Thou Shalt Not Bully

by External22 Jul 2013

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



  • by Bernie Althofer 26/07/2013 12:50:49 PM

    It seems to me that by the time 'bullying' gets to HR it is already well advanced.

    It might be appropriate to ensure that risk assessments are conducted across the organisation, the hazard/risk factors assessed, and it might just be the case, that this process identifies the need to ensure that line managers and supervisors and even workers are trained in various aspects of conflict identification and management, along with communication skills.

    Understanding the short, medium and long term physical, psychological and financial implications of work place bullying as it applies in a work health and safety context, is not just the role of HR. It is important that HR plays a role in ensuring that those directly involved in the day to day management supervision and management of workers understand their obligations.

    It is reasonable to believe that with appropriate and relevant investments being made in implementing controls at various levels within an organisation, it is possible to reduce the incidence of workplace bullying, and even mitigate the fallout that occurs when an incident happens.

    Putting all the onus and responsibility for preventing, detecting and resolving workplace bullying on HR for what is an obligation placed on all officers and workers, seems to be one way that an organisation can increase their level of risk exposure. It seems that by spreading the onus for meeting individual and organisational responsibilities will put bullying under the spotlight, particularly when individuals understand the implications of not meeting their obligations. Ignore the obligations at your peril.

  • by Steve Champion 2/08/2013 9:40:23 AM

    Excellent article Salli.

    Interesting point about the growth of workers comp claims. Similarly, I have found in organisations that institute safety programs, there is often an increase in wc claims despite the supposed new focus on safety. Some of that will be employees reporting things they previously wouldn't have, but I believe that the other reason is that some people will latch on to safety as an outlet for their own unhappiness at work, or some sort of exit strategy.

    I am totally disappointed that the opportunity wasn't taken by Federal Labor when instituting its bullying legislation to require dispute resolution processes to be mandatory for all stress, bullying and harassment claims, with the power for orders to be made against both parties, not just the employer.

    What is being created is an extra means of slapping employers, when often the employee is an equal or even greater contributor to the problem having developed.

    The workers compensation system has got to be the worst way these claims could be handled, but the new bullying laws are likely to be not far behind if a punitive approach is going to be taken by the FWC. As the system has been established to redress wrongs against employees, there will likely be an assumption the employer is at fault to begin with.

  • by Bernie Althofer 2/08/2013 10:34:50 AM

    As I have indicated in other forums and groups, perception can be all important. For example, most managers would believe that saying to an employee "As a matter of interest, what do you have on next week?" would be a fair question, and perhaps reasonable management. However, in some cases, depending on the 'evidence' presented, this very question might be assessed as unreasonable management.

    It seems that across the board, there are many genuine cases of workplace bullying and harassment. However, there may be some situations where as soon as the word bullying is raised, there is an automatic 'need' to report the matter as such, without first conducting some preliminary inquiry to determine the nature of the incident i.e. is it a workplace conflict or is it bullying?

    It seems that in some cases, when some people are confronted with allegation that raises bullying, no inquiry is conducted to determine what has actually happened. Given that Courts, Commissions and Tribunals are making some interesting decisions, it might also be the case that when a 'bullying' matter is raised, the matter is documented as bullying.

    Various discussion groups have identified the pros and cons of 'forcing' people into mediation or dispute resolution. There seems to be mixed views as to whether or not this really works. One of the main arguments for not making it mandatory is that the workplace hazards or risk factors are rarely addressed, and in addition, co-workers are not included in the process.

    In workplace bullying cases it appears to be the case that the workplace bully as an employee is the main contributor to the incident. Targets don't go to work to be bullied, although it does it appear from some discussions, there is an expectation that targets stand up to the bully.

    It seems that there needs to be a greater focus on managing risks in communication encounters across an organisation. There may always be tensions that emerge among ethical, relational and performance obligations in the workplace. Learning to understand the risks and how to manage or control those risks could be advantageous to everyone.