Workplace bullying can exist in the boardroom

A most curious article about workplace bullying appeared in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on 11 September 2013. In discussing recent changes to Australia’s Fair Work Act Nick Ruskin of K&L Gates wrote about the broad definition of workplace bullying to be applied:

“…the intriguing thing is that worker is very broadly defined. Its definition, reliant on the Workplace Health & Safety Act 2011, is so wide it could even include the director of a corporation.

In other words, non-executive directors of corporations will have the same ability as a traditional worker to take a bullying grievance to the Fair Work Commission.

We could see a situation in which a company director alleges they have been bullied by another director and seeks early intervention from the Commission.” (emphasis added)

The tone of this article is often seen in writings by lawyers or corporate commentators and implies that senior executives should be treated differently from the “traditional worker”, whatever that is. Writers could claim that the article is tailored to the readers of the AFR but that is similarly disturbing.

Ruskin implies a “what is this world coming to” surprise that one director may seek early intervention after being bullied by a fellow Board member? Why not? Bullying is bullying whether between a manager and a worker, worker and worker, or director and director. Why would bullying at Board level be treated any differently?

Rather than a tone of surprise, the article could have been a straight reminder, or even a warning, to AFR readers that the Work Health and Safety laws are designed to apply equally to everyone at work, and that the duty of care extends equally to the boardroom as it does to the warehouse, the mine or the child care centre.

The Work Health and Safety legislation does not differentiate between organisational strata. Anyone can be a worker. In fact, everyone is a worker.

Ruskin’s article on workplace bullying fails to advise the bleedingly obvious safety principle – avoid the legal hassles and costs by eliminating bullying from your workplace. And if one accepts that workplace bullying is a subset of workplace mental health issues, some of Australia’s law firms and senior executives have experienced serious OHS problems with mental health.

Executives can also reward bullying and by doing so establish or encourage a culture of disrespect. As Susan Lucia Annunzio writes:

“All senior leaders want to succeed and want their companies to succeed. However, if executive bullies are successful, it is despite their bullying not because of it. Executive bullying creates an unhealthy work environment — rife with micro-management, information hoarding and self-interest. This behavior may seem like it’s working in the short term, but what may look like positive results are often short-lived. Sometimes, by the time the company sees the damage, the bully has moved on, leaving the blame to his successor.

When executive bullying flourishes, disrespectful treatment of others can become systemic….”

If action against workplace bullying, and other OHS issues, starts from the senior executive level, as most OHS professionals concede, then senior executives (and their legal advisers) need to understand that their mental health fragility or resilience is no different from that of their workers, colleagues or peers. They may work in an elitist profession or position but the personal and familial damage from mental ill-health and workplace bullying hits senior executives just as much as it does the “traditional worker”.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Workplace bullying can exist in the boardroom”

  1. One other thing….. the final comment in Ruskin\’s article is most insightful. If all roads lead to the Fair Work Commission, then it is because society is speaking out loud saying that bullying at all levels includes the board members and has to stop.

    The underlying sentiment in the article seems to object to this level of scrutiny by the Commission, but it is about time that this very real and serious threat to our nation\’s economic welfare is brought out into the open rather than being locked away as a dark and dirty secret that we keep trapped as nothing more than a \”worker\” issue and one that is only OH&S related. Bullying isn\’t simply a \”worker\” issue, it is a serious threat at all levels to our society.

  2. Great posts everyone! There never any short term benefits from bullying, unlawful or simply bad behaviour – ever! As Kevin says throughout, bullying at all levels is simply wrong and has to stop!

    I have seen and been told of many examples of bullying by board members over the years… albeit on small family sized company boards, but even still, these people then control many workers underneath. If the culture is to bully other members on the board, and or the board members endorse such behaviour either directly or implicitly then this terrible culture and behaviour filters down and impacts on the workers the board ultimately controls and has a vested interest in.

    If bullying in any shape or form exists at the highest level of a company, then it will exist and and in my view, be magnified as you progress down the chain towards the most junior and most at risk of the employees / workers.

    Bullying has to be stamped out. I don\’t hear the lunch bell ringing to say back to class – none of us are in the playground at school any longer, but as adults we seem content to take childhood behaviours and bring them forward into our professional lives. We are grown-ups, and don\’t accept naughty or bad behaviour from our children, but do it ourselves in the board, whilst managing other people and workmates!

    There can never be an excuse or approval ever for bullying anyone in the workplace to achieve any sort of outcome, be it a fellow board member or the casual employee on the factory floor. The net result to the person and the company are always going to be on the negative side of the ledger.

  3. I feel the aggression shown by production and other department officials on OHS department officials while doing their job is also bullying. Not cooperating, verbal abuse or threats, not giving the position or salary hike when it is due, are some sort of bullying. Instead of discussing to see the merits, safety issues raised are discarded or not taken seriously. At times, the OHS officials are rebuked and stamped as anti-organization. The stress levels will not allow a person to go against the tide for ever. If the top management also ill treats the safety department, a time may come when the safety officer will either quit the job or will sit idle which is not a good situation for the organization.

    As it is rightly pointed out, one may see short term results from bullying. But, in the long term, it is the organization that suffers. It can not attract talented professionals as people leave regularly and may face closure.

  4. Great post Kevin. Bullying at Board level can be complex to deal because often the lawyers are only called after the parties are locked into a position where they (a) are trying to save their reputation and/or (b) refuse to see their behaviour as a threat to mental health, but rather part of normal discourse.

    Training and education is key, and so is the willingness of other executives and board members to intervene and to show their disapproval. As the Chief of the Defence Force has said \”the standard you walk past is the standard you set.\’\’

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