Breaking the bullying cycle


Breaking the bullying cycle

Taking too narrow a view of what constitutes bullying will work against real organisational change and could leave companies open to massive damages payouts, a Sydney briefing heard yesterday.


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Taking too narrow a view of what constitutes bullying will work against real organisational change and could leave companies open to massive damages payouts, a Sydney briefing heard yesterday.


Grant Michelson, a lecturer with the University of Sydney's Work and Organisational Studies unit, told a group gathered at a briefing co-sponsored by WorkplaceInfo's partner ACIRRT that bullying was more than violent, obvious harassment.

Tactics like malicious rumours, professional slurs, setting workers up to fail or 'cold shouldering' were far more insidious, and organisations that allowed these types of covert bullying to operate would pay the consequences.

Not only would more than 50% of the people affected leave their jobs because of the bullying, but also another 25% were dismissed because of complaining about being made victims. This left organisations open to unfair dismissal claims and discrimination complaints. Some 75% also took sick leave and reported depression, which cut down on organisational morale and productivity.

He said workplaces were often reluctant to tackle the bullies or harassers because the bully was the 'golden' one, the organisational culture was a bullying culture, or the manager was the perpetrator. But the manager or supervisor must be spoken to, because if they were the perpetrator it was only 'spreading poison through the organisation' to let them continue, he said.

Methods to counter bullying

He suggested a number of options organisations should investigate to stamp out bullying:

  • Education of all employees as to what is appropriate/acceptable behaviour;
  • Senior management to lead by example, supporting the introduction of procedures, policies and practices to alleviate workplace bullying;
  • Assess the organisational culture to see if it is contributing to workplace bullying or harassment;
  • Take all bullying complaints seriously. Keep records of incidents;
  • Make investigations independent of the perpetrator where possible;
  • Informal resolution procedures and mediation can be effective;
  • Speak to all bullies, even if they are supervisors;
  • Workplace codes of conduct/grievance procedures may also be helpful;
  • Process followed must be transparent and seen to be fair;
  • Be patient. It is unlikely the problem will be fixed quickly, especially if the problem is entrenched in the organisational culture.

Therese MacDermott, industrial counsel with the briefing's co-sponsor Cutler Hughes & Harris, agreed with Michelson's ways to tackle bullying and said policies and procedures should be implemented regardless of an organisation's size. She told delegates acting on Michelson's suggestions was imperative, as she felt case law was moving to the stage where it would no longer matter if a formal complaint had been made against a perpetrator. She said it was increasingly likely these days that if managers had known about bullying, and allowed it to prosper, that they or the organisation would be found vicariously liable.

And they should not take an employee's silence as an indication that the bullying or harassment was not offending them, MacDermott said. Power dynamics - especially where a manager was the perpetrator - meant workers would often feel unable to voice their concerns, and she said tribunals had made it clear an employee did not have to verbalise that the action was unwelcome.

MacDermott said the levels of compensation awarded for harassment in various tribunals were now significant, ranging up to several hundred thousand dollars. Apart from that obvious cost, she said organisations should take into account the other costs of allowing bullying to escalate through an organisation. These included turnover, management downtime in dealing with the issue, and legal costs.

Risk management strategies an organisation should implement to show a tribunal later that it should not be held vicariously liable for bullying or harassment included: communicating policies, designating contact people for employees to turn to, updating the policies and inducting all employees, investigating allegations, imposing sanctions for breaches and reviewing compliance.



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