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Are Australian bosses being bullied?

15 October 2013

When an organisation is dealing with the issue of workplace bullying or harassment, it is common to assume that the victims are lower-level employees.

However, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) has recently delved into a different form of workplace bullying that may take some employers by surprise.

In an article published on 11 October, the AFR revealed that Australian workplace OHS lawyers are now reporting an increase in the number of bullying cases being received from leaders.

The AFR spoke to Giri Sivaraman, Employment & Industrial Law principal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, who explained that senior executives are at risk of being bullied by groups of colleagues below them in the office hierarchy.

"In terms of who bullies a senior executive or harasses them, there's usually very few people who are senior to them within the organisation other than, for example, the board," said Mr Sivaraman.

"That doesn't mean they can't be bullied. One of the ways it can happen is if a lot of people act in concert against them. It might be people at their level acting in concert with people below their level."

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So what can business leaders and senior executives who find themselves being bullied by subordinates do to reassert control and generate a better workplace culture?

Senior level workers should remember that every worker has a right to a workplace free from harassment and bullying. As with all bullying complaints, managers and senior executives should think about the most appropriate way to tackle the behaviour; this may mean seeking help from the HR team or an external provider that offers HR outsourcing, who can offer support or conduct mediation to try and resolve the issue. An external provider may also be able to assist with coaching to help a senior executive regain confidence in leading their team and building a positive culture.

Employers should also bear in mind that prevention is paramount so providing effective anti-bullying training to employees at all levels is an important step. Clearly communicating and enforcing policies on behaviour is also an important preventative measure as well as encouraging all workers with management responsibility to act as role models.

As with all bullying and harassment cases, it is important to identify and address the cause or contributing factors behind the bullying, and act to address the root of the problem rather than merely the symptoms. A workplace inquiry may be the best response if an organisation has become aware of inappropriate behaviour within a team, but no formal complaint has been made. An inquiry can help to uncover issues contributing to unrest and poor behaviour and offer recommendations on how to best address them.

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