Workplace Bullying needs a broad and integrated approach

Recently, through LinkedIn, a Human Resources (HR) professional wrote an article that busted some myths about workplace bullying.  It is a useful article but also illustrates that HR and occupational health and safety (OHS) still have some way to go before providing a coordinated approach to workplace bullying and the mental health issues that contribute to the psychosocial hazard.

The article by Phil O’Brien identified these statements as myths:

  • “You can eliminate bullying in the workplace.
  • Having well written policies will stop workplace bullying.
  • Conducting regular reviews on any anti-bullying related policies will help.
  • Communicate anti-bullying policies to all employees to emphasise that compliance is required.
  • Providing information and training to all employees about bullying will reduce bullying
  • Having a policy that states something like “in the first instance speak to the person bullying you and tell them how they are making you feel”.
  • The bully’s often aggressive persona and attitude makes them hard to deal with when trying to investigate complaints.”

A lot of people place a ridiculous amount of faith in the power of policies but policies have no power in themselves, only in their application and enforcement.  Esso was famously criticised after the Longford disaster for having a detailed, comprehensive management system that existed on the bookshelves and not in practice.  Policies have a similar existence and are often created as a knee-jerk reaction to an incident that placates the Executive by providing a legal “out”.  Four of the myths above can be addressed by advising business owners to manage their people instead of managing their potential liability.  In OHS terms, address the issue “at the source”.

Perhaps more important than the workplace bullying myths are the facts O’Brien uses to refute the myths.  The legal consequences are all framed in the context of the industrial relations framework which, in Australia, is led by the Fair Work Commission.  O’Brien talks about “defences” and “all reasonable steps”, terms that are about limiting liability more than about reducing harm.

He advises his readers that they should have:

  • “A trusted HR department or person that employees being bullied can come to and discuss the situation, seek help and get it
  • A trusted mechanism through which employees are able to make a complaint and know that action will be taken
  • An effective method of dealing with and investigating complaints
  • Trained HR professionals who can undertake a timely and efficient investigation or
  • A professional workplace investigator on speed dial…….”

Each of these points has a parallel OHS context.  OHS, and Work Health and Safety, laws have prescribed processes for Health and Safety Representatives with whom workplace bullying can be discussed.  By addressing workplace bullying in an OHS context, multiple options for remediation are made available that include HR but is not dominated by it.

The OHS legislation also has a clearly defined issue resolution procedure, if the workplace does not have one of its own, designed to address a range of OHS issues, including bullying.  Whether this mechanism is “trusted” depends on each workplace and its management but it is a legislated mechanism that can offer an alternative path that can be outside of HR.

O’Brien’s points relating to investigation are sound but must include an investigation into the cause of the workplace bullying – the mental health issues, the psychosocial impacts and the potential organisational issues that have either encouraged, or failed to discourage, workplace bullying.  Frequently HR investigations are framed around the need to resolve a management issue or conflict rather than to uncover uncomfortable truths that may have contributed to workplace bullying.

The last bullet point is simply a commercial that we often hear, from the legal profession in particular.  All OHS regulators in Australia have inspectors who can be asked to respond to a workplace health and safety issue.  Many regulators have inspectors who are specially-trained to respond to, or investigate, claims of workplace bullying, at no direct cost to the complainant or the employer.

There is a lot of free advice about workplace bullying available online from workplace and safety regulators.  Almost all of it provides advice on how to prevent workplace bullying and how to address the issue if it occurs.  It is highly likely that any occurrence will require the involvement of the person responsible for Human Resources.  However the worker will benefit more if that HR person also has a good understanding of the OHS advice, assistance and enforcement resources that Governments provide.

Kevin Jones

6 thoughts on “Workplace Bullying needs a broad and integrated approach”

  1. A great article Kevin, some time ago I questioned whether workplace bullying should be considered to be as much an WHS/OHS issue as it is a HR issue. In most cases in my experience it is HR that deals with the complaints.

    I have never been briefed by an OHS manager when investigating a complaint of bullying or harassment

  2. Thank you Kevin for all you are doing for safety. The issue with bullying is powerlessness parading as power over (person bullying) and feeling powerless (hierarchical structure, position) in the case of the target. The culture of bullying is inherent in the Australian culture, it was seen as toughening up when I was young. Low self esteem in both cases lies beneath the surface and fears. To truly eradicate bullying in the workplace is to help people firstly become aware to their behaviour, to teach them to reconnect with colleagues emotionally given many are detached. It is for the target to learn that they are not powerless that they can make choices and they can change their own thinking to transform the conflict. The real work in organisations is emotional intelligence and building community. Policies can prevent the worst abuses and at least lay out a playing field that is backed up by legislation. Complaints processes and ways of handling conflict are written down so people will by law walk through the process. However, training cannot be online it must be face to face to assist people to understand what it is and how to transform it. I dealt with covert bullying for more than a decade and I found myself looking within at where I was powerless, I found my dignity and my power through seeking truth. I changed my thinking and the situation changed as I realised I was giving my power away. So much of this is identifying what is the real problem and how to help both in this pattern of abuse.

    Best wishes, Susan Carew

  3. Hi Kevin,
    I totally agree that polices does not have any power ,its implementation and enforcement is the key.Bullying at workplace is more prevalent than people believe, HR person should be solicitous about the welfare of the workers.

  4. Good policies are only as good as the people involved let them be. I am a lover of policies and live with the hope that others will one day see their value.
    My experience in the workplace is documented in an unfair dismissal case just prior to the bullying laws being introduced. I was essentially targeted because I confronted the workplace bullying and insisted workers and volunteer management committee members adhere to policy. I won my case but Her Honour’s reasons do not do justice to what was revealed in the case. You have to read her decision very carefully to see there was very serious bullying going on but she never mentions the word bully. People were proven, beyond doubt to have lied and produced falsified documents under oath but she did not say they lied and she did not punish them for falsifying documents. Witnesses and the respondent’s solicitor intentionally lied to Her Honour and they were not punished. The respondent’s solicitor threw a folder of evidence at me in the court room, this is all on transcript and he was not punished. I found Her Honour to be a very reasonable person and this is reflected in her decision. I guess she wrote it concerned she may be appealed, which she was and luckily they also lost the appeal.
    Her Honour let me down and others in my position though for not calling the behaviour out for what it was – bullying! She essentially said all my claims were the truth and all their claims were lies but you have to read carefully to see this because distinct words are not used. The court system has to have some guts and use the right words.
    Back to policies – one worker who was responsible for serious bullying is a social worker. The Chair of the management committee is also a social worker and an ex Federal Labor MP. How do we make changes for the better when people like this, who we expect to uphold the ideal of a workplace free from bullying are the ones who planned and implemented the bullying? The one avenue I have is that my case is public so I can write about it publicly and name these people for what they have done.
    Good policies are useless when people are not held to account for their behaviour.

  5. Hi Kevin. Food for thought. I have been involved in a fair amount of work regarding preventing and responding to workplace bullying (policy writing and implementation. training that supports the organisations position and investigation of bullying claims). No we cannot eliminate bullying and when we say eliminate we are presumably meaning forever but clear leadership and a supporting documented framework seems to reduce the likelihood. That is my experience anyway. A lot of organisations have absolutely nothing in place (not just for work-related bullying) but most have a willingness to learn. That is where the journey begins

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