According to John Boardman, Director Workplace Relations at iHR Australia, bullying has taken a devastating toll on Australian business costing more than $10 billion dollars a year. Boardman notes that addressing the underlying causes of bullying is imperative as well as undertaking preventative measure such as training. According to Boardman, common causes of bullying include:
- Managers not knowing how to provide regular performance feedback and letting performance issues build up. Boardman uses the analogy of managers crushing ants with sledge hammers;
- Managers not knowing the fine line between firm feedback and aggressive and authoritarian management styles; and
- Inappropriate and out-of-date management styles – managers often manage how they were managed in the past. However, what was appropriate 20 or 30 years ago is not necessary appropriate today.
Instead, Boardman observes, managers should model the values and behaviours set by the organisation. “There is no point having the values of the organisation hung on a wall if people look at the senior executives within the organisation and see that they don’t model that behaviour.” Boardman believes that “people will imitate the behaviour of their leaders” and that this can produce an organisational “subculture of aggressive behaviour”, which can potentially produce employee disengagement and productivity loss.
A recent case before the Fair Work Commission highlights the importance of managers understanding what constitutes bullying and ensuring their leadership style is appropriate for the modern workplace. The Audit and Risk Manager accused of bullying commenced employment in December 2013 at a care provider.
One witness described the manager as having “said all the right things” and appearing “very personable”, but after the first few weeks he imposed an obsessive micromanagement regime. This included implementing new systems for auditing that included numerous spreadsheets. This led to double-handling of reporting workloads and reduced productivity. One employee gave evidence that, of the 22.5 hours she worked a week, she spent around a third of that time completing these spreadsheets. It is also alleged that the manager refused to allow employees to contact the in-house helpdesk when systems malfunctioned.
In 2015, complaints were made by two of the manager’s direct reports. One of the complainants gave evidence that the Audit and Risk Manager had made comments about her English expression. The employee told the tribunal that the manager regularly made jokes about her English, calling it “Checklish” – a reference to her origin in the Czech Republic – and often sat with her to watch her working on documents while making snide comments about her English expression. He also sent an email allegedly mocking her English expression, saying “Wot’s a debot?”. Other allegations suggested that the manager displayed aggressive and controlling behaviour and micromanaged employees.
Following the formal complaints, the employer undertook a workplace investigations in June 2015 managed by an external HR consultancy.
The investigation found the manager had breached the employer’s codes and policies by engaging in serious and sustained bullying of employees under his management. The manager was dismissed in August 2015. The manager disputed the dismissal, arguing that that the complaints made against him were politically motivated and contrived.
The Fair Work Commission rejected his claim that he was the victim of a conspiracy and found his micromanagement amounted to bullying that justified his dismissal.
While the employer was found not to be at fault in this instance, disputes such as this are costly for employers as time spent preparing for the proceedings and attending the Commission impacts productivity. Such disputes also negatively impact team morale and employer of choice status.
Providing appropriate training to employees to ensure that they understand what constitutes workplace bullying can minimise the potential for such disputes.
In this case, the Commissioner noted that the risk manager was well-intentioned but that he caused some team members “great distress and anxiety”. The Commissioner found that the manager believed he was doing “his best by his employer and his staff”, but was “unaware of the effects his behaviour had on the employees who reported to him”. Thus the manager was blissfully unaware of what constituted workplace bullying. Providing regular training on what constitutes workplace bullying may have prevented this misunderstanding.
Other actions that employers can take to prevent workplace bullying include:
- Ensuring all new employees undertake a formal induction process and ensure all staff have read and understood relevant policies and procedures;
- Ensuring that bullying policies and procedure reflect current legislation;
- Ensuring that managers have the skills to address inappropriate workplace behaviour; and
- Appointing workplace Contact Officers and providing appropriate training to them.
iHR believe prevention is the best cure. Attend iHR’s Anti-Discrimination and Bullying Training for Managers Workshop to learn how managers can play a key role in preventing and effectively managing bullying discrimination issues in the workplace, including management techniques and styles that can reduce the risk of workplace issues and litigation.