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

National OHS report leaked to Australian newspaper

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The Australian Financial Review has obtained a copy of the 470-page report of the Review Panel into OHS Model Law prior to its release by the Australian government. 

The most significant recommendation reported by the paper is that unions will not be allowed to prosecute for OHS offences.  This entitlement by unions in New South Wales has been a constant source of industrial tension in that State.  However the panel did suggest that anyone can request OHS regulators to undertake a prosecution or they can appeal a regulator’s decision not to prosecute.

Employers across Australia will be obliged to provide paid leave for employees to attend health and safety representative training courses – probably five days.

The proposed legislation also allows for common law rights to stop work if it is deemed unsafe.

The full AFR article is not available online but can be found on page 3 of the hard copy.

Kevin Jones

John Bresland’s latest safety video

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has previously referred to safety videos produced by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB).  The latest safety message from Chairman John Bresland relates to combustible dust explosion risks, a hazard that exists around the world and one that has been mentioned in this blog.

A curious element in this very good video is that he is lobbying the “incoming leadership at OSHA” to act on the CSB’s combustible gas recommendations.  John’s video was released on 4 February 2009.  The confirmation of a new Labor Secretary is still to occur and the latest nominee, Hilda Solis, has become embroiled in a taxation “scandal” relating to her husband’s auto repair business.

Bresland’s messages are always of good general safety relevance, a major reason why they are embedded in SafetyAtWorkBlog, but the latest one has some peculiar tones given the current US political circumstances.  In Australia, we rarely have Chairman or CEOs of government agencies making such statements. It is indeed curious.

Kevin Jones

Upcoming OHS Videos

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At the end of March 2009, the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division) is conducting its annual Safety In Action conference.  In order to help promote the conference the SIA organised for several conference speakers to be filmed.

The filming occurred in early-February 2009 and the short 10-minutesia-filming-2009-01videos will be available at the Safety In Action website in a couple of week’s time.  The subjects of the videos are:

Jill MCabe of WorkSafe Victoria who talks about the research WorkSafe has undertaken in order to establish a better profile of their clients so as to improve assistance and advice.  Jill has long experience in industrial relations and now focuses on health and safety.

Helen Marshall was appointed Australia’s Federal Safety Commissioner in August 2008.  Helen discusses her experiences in dealing with a national system for safety on building and construction sites and reveals her first ever “real” job.

Dr Martyn Newman explains what he means by describing some leaders as “emotional capitalists”.  He sees that as a good thing to be but isn’t ego an emotion and greed an emotion?  And aren’t those the emotions that that have generated a lot of our social and financial heartbreak?  Is there is such a thing as an “emotional socialist”?  Dr Newman’s  presentation at the conference will be popular but it’s application may be obscure or challenging.

John Merritt, the CEO of WorkSafe, is genuinely passionate about improving society and seems to feel that OHS is a valuable way to improve the quality of people’s lives. [I first spoke with John in the early 1990s while he was in the ACTU.  The only thing I knew about him was that he had written a book about shearers.  I spoke next with him while he was CEO of the  National Safety Council and now (twice) while he is at WorkSafe.  If our paths continue to cross, he owes me a beer and two hours of unrecorded conversation in a comfortable bar.]

Barry Sherriff, a lawyer with Freehills, has just come off nine months of serving on the National OHS Review panel and is hamstrung in what he can say as the government is yet to release the final report.  His presentation was measured and cautious.

The videos provide an interesting cross-section of OHS approaches in Australia, several overlap and some are “out there” but the best that can be said is that one learns.  This makes for a terrific Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones


Union influence on OHS – interview with Professor Michael Quinlan

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Professor Michael Quinlan of the University of New South Wales believes that the influence of Australian trade unions in improving OHS conditions should not be underestimated or past achievements, forgotten.  

In talking with Kevin Jones in a recent podcast, Quinlan said that the persistent accusation of unions using OHS as an industrial relations tool is “largely an ideological beat-up”.  Although he does believe that Australian trade unions have not pursued workplace hazards to the extent they should have, even with the impeding launch of a campaign on cancers. 

Professor Quinlan mentioned that

“most health and safety management systems are, in fact, largely management safety systems.  They not deal a lot with health….. Their KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] are always expressed in terms of zero-injuries or zero-harm.”

 He also emphasised that that more Australian workers are killed as a result of occupational disease than injury.

He also addresses the growing demand for occupational health and safety regulation to move from industrial relations to the area of health.  Quinlan believes this will never happen because matters to do with employment, organisational restructuring and others have an OHS impact.  He says that running OHS as “an entirely separate agenda…is intellectually and factually flawed.”

Quinlan acknowledges the argument that Robens-style legislation was relevant for the time and where union-presence persists but he said

“where you don’t have effective or worker input, you will have serious problems with health and safety”.

He reminded us that Roben’s also advocated self-regulation, a concept of which there is now great suspicion in a range of business areas.

Quinlan spoke highly of some of the initiatives of OHS regulation, for instance, the adaptation of the inspectorate to duty-of-care matters and a broader operational brief. He also said that the current OHS legislation in Australia “is the best we’ve ever had” and believes some of the recent criticism needs to be supported by evidence.  Also none of the critics have proposed a viable alternative.

Professor Quinlan is a keynote speaker on Day 3 of the Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones

Note: the author assists the Safety Institute in the promotion of the Safety in Action conferences.