Workplace bullying report lost in the political frenzy

Earlier this year Victorian MP and Minister for Small Business, Adem Somyurek, was accused of bullying his Chief of Staff, Dimity Paul.  This week, Somyurek resigned from his Cabinet position but not without a press conference in which he stated that the issue was political payback and that his resignation is no admission of guilt.

As you can see from this very brief summary, party politics has infested this instance of workplace bullying, and to such an extent that the important and solid investigation report into the incident is being missed.  The reports are publicly available and deserve to be carefully considered rather than relying on some of the current media coverage.

The Andrews Labor Government organised an independent investigation of the allegation to be conducted by the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) who looked at two elements of the incident – bullying and a “capability review” of the Minister’s office.  It was hoped that the capability review may have identified some of the common organisational and cultural factors that contribute to workplace bullying situations but, although this review was sparked by the bullying accusation, the review was quite general and found that the office operated well with only a couple of areas that needed further attention.  These “serious concerns” were in response to these questions:

  • “Are the roles and responsibilities within the office and between the office and Min [Minister] clear?  Are performance problems able to be addressed effectively?
  • Does the office identify and nurture talent and have a transparent and consistent approach to performance management?”

Interestingly the inquiry found that

“a unifying culture had been established in the Office that promotes energy, enthusiasm and pride…” (page 5)

It is useful to note that a workplace bullying incident does not necessarily indicate a defective workplace culture.

On the workplace bullying investigation it is important to remember the terms of reference in order to avoid being distracted by the politics and the non sequiturs being thrown up, particularly, by the local tabloid press.  The DPC Secretary retained Judge Michael Strong to:

  • “… identify, investigate, and make findings of fact in relation to, any allegations by officers employed in the Minister’s Office of conduct by the Minister, occurring since February 2015 [i.e. until 20 May 2015], that has adversely affected or could adversely affect the health, safety or well-being of such offices; and
  • advise the Secretary as to whether the facts as established are sufficient to warrant the referral of any matter to an appropriate authority.” (page 3)

Strong’s findings said that for most of the period under inquiry the

“….Minister’s conduct was appropriate and professional…. and is not shown to have adversely affected the safety, health or wellbeing of members of his staff.” (page 8)

But there was an “isolated” incident of physical conduct that:

“…diminished, to some degree, Ms Paul’s confidence in her personal safety whilst in the Minister’s presence, caused her distress and adversely affected her sense of well-being.” (page 8)

“There were instances of conduct by the Minister, not involving physical contact, that also diminished, to a degree, Ms Paul’s confidence in her personal safety whilst in the Minister’s presence, caused her distress and adversely affected her sense of well-being…”(page 9 , emphasis added)

Other incidences of poor conduct involving “aggressive and sometimes demeaning language” to Ms Paul was described as “occasional rather than systematic”. (page 9)

The investigation found similar actions by the Minister that affected the health and sense of well-being of one of Ms Paul’s colleagues, Xavier Smith, – a point downplayed by many of the media reports but is significant in the context of repeated “instances of conduct” (see emphasis above) and the determination of workplace bullying.

The inquiry report quotes Judge Strong

“The incidents described by the complainants are not of a level of seriousness that calls for referral to the [Victorian WorkCover Authority] as a matter of course.  In my view, referral is not warranted in the absence of an apparent breach of the OH&S Act.  There is no apparent breach.” (page 10)

And the DPC Secretary writes that:

“… neither complainant sought a WorkCover Authority investigation and the evidence supported the view that appropriate systems were in place and management actions were taken by the Premier’s Office.” (page 10)

So workplace bullying can occur in an organisation/office that has a positive and productive “unifying culture” and does not automatically engender an inspection and investigation by WorkSafe Victoria.  This will be surprising news to many Victorian businesses and OHS professionals but shows the importance of establishing an independent and sound investigation process into workplace incidents, both psychosocial and physical.

It is also important that the perpetrator of the alleged bullying is the one who has had action taken against them.  In effect, the psychosocial hazard has been eliminated from the workplace, at least in the terms of the investigation.

This exercise has been costly for the careers of all the parties involved.  Careers have been affected, if not, demolished, and most importantly, in the context of this blog, the psychosocial risks have been minimised.  It is doubtful that this incident and its investigation will become a case study for the management of workplace bullying as it is difficult to cut through the politics and media spin but this investigation seems to provide more information on how to handle and investigate a bullying complaint, in practice, than a dozen prosecution reports or judgements from the Courts.

Kevin Jones

1 thought on “Workplace bullying report lost in the political frenzy”

  1. I agree with you Kevin, the issue of bullying has been hidden behind the political agenda.

    I am staggered that this did not come under Workcover investigation. When I look at parliamentry sessions, I see bullying of the worst kind. Overall it seems to me that bullying only becomes a notable issue when someone dies because of it.

    I have seen too many who are traumatized over a long period of time, lives changed forever due to bullying.

    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is common place around the issue of bullying, hard to prove that bullying was the cause, and so lives are put at risk!

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