The mismanagement of performance issues is linked to an increase in bullying related claims in the workplace. This has been driven by a lack of planning and knowledge of impacts by some managers in performance counselling resulting in employees feeling targeted.


The link between poor performance management and increased bullying claims

iHR Australia’s Director of Investigation Services – John Boardman has conducted numerous independent workplace investigations over the past 10 years and believes there is a pattern emerging between poor handling of performance management issues and allegations of bullying. Mr. Boardman states “while workers compensation in most jurisdictions preclude psychological injury such as stress related illnesses that result from proper performance counselling and performance feedback, employers need to be able to demonstrate that the performance counselling was done in a reasonable manner”.

Stephen Bell – iHR Australia’s Managing Director believes that “managers often confuse ‘coaching’ or ‘feedback’ sessions as part of the formal performance management process which has a negative connotation and regularly instils feelings of victimisation in employees”. He adds the point that “the common mistakes managers make is waiting to deal with performance issues until the problem is out of control, therefore finding themselves performance managing employees out of the organisation rather than with the intent to improve their performance. Performance Management should actually be a mostly positive concept. It should involve talking about achievements and setting realistic expectations and motivating people to improve instead of often becoming a punitive concept”.

Employment Lawyer – Annabel Kaye quoted in ‘Employment Law in a mad world’ states that “the setting of impossible goals (by overstating the goals or under resourcing what is needed to achieve them) is one of the behaviours identified as bullying . Not only will unrealistic goals undermine the fairness of any dismissal but they may also trigger claims or bullying. More so, if these claims are linked to any issue of discrimination this can turns into a very expensive ‘efficiency exercise'”.


The importance of establishing a performance culture

In response to this emerging issue Mr. Bell believes that organisations first need to focus on their workplace culture. Mr. Bell defines workplace culture as “the way we do things around here”. We consider that in a performance based culture the norm becomes regularly discussing and evaluating performance as well as setting expectations and clear objectives. If it is not the expectation that these activities go on then we neither have a performance culture or a culture where people feel comfortable having direct discussions about whether or not they are achieving within the context of their job expectations. This becomes a culture where discussions of performance can easily get confused with workplace bullying.” According to Human Capital Magazine “creating a culture of performance often requires a dramatic shift in the attitude of an organisation towards its employees from one of a “workforce” to one that values unique contributions, recognises strengths and invests in developing weaknesses and understanding the value of each individual” .

We recommend that the following hints are taken into consideration in your organisation to reduce the risk of bullying related claims.

  • Ensure that your employees have clearly defined roles, responsibilities and lines of authority by implementing appropriate work systems
  • Avoid making excessive or unrealistic work demands by reviewing and monitoring work loads, staffing and resource levels
  • Ensure expectations are consistent and reasonable in the context of the core skills required to do an employee’s job
  • Create reasonable performance measures, timeframes and routines – they should not come as a surprise to employees
  • Provide clarity around standards of behaviour and promote values that encourage positive workplace behaviours by implementing a conflict management process and providing necessary training
  • Conduct culture surveys regularly to ensure values supporting positive workplace behaviours are practiced and performance management processes are considered fair and appropriate
  • Ensure Managers are able to deal with under performance in a constructive manner when it is first identified by giving the employee appropriate notice and approaching the conversation with a goal to assist them to improve
  • Encourage and establish open communication channels between managers and employees by removing barriers and creating an ‘open-door’ policy

Human Capital Magazine believes that without a cultural change, performance management may never evolve from the annual performance review. They recommend investing in manager training and development and provide support for those who are uncomfortable with these types of conversations.

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