Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002)

In April 2002, I interviewed Lawrence Lorber of US law firm Proskauer Rose on workplace bullying.  It was at the height of the Enron collapse and corporate behaviour towards staff was gaining a lot of attention.  Over the last fortnight I have been researching some of the management books and concepts concerning leadership, emotional intelligence, modern expectations of managers – all of which could be thrown into “workplace culture.”

As I was reading back issue of the SafetyATWORK magazine, I used to published, there seemed to be valuable comments from Lawrence that remain relevant.  Below is an extract of the interview.  The full interview is available HERE

SAW: In Australia, the approach to workplace bullying seems to be coming from a systemic management system rather than one relying on psychological assessment.

LL: The highly competitive and highly contentious nature of what is coming out about Enron, the “up or out” atmosphere is one aspect of a system that can lead to managers or co-workers to engage in bullying. The characteristics of being tough or abrasive may be necessary to get ahead in the organisation. The environment can encourage or create bullying tendencies. However, not everybody turns into Attila the Hun in a highly competitive environment. Others survive without taking on the attributes of the bully.

Psychological testing is frequently applied in the States with regard to executive promotions. Dealing with bullying does require a combination of the systemic and individual approach. I work for some companies who are publicly perceived as fairly aggressive, there are tough people there who I might not want to work for but they are effective. They might be perceived as bullies. But looking at bullying as an environmental issue does mask the problem.

SAW: Managers sometimes need to motivate a staff member, perhaps, by rebuking them. The receiver of the rebuke may perceive that as bullying. How can we balance these perceptions?

LL: There were management books in the States in the 1980s, which encouraged management by intimidation. At one point that was the vogue. After the movie PATTON came out, everyone wanted to be General Patton.

If you look at a harsh manager who is demanding in an abrasive manner, that could be bullying.

How do you define bullying? Do you define it by your own reaction? A very US example is sex harassment. Is harassment in the eyes of the beholder? Does it have to be a reasonable woman who believes she is being harassed? In the circumstance where the bully is a male and the recipient is a female, frequently that becomes harassment.

SAW: That is a problem for the managers where for the last 30 years, harassment, bullying and discrimination has been handled outside the OHS field, in Human Resources. Now there are national and international moves to combat bullying because of the stress at work issues. I haven’t seen that approach in the United States.

LL: Here it’s not health and safety. Our definition of harassment is an “intimidating atmosphere”. That can also be a definition of bullying.

I don’t think it will be considered as a health and safety issue because workplace stress is not a field that is devoid of regulation. It is simply being regulated in a different context-employment discrimination and to a lesser extent under the disability laws. 

 

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image
SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

OHS as an agent of change

Tom Bramble is a Queensland socialist academic who recently published a history of Australian trade unionism.  I attended his book launch in Melbourne and found it partly inspiring and partly disconcerting.

Tom (pictured here) was an excellent speaker and seemed to be a knownbramble-book-launch-0011 entity to the strongly socialist audience.  It was the audience that I found disconcerting.  I had not been in so overtly socialist circles for over a decade and although disconcerted, the atmosphere was refreshing due to the level of passion in the speakers.

I regularly write about the industrial relations context of workplace safety  so I was disappointed that Tom did not mention OHS as an agent of change.  I went back to his book and looked for mentions of workplace safety knowing that there have been disputes over OHS in the trade union movement and often workplace fatalities have generated politic pressure and outrage.  

There were some mentions of of safety or health conditions but these were often as an add-on to the more industrial issues such as wages.  Perhaps this is where OHS should be but I can’t help thinking that safety and health can be important elements of emphasising the importance of a dispute by appealing to basic worker and human rights.  One example in Tom’s book is the Mount Isa Mine dispute in 1964 where the state of amenities block was a source of tension.  Given the devastating effect of asbestos, lead and other industrial illnesses, I expected health and safety to have a much higher profile.

Perhaps, my expectations were too high as I had been reading a history of the Queensland Fire Service where the safety and safety equipment were important elements and even motivators for disputation.  Indeed, the issue of PPE in the emergency services remains a hot issue even in 2008.

Arguing for improved safety equipment is a useful example of OHS as an agent of change because of the direct relationship of PPE as a hazard control mechanism.

I don’t accept the position that firefighting is riskier than working in construction. Construction faces a constant presence of hazards whereas firefighting is highly intermittent even though the risks may be more intense.

Australian workplaces have a sad history of fatalities, falls, poisoning, suicides, amputations, crushings, runovers and drownings.  Each of these issues have generated change in specific workplaces.  Some have generated political, organisational and cultural change.  It seems to me that a history of workplace safety in Australia may be needed to show people how the little brother of industrial relations affects change from an, arguably stronger moral position.

Kevin Jones

Indonesian Mines & Depleted Uranium

As in most professions during time in occupational health and safety, one meets amazing people.  One that SafetyAtWorkBlog  cherishes is Melody Kemp.  

Melody is an ex-pat Australia who currently resides in Laos. As well as working on OHS matters throughout the Asian region she is also the author of the excellent OHS publication Working for Life: Sourcebook on Occupational Health for Women, a free download.

In 19 December 2008 Melody had an article printed in Asia Times Online concerning the social impacts of a proposed mine on the small Indonesian island of Lembata.  In this era of corporate social responsibility, safety professionals have a broad brief which covers many industrial, corporate and environmental responsibilities and it is often company behaviour in far-flung outposts of the corporate structure or the world that indicates a clearer picture of corporate and safety culture.  

Melody’s article is highly recommended for those with a social conscience, for those in the mining sectors and for those whose companies have Asian operations.

In 2003, Melody wrote an article on the health risks of the use of depleted uranium for Safety At Work magazine (pictured below).  That article can be accessed HERE.

Kevin Jones

4i14-cover

It is harder to prevent than compensate, but more important

Tonight in Adelaide the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, will be delivering the 2008 Don Dunstan Foundation Oration.

Ms Branson has said

“I want to live in a society where everyone can take advantage of his or her abilities and where everyone has a real say about the world they live in, be they an Indigenous person, a person of Muslim faith, a parent wanting leave from work to care for a child, or a person in a same-sex relationship.

“We all want a society where we can all feel safe and protected from violence and harassment no matter who we are or where our children can access appropriate educational opportunities no matter where they live.

“These are hardly controversial ideas.”

Indeed they are not.  But in many of the past discussions on human rights, rights at work are missed, yet they are just as important.  The omission may be because it seems there is a plethora of avenues of appeal in the workplace – discrimination, unfair dismissal, sexual harassment tribunals etc.  Yet none of these focus on the prevention of harm in the way that legislative OHS obligations do.

Until the human rights advocates’ speeches become inclusive of workplace matters, there will be societal anchor dragging on progress of basic human rights.