Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002)

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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

The insidiousness of “reasonably practicable”

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WorkSafe Victoria recently released a guideline, or clarification, on what it considers to be the issues surrounding “employing or engaging suitably qualified persons to provide health and safety advice“.

SafetyAtWorkBlog remains to be convinced that such a process will lead to better safety outcomes in the small to medium-sized enterprises at which this program is aimed.  The OHS legislation clearly states that the employer is the ultimate decider on which control measures to implement to address a workplace hazard.  This is echoed in the WorkSafe guideline

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated.”

A business manager will weigh up the advice sought or given from a variety of sources and make a decision.  A good business manager will take responsibility for the good or bad results of their decision.  But they need to have a clear understanding of their obligations and Victoria’s legislation could be confusing.

The guideline says that

“Employers are expected to take a proactive approach to identify and control hazards in the workplace before they cause an incident, injury, illness or disease.”

This reitereates one of the safety principles in the 2004 OHS Act

“Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.”

But the principles are not legislative obligations.  As Michael Tooma writes in his “Annotated Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004

“… it is the intention of the Parliament that the principles be taken into account in the administration of the Act.”

The principles are there for judicial colour and community reassurance but with no real impact.

The obligations on an employer, the section that determines the actions and plans of the business owner or managers, are, as well as general duties:

“Duties of employers to employees

(1) An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health……..

(2) Without limiting sub-section (1), an employer contravenes that sub-section if the employer fails to do any of the following-

(a) provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;

(b) make arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and the absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant or substances;

(c) maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, each workplace under the employer’s management and control in a condition that is safe and without risks to health;

(d) provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, adequate facilities for the welfare of employees at any workplace under the management and control of the employer;

(e) provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees of the employer as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health. “

The “as far as is reasonably practicable” insertions allow business considerable flexibility in arguing the validity of their decisions after an incident but hamper the employer in being “pro-active” – (a hateful and lazy piece of business jargon).

The impediments to “pro-activity” can be seen in the general duties of Section 20 where 

“to avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person…to ensure, as far is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person –

(a) to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable:…..”

This contrasts with the objects of the, same, Act which states that one of the aims is

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work:…”

It is strongly suspected that a crucial element of OHS legislation and management will likely disappear and this is to eliminate hazards “at the source”.  Outside of the objects of the Act this aim is not mentioned anywhere else in the legislation.  “Reasonably practicable” will erase this important social and moral clause.

Eliminating something “at the source” encourages research into new ways of eliminating hazards by placing an obligation on us to determine the source.  “Reasonably practicable” encourages us to research control measures until it is practicable to do so no more.  That is a half-quest that solves nothing.  What if Frodo was asked to dispose of the ring in Mordor only if “reasonably practicable”? The story would have been a novella instead of a classic trilogy.

Employer associations are lobbying for increased workplace flexibility.  That has nothing to do with the health and safety benefits of the employees but rather the health and safety of the balance sheet.  “Reasonably practicable” similarly focuses on business management and not safety management.

The battle against this insidious weakening of the OHS profession is not lost.  Heart should be taken from the preparedness of governments to roll-back unpopular legislation such as some industrial relations initiatives.  Hindsight can be an important motivator for change.

Recent fatalities data may sway some in government that OHS regulators are achieving their social and operational targets but OHS professionals know that fatality rates are not an accurate indication of the success of safety initiatives.  New workplace hazards are appearing regularly and many of the new ones don’t result in death but lead instead to misery and an incapacity to live a healthy life or to work again in a chosen profession.  

“Reasonably practicable” allows businesses to try, in differing degrees, to eliminate the hazards, such as psychosocial hazards, of its workforce and then shift them to social security and disability benefits.  And why not? It seems that corporations can serve their clients and stakeholders “as far as is reasonably practicable” and then expect a bailout from government over their mismanagement.  Immorality applies to much more than economics.

