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WORKPLACE BULLYING – SINS OF PAST, PENALTIES IN THE FUTURE

Introduction

There is little doubt from reading the myriad of comments made on various sites that workplace bullying and harassment continues to fuel discussion.

In fact, I have just finished reading a number of comments made by some obviously very traumatised workers from the public and private sector. There are some common threads relating to:

  • management and communication practices
  • failure to address the issue
  • lack of knowledge about where to go for support on resolution options
  • workplace culture
  • apparent failure to treat workplace bullying and harassment as a work health and safety hazard

Some of the comments also appeared to indicate that some of those targeted had been subjected to bullying for periods of up to three years, and some had left their employment because of the bullying behaviours.

Words of wisdom and wit are added, and in some cases, the discussions raise new issues, or simply reaffirm old issues.

It does seem that many of the discussions reinforce the ideology that workplace bullying and harassment may be one and the same in the minds of some, and completely different (although related) in the minds of others.

The past two years have seen considerable discussion on the emergence of the new harmonised work health and safety laws that are coming into effect in some States as of the 1 January 2011.

Will it be a case of more of the same in relation to organisational responses, or will the various discussions that have occurred prompt a new approach?

Sins of the past, penalties of the future

It seems that many organisations have well documented policies and procedures in relation to the prevention, detection and resolution of workplace bullying. However, it also seems that despite organisations espousing commitment to a workplace free from bullying and harassment, it is still happening.

It might be the case the officers are not aware of the extent of bullying because individuals have no confidence in internal reporting systems, or they have seen how some targets/victims have been treated.

Recent discussions on various forums suggest that workplace bullying and harassment is very clearly defined in literature and through to Codes of Practice. However, discussions with workers gives a completely different idea. In some cases, reasonable management actions are perceived by some as unreasonable, whilst in other cases, bullying is seen as a way to manage people.

Take this case. Recently, I was discussing bullying with a new acquaintance. He said “Well, how do you get them to work if you don’t bully them?” to which I replied “There must be other ways of getting them to work.” His response was “No, you have to bully them, they are very lazy people.”

After a long and involved discussion, it appeared that what this person was really talking about was using assertive language to motivate or direct workers to undertake their allocated tasks.

What one perceives as reasonable, another may construe as unreasonable e.g. bullying. It is absolutely critical that a common understanding is developed regarding the definition of bullying as it applies in your workplace. It is also critical that workers have the face to face opportunity to discuss (without fear) their understandings of the definition. It is not much point having a definition that workers think means one thing, when it really means something else.

It is important that systems or processes be in place to maintain currency of knowledge of trends and issues, and of Court, Commission or Tribunal decisions that may impact on your policies and procedures.

Imagine a situation whereby you have been called to appear in a Court, Commission or Tribunal and you are confronted with evidence that shows that your organisational policies are out of date, and not only that, those who have responsibility for developing and presenting workshops on bullying, have not kept up to date.

So where do the sins of the past come in? Despite the existence of reporting systems and processes e.g. complaint or resolution processes, it seems that there are a number of workers who lack confidence in those systems. Experience suggests that when some workers understand what is involved in the resolution processes, they decide to do nothing. In some cases, they go away and start making more detailed notes, biding their time until an opportune moment presents itself.

I would suggest that this opportune moment will occur after the 1 January 2012.

The penalties of the future may result from those cases that are slowly gaining momentum now. Even though workers have not taken any action other than seek advice, it may well be the case that over a considerable time, they have been bullied, they have been gathering evidence, taking advice, or seeking support and just waiting.

Will these cases come to finalisation in a Court, Commission or Tribunal? It depends on a number of variables such as the:

  • willingness of the individual to take action
  • how resilient they are
  • whether they understand what is actually involved
  • what evidence they possess
  • whether they seek legal advice

At this stage, the criminal standard of proof is not required i.e. beyond reasonable doubt, unless criminal offences are involved and this could include stalking, sexual assaults or other acts of violence. In some cases, the victim/target might make the decision not to report the criminal acts and only want action taken in relation to the ‘bullying behaviours’ where a lesser standard is required i.e. civil standard – on the balance of probabilities.

The resultant penalties than could occur might be more than financial or jail terms. Damage to individual or organisational reputations may also occur.

Mitigating the risks

Managing workplace bullying and harassment is not easy especially if you have no proactive or preventive strategies in place.

You need to know what policies, procedures and strategies your organisation has in place. Workplace bullying and harassment incidents can occur even when some of the basics have been addressed.

You might be in an organisation where a workplace bullying or harassment incident has been reported.

How many times have you heard the comment “You could see that coming”. Why was it allowed to escalate?

Some basic questions

How important are risk assessments?

I would say extremely important provided you ask the right questions, and know what the right questions are to ask. The following questions can be used as prompts to help guide when preparing for the risk assessment.

A number of the questions use the traditional who, what, when, why, where, and how model. It is important to understand that a question framed around these words may lead to a response that requires another question.

For some officers and workers, the following questions might push a few boundaries. That is the intention so that you can at least try to plan a response if these questions are put to you in a Court, Commission or Tribunal.

