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The dividing line between managing and workplace bullying

The boundary between appropriate firm performance management and bullying is easily crossed by managers who do not have a clear idea of their responsibilities.

Quite rightly, employers expect managers to be proactive in pushing for high performance at work, to set and monitor challenging goals and to provide employees with feedback on their performance.

It can be easy for managers to cross the line into behaviour that may be experienced by staff as bullying or harassment. In 2000, nearly 70% of over 3000 respondents to an Australian Council of Trade Unions survey reported that they had been bullied by a manager or supervisor.

In many cases, it has been seen that managers and supervisors and unclear about their rights and responsibilities and those of their staff when it comes to pushing for improved performance. Employers can’t wash their hands of responsibility for this kind of situation.

Under both Federal and State anti-discrimination laws, an employer may be legally responsible for managers’ inappropriate behaviour unless it can be shown that reasonable steps have been taken to reduce this liability.

It is important to look broadly at the organisation’s processes to ensure that managers have appropriate performance management tools available to them and do not fall back on inappropriate means of pushing towards goals. But specifically, it is essential that the business develops and enforces a clear anti-bullying policy.

What is workplace bullying?

There isn’t a specific legal definition of workplace bullying or specific legislation addressing it. However, authorities generally agree that workplace bullying involves repeated, unreasonable behaviour that victimises, humiliates, undermines or threatens an employee and causes a risk to their health or safety.

Employers are potentially liable if the behaviour contravenes anti-discrimination legislation or leads to breaches of the occupational health and safety laws.

It is important to realise that allegations of bullying usually surface as a result of industrial relations action which involve unfair dismissals, sexual harassment and related issues.

Effective anti-bullying policies

Australian courts view bullying in the workplace as unacceptable and easily preventable. Employers and managers who fail to establish, communicate and enforce a workplace bullying policy are likely to receive significantly higher penalties arising from incidents of workplace bullying than those who have taken the appropriate steps.


Key elements of an effective anti-bullying policy

Definition of bullying and the types of behaviour that constitute bullying.

Clear statement that bullying is not acceptable in the organisation and will not be tolerated.

Transparent process for complaining about bullying and for dealing with complaints about bullying.

The policy should: define bullying and the types of behaviour which constitute bullying; state clearly that bullying is not acceptable in the organisation and will not be tolerated; explain the process for complaining about bullying and for dealing with complaints about bullying.

However, a policy on paper is not enough. The policy must be implemented and supported by training, awareness-raising and the development of a culture in which people feel safe to report bullying if they experience it for witness it.


Effective performance

It may be difficult to distinguish between an abrasive management style and actual bullying. In a 2003 case, the Australian Industrial relations Commission awarded compensation to a supervisor who was summarily dismissed after employees reported verbal abuse and intimidation.

The case highlighted an important distinction between an inappropriately dictatorial management style and conduct that is degrading, humiliating or targets employees of less favourable treatment. Having effective performance management processes in place helps ensure that managers don’t behave inappropriately.

An effective performance management process will be one based upon agreement and shared understanding of the outcomes to be achieved. At the heart of the process will be an effective means of setting and reviewing targets on an ongoing basis. It is essential that targets set for employees are realistic.

In a 2002 case, the Industrial Relations Commission ruled against a leading bank, commenting that the dismissal of an employee based on unreasonable performance targets was harsh and unjust.

Without the skills to provide motivation, it’s easy to fall back on criticism and negative messages. In an extreme example, a linen manufacturer told the Australian Industrial Relations Commission that he used the threat of the sack as a motivational technique - one employee had been given notice of termination 27 times over a ten year period.

The employer described his approach to the Commission as ‘group therapy’. An effective performance management process will operate through constructive means and will provide for the positive recognition of achievement. Financial rewards are only one of the mechanisms available here. Employees appreciate and respond to positive feedback from management.

Developing and implementing an effective performance management process requires a high level of skill from managers, with a good understanding of people, not just of the mechanics of business performance.

It is essential that employers invest in developing managers’ people skills, so that they can communicate effectively with employees, understand the underlying causes of performance issues and respond appropriately.

Some managers may argue that bullying behaviour is a necessary means of getting results in today’s competitive business environment. Not only is it neither necessary or acceptable, it’s actually bad for the bottom line. Research conducted by Griffith University in 2001 suggested that workplace bullying costs Australian businesses between $17bn and $36bn a year. So ensuring a workplace free of bullying is good news for workers and employers alike.


Implementing the policy

· Training for employees;

· Ensuring adequate supervision;

· Ensuring policies and procedures are adhered to and are continuously updated;

· Changing the culture of the workplace.


Responding to bullying

Once a report has been made, employers need to follow the key principles:

· Treat all matters seriously;

· Act promptly - this can assist in resolving reports quickly and fairly;

· Avoid victimisation of person reporting the bullying;

· Support all parties involved once complaint made;

· Conduct an investigation into the allegations;

· Maintain impartiality - ensure person in charge of investigation has no direct or indirect involvement in the incident;

· Informal parties of resolution process and maintain strict confidentiality;

· Document the process and any investigation undertaken;

· The principles of natural justice should be followed in all formal investigations.

If the investigation process is not handled carefully and conducted promptly it may delay the proper resolution of a report. If it is handled well it can facilitate a speedy resolution and heighten staff awareness of the employer’s anti-bullying policy and demonstrate that it is taken seriously.

– Vince Scopelliti, Director

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