Sexual harassment and politicians

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Bernard Keane, political columnist with Crikey.com, wrote on 20 November 2008 about the unacceptable conduct of Australian politicians.  He wrote:

We’re not talking here about ordinary poor behaviour. There are boors and fools and thugs in workplaces across the country. It’s the sense of entitlement that seems to motivate many MPs to treat other people — whether they are staff, or waiters, or anyone who happens to cross them — with contempt. It’s a sense of entitlement encouraged by the job — one with a large salary, expenses, vehicles, travel and public profile. Most MPs manage to prevent it from going to their heads. But a lot don’t, and they make other people’s lives hell. Particularly because MPs aren’t under the same workplace laws as everyone else. 

SafetyAtWorkBlog believes that, as the sexual harassment is occurring in workplaces, predominantly, that MP’s ARE “under the same workplace laws as everyone else”.

Keane refers to one case where a Minister who was sexually harassing a staff member was relocated to another ministry.  The case recalls the Catholic Church’s risk control measure with paedophile priests.

Workplace safety regulators have been trying to emphasise for years that unacceptable behaviour in workplaces is more serious than a “bad day” or a “bad mood” and that this can be symptomatic of a sick workplace culture.

It is hoped that Crikey readers get to realise that inappropriate conduct at work can be criminal, a breach of OHS legislation or, even, a contravention of our Human Rights obligations.  That the Australian political parties tolerate such behaviour is shameful

Competent safety professionals

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Australian worksites have established a system of red, green or blue cards that are used to indicate a level of OHS competence on a range of worksites.  This type of system is reflected around the world in different industries and different forms, such as Safety Passports, or the green card in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Some professional safety organisations in Australia have banded together, with the support of at least one OHS regulator, to establish a competency benchmark for safety professionals under the banner, Health and Safety Professionals Alliance (HaSPA).  As people and organisations digest what is involved with HaSPA, some in the OHS industry believe the initiative is beginning to wobble.

Perhaps the HaSPA members need to promote the initiative in a more readily understandable concept – one that people can accept now and worry about the details later.  

SafetyAtWorkBlog proposes the HaSPA Green Card.  The operation of the card follows all the protocols of the other competency cards but in relation to the safety professional.

The concept may not work but it seems that the industrial safety industry has already laid decades of groundwork in competency identification and maintenance so why can’t safety professionals follow this and not impose an additional level of complexity to workplace safety?

Maintaining professional standards by looking outside the discipline

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I am a great believer that solutions to hazards in one industry can be applied or adapted to other industry sectors.  Regular readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog are aware of the cross-referencing between general workplace hazards and some solutions from the sex industry.

However, solutions can come from other countries as well, and not just from the United States.  Last week, a car bomb set off by Basque separatists in the University of Navarra in the northern city of Pamplona resulted in 248 people being treated for respiratory trouble, coughing and nausea from inhaling unidentified gases.  A university spokesperson, Javier Diaz, reportedly said that the fumes were generated by repair works that “are related to the terrorist attack.”

This occurred seven years after the 9/11 attacks in New York and after the resultant and widespread reporting of persistent health issues suffered by relief workers and emergency services personnel.  Yes, fumes are different from airborne particles of asbestos but the hazard, and the control mechanisms, are similar.  The lessons of exposure by emergency workers in disasters are obviously still to be learnt.

This morning, 10 November 2008, we wake up to a Russian submarine disaster that immediately reminds us of the tragedy of the Kursk in 2000.  Overnight 200 submariners and shipyard workers were affected in  the K-152 Nerpa submarine from exposure to freon gas.  Three servicemen and seventeen civilians have died.  Initial reports say that the gas was released when the fire extinguisher system was activated.

Russian submarines off the east coast of Russia can easily be dismissed by newspaper readers and business professionals as largely irrelevant but the media has said that 

“A Russian expert has reportedly said that a lack of gas masks among too many untrained civilians may have elevated the death toll in the submarine.”

Does insufficient PPE and training sound familiar? The release of gas in a restricted area?

For OHS professionals everything is relevant to making the best decisions possible for clients and employers.  The trick is to allocate the appropriate level of relevance to the information.  Risk managers and OHS professionals need to filter information from the widest possible pool of knowledge in order to provide the best advice.

We are not all Russian shipyard workers in a just-built submarine but, increasingly, we could be helping people from the rubble of a collapsed building, or helping in the aftermath of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, or advising on a fire safety procedure and safe design of buildings.  We need to read, listen and digest so as to maintain and improve our personal core body of knowledge.