Does your organisation have proactive and preventive strategies that help you answer the following questions?

  • Do you avoid or defer difficult conversations about workplace bullying and harassment?
  • Do you resist the need to resolve counterproductive behaviours before they escalate into workplace bullying and harassment?
  • Does your workplace have a culture of tolerance or acceptability when it comes to workplace bullying and harassment?
  • Are you confused about what is and what isn’t workplace bullying?
  • Do you know what is and what isn’t reasonable management?
  • How does your workplace organisation define counterproductive behaviours that could cost you your job?
  • What price do you put on your personal reputation or that of your organisation?
  • How has workplace bullying and harassment been addressed in your risk management, business continuity, health and safety, audit or fraud and corruption prevention plans?

‘Officer’ questions

You may have some very good policies in place to prevent, detect and resolve workplace bullying and harassment. The advice that you get about the incidence of workplace bullying and harassment may not reflect the true situation.

Changes in work health and safety legislation, and increased publicity about workplace bullying and harassment could mean that different questions will be asked.

Litigation in Australia is taking some interesting approaches to age old issues. Individuals are engaging legal professionals who will use various strategies to test your knowledge in a Court, Commission or Tribunal. The responses that you provide could very well determine your current and future employment. Adverse publicity generated because you were not prepared could affect your personal credibility and reputation.

The following questions were developed as indicators of what could be asked in a Court, Commission or Tribunal. Of course, the media might also take it upon themselves to ask you the same questions.

How much:

  • income did your organisation earn as the result of a single workplace bullying or harassment incident?
  • did workplace bullying or harassment contribute towards achieving the aims and objectives of your organisation?
  • business does a workplace bullying or harassment incident generate?

How does workplace bullying or harassment:

  • improve customer service?
  • increase productivity?
  • benefit shareholders, investors or taxpayers?
  • add value to your brand name or reputation?

What:

  • does the preparation, dissemination, storage and archival of workplace bullying or harassment records cost your organisation?
  • could your employees be better doing if they weren’t spending time addressing workplace bullying or harassment?
  • are your competitors doing whilst workplace bullying or harassment is taking place in your organisation?
  • could your employees be doing more productively if they were not involved generating paperwork for Court, Commission or Tribunal hearings?

How does your organisation benefit from the adverse publicity generated from workplace bullying or harassment?

What are the short, medium and long term effects on other employees who are witnesses in grievance and tribunal proceedings?

Who and what are you defending?

What will have you achieved at the end of it?

Will any of your actions result in allegations of unfair dismissal?

Does everyone in your organisation know and understand the personal consequences of workplace bullying or harassment?

Do you know how to respond to these questions?

Do you know why you should be able to respond to these questions?

How will you respond if your claim or allegation is to be resolved in a Court, Commission or Tribunal?

Will you be prepared?

Will you respond in haste and pay the penalty?

Will your actions result in findings of unfair dismissal, breach of employment contract or financial penalties being imposed by a Court, Commission or Tribunal?

These are very important questions that might be put to you in a Court, Commission or Tribunal. These questions could only be the start of what you might be confronted with.

There might be a number of other questions that will be asked of you depending on how you respond to these.

If you are reading this as either a target/victim or as a person who may have been accused of being a workplace bully or harasser, you might like to consider these questions.

Do you know:

  • what to do when you have been bullied or harassed?
  • what to do if you are accused of being a bully or a harasser?
  • how to defend an allegation of workplace bullying or harassment?
  • know what questions to ask?

Does your organisation have a workplace bullying or harassment detection, prevention and resolution policy?

If so, do you know where to find it or access it?

Sometimes, you may need to lodge a workplace injury claim because of the workplace bullying or harassment. You may also seek advice from a legal professional.

As either a target/victim or even alleged bully/harasser, you may not realise that the medical and legal professionals will ask you questions.

Do you know what type of questions:

  • you will be asked when you seek medical assistance?
  • your legal professionals will ask you?

Workplace bullying and harassment has direct and indirect implications on a wide range of people. It is not just a workplace issue. You may seek advice, guidance or support from your family, friends and associates.

Do you know what to say to your family, friends and associates?

If you lodge a workplace injury claim, an investigation will be conducted. You may find this process confusing or even threatening.

Sometimes the investigation will be conducted when you are still traumatised by the incident or even when you are receiving medical or psychological support.

  • Do you know:
  • why investigations are conducted?
  • how the investigation process works?

Do you know:

  • what to say to support your claim?
  • what not to say, and why?

You may work in an organisation where workplace bullying or harassment is rife. The more likely there is sexual content in the incident, the more chance the media will be interested. Even if you are not directly involved, the media might ask you for your views.

You might even take it upon yourself to use one of the popular social networking sites to discuss the incident.

Do you know how to respond to media interest in workplace bullying or harassment allegations?

Employment conditions

When you started with your organisation or even when you were promoted, you may have attended an induction program. You might have been asked to sign some paperwork.

When you started work, you may not have had time to think about all the paperwork. Practical experience tells me that you need to think about these questions.

