Bullying has become the catch-all term for employee dissatisfaction. Salli Browning suggests that helping employees find more accurate terms for the conflict situations they encounter can alleviate the epidemic faced by HR.
“Thou shalt not bully” is a serious commandment in the modern workplace. And like all commandments, it is frequently violated.
Statistics show that bullying claims are rising steadily. In NSW alone, workplace workers compensation claims have increased by 10% since 2011. This is in spite of the anti-bullying awareness campaigns, codes of conduct and media spotlight.
Has Australia produced a workforce of bullies? Judging by the latest anti-bullying legislation that comes into effect on 1 January 2014, it would seem so.
The legislation itself is at odds with the issues faced by many employers. The irony is that despite the best intentions of the legislation, employers are faced with the prospect of an avalanche of complaints based on perceptions. Bullying has become the catch-all term for employee dissatisfaction.
A recent case we attended is demonstrative of this point. An employee in the state public sector wrote to HR complaining that his direct manager was a bully. HR decided the situation-required intervention. We suggested that the organisation conduct a preliminary workplace assessment.
When we met with the employee, one of the first things he said when explaining the situation was “bullying is a too strong a word”. He went on to recount a conflict scenario that involved differing views about a project recommendation he had made, and described feeling intimidated and threatened. His complaint referred to the situation as bullying. When we met with his manager, she was distressed and felt pressured by the allegation. She was confused as to why she had been accused. She felt she had supported the employee, who she perceived him as being ‘difficult’ and requiring her intervention.
The experience demonstrates the dangers of bullying becoming a catchall term for interpersonal issues. This paves a destructive path where trust erodes and workplace dynamics are damaged.
Many HR practitioners have acknowledged that the majority of bullying claims couldn’t be substantiated and reflect multiple issues at play. Whilst we all agree that bullying is never acceptable, using bullying as a generic term for interpersonal disputes is unhelpful and distressing for all parties concerned.
So why does this happen?
Like the 10 commandments, corporate values and codes of ethics are very broad principles and it can be difficult to operationalize them top-down. The proliferation of anti-bullying awareness campaigns has led to workplace conflicts too readily being labeled as bullying. Helping employees find more accurate terms for the conflict situations they encounter can alleviate the epidemic faced by HR.
What can HR do?
Every organisational workflow has friction points. There are predictable points for potential workplace conflict in the operation cycle such as performance management, promotions and team restructures.
Protocols and clear pathway for employees. The appropriate process should be determined and engaged locally. Employees also have to be aware of consistent pathways to handle workplace conflict. Not all matters require formal investigation or claim. Mediation may be best for interpersonal conflict resolution.
Enhanced communication skills for difficult conversations. When issues are not discussed from the outset, it often escalates further in the mind of the aggrieved parties. Clear and mature channels of communication can de-escalate a delicate situation.
Leadership capabilities. With increasing devolvement of HR functions, these are excellent opportunities to train line managers, supervisors and employees on how to manage potential conflict through early identification and intervention.
The provision of mechanisms that enable proper assessment and understanding of workplace issues at the forefront will mitigate the mislabeling of ‘bullying’. Creating effective leadership capabilities and involving procedures such as mediation will help address situations that do not constitute bullying. The way in which we manage workplace perceptions without the ‘bullying’ catchall term is the way forward in addressing workplace grievances.
About the author
Salli Browning is a dispute resolution specialist at Corporate Health Services www.corporatehealthservices.com.au