08 November 2008

COMMENTARY - Workplace bullying: Sharing lessons with our friends across the Tasman

Key Points:

Four strategies can help manage workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying can be highly demoralising and costly for a workforce. Queensland's Griffith University has estimated that it affects around 3.5% of workers. WorkCover ACT states the financial cost of bullying to Australian businesses at between $6 billion and $13 billion a year, including indirect costs such as absenteeism, labour turnover, lost productivity and legal costs.

The rise in workplace bullying and how it should be addressed, has also not been lost on our friends across the Tasman. In a recent speech to the Queensland Safety Forum, New Zealand bullying expert Haydn Olsen outlined four strategies to make an organisation bully-proof.

The four strategies

In order to change from a "climate of fear" to a "climate of safety", education, leadership, complaint-handling and support for victims must be addressed.

  • Firstly, it is important to educate workers as to what bullying is and is not. Despite the apprehensions of many employers that this will lead to a raft of claims, Olsen says that letting workers know what is not workplace bullying will restrict claims to those that are legitimate and serious. An employer should emphasise the particular elements of bullying, as well as give specific examples to highlight to employees their practical application. Olsen recommends the use of facilitated education sessions to achieve this.

  • Secondly, employers should understand that bullying is closely linked to leadership and that 60-80% of bullying occurs from positions of higher power. Managers and supervisors must be trained both not to bully and also to prevent others from bullying, particularly by ensuring early intervention. Managers are also in a good position to be role models for appropriate workplace demeanour and behaviour. Choosing the right people for the task is vital, says Olsen, pointing out that managers should be able to communicate clearly, handle conflict, confront behaviour and manage defensiveness.

  • Thirdly, a workplace must have both formal and informal procedures for handling complaints. The informal procedures should operate on a "no blame" basis, while formal procedures should take longer, clearly attribute responsibility and have a definite outcome. Informal procedures should be followed first. If they do not result in an agreeable outcome, formal procedures should then be instigated. All claims should be taken seriously, handled promptly and by fair process, an coupled with protection from victimisation. It is also advised that disciplinary action be taken in the case of any fraudulent complaints.

  • Lastly, Olsen stressed the need for employees to give sufficient support to those who make a complaint. As he points out, a New Zealand survey found 75 per cent of complainants received no help. In order to address this, employers should put in place employee assistance programs, designate contact persons, offer mentoring and coaching (especially for new employees) and provide supportive management.


The four strategies of education, leadership, grievance resolution and handling and support are elements which directly translate into the Australian environment.

This is not surprising on one level. Making clear what is acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviour, promoting staff awareness through training, role modelling of appropriate behaviour and demonstrating leadership, having a process in which to respond to and resolve issues and providing assistance to employees who may have been affected by inappropriate conduct, are all familiar themes to prudent employers already well-versed in dealing with workplace discrimination and harassment.

Despite these similarities, it is interesting to note that many commentators often do not make the link between employer strategies to deal with workplace bullying and discrimination, and moreover, that intrinsic to both is the importance of addressing broader issues about workplace culture and associated with that human resources priorities such as staff retention and development and corporate leadership.


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