  • Do you have a current job or position description?
  • Do you take part in the performance management process?
  • Do you know and understand your conditions of employment (including compliance with Codes of Conduct)?
  • Do you know why these questions are relevant for preventing, detecting and resolving workplace bullying?

Legal professionals will ask you many questions. They will generally want to know about your conditions of employment, your workplace policies and procedures and many other issues that you may not realise are relevant.

OHS HARMONISATION

Many of you know that the OHS Harmonisation process has been underway for some time. It has been stated that the new Work Health and Safety Act 2012 will come into effect on the 1st January 2012. There are some important changes in this legislation that you need to be aware of. It does apply to the public and private sector.

The new Act may have some impact on how you respond to allegations of workplace bullying and harassment. In the worst case scenario, you could face prosecution for a breach of workplace health and safety and perhaps even imprisonment. You need to think about your preventive and proactive strategies to reduce this risk. You should be able to answer the following two questions.

Will you be an ‘officer’ under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012?

Do you know what you will have to do to meet your obligations and show that you can meet due diligence requirements?

The prevention, detection and resolution of workplace bullying and other forms of inappropriate behaviours depends on the action that you take. The questions and issues that you have been reading about are only part of the response. You should be aware that there are many left field questions that I have not included. You should know that your answer may provide a lead as to another question.

Trends and issues

Despite some interesting media articles regarding allegations of counterproductive behaviour resulting in out of Court settlements, there is little publicly available information on specific cases. From time to time, some cases are published on the Fair Work Australia website. However, a perusal of media

websites and other support networks, and even sites such as LinkedIn, HR Daily or Human Capital Online, indicates that there is increased commentary on what organisations and individuals should do to prevent or resolve workplace bullying.

Recent discussions also raised the issue of risk assessments for people wanting to work at home, and whether or not domestic violence should be considered. There has been some interesting discussions on how far a workplace extends, what should be considered and what are the implications.

Over the past two years, there have been some interesting reports have been prepared following Reviews or investigations into allegations of bullying. It is in my view, important for public and private sector organisations to at least read these reports and see whether or not there any issues that warrant attention.

Where to in the future

It is not long until the 1st January 2012 and despite all the discussion about whether or not the legislation and regulations will actually become operative from that date, workplace bullying continues to be a concern of workers across the public and private sector.

Waiting for the implementation to occur without actually addressing existing issues about bullying may not provide officers with an excuse. At the same time, workers can play a key role in preventing and detecting workplace bullying.

Standing up and speaking out about bullying may be frowned upon in some workplaces. However, given the physical and psychological trauma that can occur, and the financial costs, it is important to take a preventive role.

I have indicated in previous articles that the following systems and processes should be evident and supported through documentation:

  • Clear understanding of due diligence requirements
  • Clearly defined responsibilities for Officers
  • Commitment to work health and safety – evidence that the CEO and other executives do site inspections – safety leadership
  • Risk management policy and procedures
  • Copies of risk management plans, directives, instructions, training records
  • Workplace bullying policy and procedures
  • Copies of documentation, evidence of consultation, risk assessment
  • Training for all workers including executives
  • Good support networks
  • Current list of Contact officers, training, brochures, contact numbers
  • Regular reviews of policies and procedures that take into consideration changes to legislation, Court/Commission or Tribunal decisions, and Review findings
  • Investigation processes
  • Management and Supervisory training in relation to conflict management/resolution
  • Management reviews and audits regarding effectiveness or otherwise of various policies and procedures e.g. risk management and workplace bullying

Lessons to be learned

There is little doubt that no matter how hard one tries, one might end up involved in a workplace bullying incident. It is entirely possible that you could be the:

  • victim/target,
  • one accused of bullying behaviour

 

  • officer/s of an organisation where bullying has occurred
  • medical or legal professionals providing advice to the victim/target, the alleged bully or even to one of their family members
  • family/friends or associates of the victim/target or the alleged bully
  • investigator/s
  • media

So, if you fall into one of those categories, you should be prepared. You might have some good systems and processes in place at your workplace. However, you might also like to consider the following:

  • Prepare for a day in Court
  • Practice responses
  • Create scenario based training with role plays
  • Test organisational documentation
  • Anticipate worst case scenarios and develop risk management plans
  • Address workplace bullying through risk management, fraud and corruption plans, audit plans, safety plans
  • Identify left field questions
  • Engage professionals to assist in developing appropriate responses
  • Conduct „spot? audits and checks in the workplace
  • Demonstrate evidence of consultation
  • Know how risk assessments were conducted and what was considered
  • Understanding what is due diligence and what is required
  • Do your planning

Summary

It is important to know exactly what your level is risk exposure is in relation to workplace bullying. I would suggest that understanding systems and processes is only part of addressing the issue. It is important to understand why people are not reporting the incidents.

As workplaces change, and individual perceptions about what is and what is not bullying, it pays to constantly evaluate the level of exposure.

Proactive strategies and management practices might not completely eliminate workplace bullying. However, it might help to mitigate any fallout that may occur when an incident occurs.

Bernie Althofer AFAIM 2011 ©

EGL I ASSESSMENTS PTY LTD

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About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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