Is your policy working for your business … workplace bullying

Workplace Bullying needs a broad and integrated approach 4

Recently, through LinkedIn, a Human Resources (HR) professional wrote an article that busted some myths about workplace bullying.  It is a useful article but also illustrates that HR and occupational health and safety (OHS) still have some way to go before providing a coordinated approach to workplace bullying and the mental health issues that contribute to the psychosocial hazard.

The article by Phil O’Brien identified these statements as myths:

  • “You can eliminate bullying in the workplace.
  • Having well written policies will stop workplace bullying.
  • Conducting regular reviews on any anti-bullying related policies will help.
  • Communicate anti-bullying policies to all employees to emphasise that compliance is required.
  • Providing information and training to all employees about bullying will reduce bullying
  • Having a policy that states something like “in the first instance speak to the person bullying you and tell them how they are making you feel”.
  • The bully’s often aggressive persona and attitude makes them hard to deal with when trying to investigate complaints.”

A lot of people place a ridiculous amount of faith in the power of policies but policies have no power in themselves, only in their application and enforcement.  Esso was famously criticised after the Longford disaster for having a detailed, comprehensive management system that existed on the bookshelves and not in practice.  Policies have a similar existence and are often created as a knee-jerk reaction to an incident that placates the Executive by providing a legal “out”.  Four of the myths above can be addressed by advising business owners to manage their people instead of managing their potential liability.  In OHS terms, address the issue “at the source”.

Perhaps more important than the workplace bullying myths are the facts O’Brien uses to refute the myths.  The legal consequences are all framed in the context of the industrial relations framework which, in Australia, is led by the Fair Work Commission.  O’Brien talks about “defences” and “all reasonable steps”, terms that are about limiting liability more than about reducing harm.

He advises his readers that they should have:

  • “A trusted HR department or person that employees being bullied can come to and discuss the situation, seek help and get it
  • A trusted mechanism through which employees are able to make a complaint and know that action will be taken
  • An effective method of dealing with and investigating complaints
  • Trained HR professionals who can undertake a timely and efficient investigation or
  • A professional workplace investigator on speed dial…….”

Each of these points has a parallel OHS context.  OHS, and Work Health and Safety, laws have prescribed processes for Health and Safety Representatives with whom workplace bullying can be discussed.  By addressing workplace bullying in an OHS context, multiple options for remediation are made available that include HR but is not dominated by it.

The OHS legislation also has a clearly defined issue resolution procedure, if the workplace does not have one of its own, designed to address a range of OHS issues, including bullying.  Whether this mechanism is “trusted” depends on each workplace and its management but it is a legislated mechanism that can offer an alternative path that can be outside of HR.

O’Brien’s points relating to investigation are sound but must include an investigation into the cause of the workplace bullying – the mental health issues, the psychosocial impacts and the potential organisational issues that have either encouraged, or failed to discourage, workplace bullying.  Frequently HR investigations are framed around the need to resolve a management issue or conflict rather than to uncover uncomfortable truths that may have contributed to workplace bullying.

The last bullet point is simply a commercial that we often hear, from the legal profession in particular.  All OHS regulators in Australia have inspectors who can be asked to respond to a workplace health and safety issue.  Many regulators have inspectors who are specially-trained to respond to, or investigate, claims of workplace bullying, at no direct cost to the complainant or the employer.

There is a lot of free advice about workplace bullying available online from workplace and safety regulators.  Almost all of it provides advice on how to prevent workplace bullying and how to address the issue if it occurs.  It is highly likely that any occurrence will require the involvement of the person responsible for Human Resources.  However the worker will benefit more if that HR person also has a good understanding of the OHS advice, assistance and enforcement resources that Governments provide.