Outcome of Federal inquiry into workplace bullying

two women talking behind man's back

The Federal Government’s recent report on bullying in the workplace has helped to highlight this serious issue, but what changes will come of it?

A recent survey by employment screening solution provider WorkPro found that one in four people have been bullied or discriminated against in the last two years. With figures like these being released, the Federal Government’s report on the issue couldn’t have come at a more timely moment.

Entitled Workplace bullying: We just want it to stop, the authors of the report, the Standing Committee on Education and Employment, made a series of 23 recommendations including measures that would ensure that victims of bullying would have right of recourse through an adjudicative process. Other recommendations also included encouraging the Commonwealth Government to ensure that state and territory governments enforce the criminal laws that prosecute workplace bullies.

Particular attention was drawn to SMEs with one of the recommendations, which stated, “The Committee recommends that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations develop a trial mediation service for resolution of conflicts where there is a risk of bullying arising out of poor workplace behaviour, prioritising small and medium enterprises, and where employers and workers jointly request the use of the service in an effort to resolve the matter.”

Manager of WorkPro, Tania Evans, noted that, “The national inquiry into bullying in the workplace couldn’t come sooner. The existing regulatory frameworks and workplace practices are not leading to genuine change in the workplace. And a year on from the Victorian Government’s amendment to the Crime Act to include workplace bullying, these results indicate bullying is at the same level as it was back in 2008.”

Kevin Jones, OHS Consultant, Freelance Writer and Editor of Safety at Work blog, agreed that the federal report was well timed. “I think the Parliamentary Inquiry was important and has achieved many positive recommendations given the very limited time allocated to it. The test of its success comes from the Federal Government’s response to the recommendations and the timeline provided for implementation. The Workplace Relations Minister has acted fairly quickly on asbestos risks. In many ways addressing workplace bullying is a greater challenge and requires more detailed consideration.”

Founder and chief executive officer of the Work Safety Hub, Robert O’Neill, agrees that the report, and most importantly the definitions it offers, have never been more timely. “I think OHS professionals will welcome the report, and particularly the committee’s recommendations to adopt a national definition and the formation of a national advisory to assist employers and employees alike to manage and understand this extremely complex psychological issue. Lay definitions often do not require frequent or persistent behaviours and are more likely to include unfair or unprofessional conduct which causes much debate.”

In response to the report, O’Neill believes the most important point now is for the recommendations to be adopted.  “I would like to see the adoption of the recommendations in full and full adoption of the current draft ‘Code of Practice: Managing the Risk of Workplace Bullying’.”

Jones also believed that attention does need to be paid to incidents of bullying in small business. “Workplace bullying can have just as devastating an effect on workers in small businesses as it can in large but, perhaps, it is easier to counter or address because of the simpler organisational structure, if suitable awareness and professional assistance is available. One needs to remember that one of the worst cases of workplace bullying and one that led to a young woman’s suicide occurred in a small café in Hawthorn. The Café Vamp case should be a case study for any small business that does not address bullying as soon as it occurs.”

  • Sean Stayner

    Our company has studied this in industry for many years and the root cause of the problem does not appear to be that complex. Further to this we have successfully corrected the problem in a number of “Militant” businesses.

    This is a leadership problem we have observed in Australia, New Zealand and the US. By having the right people in leadership roles and training leaders how to curve this problem it can be stopped. We refer to the problem as “Pack Mentality” this is caused when there is a lack of clear direction and where the leadership is not strong (not meaning “hitting them over the head” strong – “this way follow me” strong).

    This leadership problem leads to “Chaos Fatigue” (www.chaosfatigue.com), which leads to “low professional maturity” – industry calls this Militancy. We have rehabilitated militant sites in Australasia with sustainable success. The biggest problem is not fixing this it is convincing managers that they need to fix it.

    Stayners Pack Mentality

    Humans are pack animals, and as such humans form these packs as a natural process. The pack is used to define where each human fits within their pack. The more unhealthy the pack the more they see the need to compete. This competition happens both within the pack and between packs.

    Within the pack the pack will determine the status of each human in it. In every pack there is a human at the top and a human at the bottom. The more unhealthy the pack the more evident this is. Naturally no one wants to be at the bottom. There will be pressure on the pack to identify the person at the bottom and to ensure that this human remains in this position.

    All the humans in an unhealthy pack realise that if the person at the bottom changes then there is a likelihood they could be in this position next. Consequently the unhealthy pack will work hard to ensure that the human at the bottom is clearly identified and repressed – until they inevitably leave. In an unhealthy pack you often hear people in leadership roles saying “if we could get rid of Colin we would be able to function better as a team”. Often significant effort is put into removing this person and the pack selects another person to replace Colin.

    In an unhealthy pack the treatment of the person at the top compared to the person at the bottom is vastly different. Also in an unhealthy pack the human at the top of the pack can be a human who has forged the strongest relationship with the supervisor and not necessarily the best performer.

    However the human at the top of an unhealthy pack has an interest in ensuring that they stay there. When the person at the top leaves someone will always step up and take this position.

    You will often hear someone say “if Jim leaves we will be in trouble as he is our best worker”. However when Jim leaves Supervisors are often surprised that someone steps forward, and in a short time is as valuable as Jim.

    The major mistake you will see is supervisors getting drawn into this unhealthy pack mentality. When this happens the supervisor and the pack will vilify and repress an individual until they leave. When supervisors do this they will find themselves driven by the pack to repeat a cycle of repression of the perceived weakest human.

    An experienced supervisor can influence the pack. If a supervisor is fair, consistent with all their employees, and makes a point of developing or offering a hand up to the person at the bottom of the pack, this will sends a number of messages to the rest of the pack. Further to this the packs work output will be above that of the weakest human. Improve the performance of the human at the bottom and the bar is raised for the whole pack.

    A supervisor needs to lead humans by using validated results that have been delivered by each individual. These results need to be presented on a regular basis (e.g. daily). These results can be used to set each humans position in the pack.

    Now the supervisor needs to give praise to the person with the best results and give support (in a private setting) to the person at the bottom. It is now that Individuals with strive to increase their results.
    Where this is applied effectively it is often hard to tell who is at the bottom of the pack. Further to this, individuals will start to work as a team to improve each individual’s results.

    Regardless of the level of health of a pack they seem compelled to compete with each other at some level. Let’s take two packs of shift workers. If one of these packs is unhealthy then this pack will have all the problems within, as discussed earlier. Further to this they will see the need to blame the other shift for everything they perceive going wrong.

    In the worst cases packs on shift will change the settings of production machines at the end of their shift to effect results from the other pack. This can start a cycle where at the start of each shift there is an hour of lost production while the correct settings are found again.

    In a pack that has good leadership and accurate measures to work to, the supervisor can focus a pack on results. This can be done while still using the inter-pack competition to focus the pack on working as a team to achieve greater results.

    With two healthy packs the competition can be an issue of pride with both packs striving to achieve a team’s “best results” while working collectively to get an overall improved result for the company.