.  There is no such thing as a ‘judicial inquiry’.  A judge appointed to conduct an inquiry has no greater power than any other person…” (page vii)

[What does this say of Tony Abbott’s call for a judicial inquiry into the Home Insulation Program?]

The campaign opportunities presented by modern technology and social media introduces potential complications to all workplace issues and in a manner that is often unregulated by media ethics, under which most of the mainstream press operates.

Pearce states that

“…it is definitely not possible to describe the work culture at CSIRO as ‘toxic’…” (page ix)

This is not what some critics of CSIRO wanted to hear but Pearce acknowledges  “pockets of concern” and the critics have pointed out that 130 separate allegations of bullying or harassment in an organisation of 6,000 employees implies deep pockets of concern.

Of general interest to Australia’s OHS/WHS profession is that Pearce applied the most recent national definition of workplace bullying to his investigations so this report can be seen as the first detailed application of the October 2012 definition.  As such it may be an indication of how the definition limits or includes various actions.

Chapter 4 of Pearce’s report, a chapter that should be obligatory for all OHS professionals, discusses workplace bullying particularly in relation to the public service but provides informed commentary on the latest national approach that is, thankfully, not dominated by references to the Fair Work Act. He writes:

“Specifying exactly what this means {the latest definition] is not a simple exercise.  It is easier to judge whether a particular series of events, taken together, constitutes workplace bullying than it is to exhaustively list every kind of behaviour that may amount to bullying.  Identifying workplace bullying is complicated by subjective points of view and workers’ myriad perceptions of behaviour. ‘Workplace bullying’ means different things to different people.” (page 38)

OHS regulators deserve our sympathy for the enormous, perhaps impossible, task of preventing, investigating and prosecuting workplace bullies.  But the Pearce report illustrates how difficult such tasks are for an employer, albeit a well-resourced public service employer.  The complexity of management of this issue is a very strong argument for preventing bullying in the first place.  This should be the focus of everyone involved in this 21st century workplace hazard.

Kevin Jones

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