HR dilemma: When bullying is blamed for poor performance

by Sarah Megginson22 Sep 2014
Myriad factors can be at play when an employee’s performance trends poorly. But how should HR respond when the employee claims workplace bullying is to blame?
This type of situation is often revealed during a formal performance management process, said Sally Woodward, partner, Norton Rose Fulbright – and if not handled correctly, it can quickly escalate.
“An increasing problem for employers is when employees, during the performance management process, allege that they have been bullied by their manager, take personal leave, and potentially make a workers compensation claim,” Woodward said. 
“By not conducting a performance management process properly, [you run] the risk of being unable to defend any unfair dismissal, adverse action or discrimination claims.”
Before this scenario develops, it’s important that your employees are clear on their performance parameters – including specific workplace goals, expectations and consequences – so that any issues of bullying can be handled separately to issues of performance.
This way, legitimate complaints can be responded to appropriately, “whilst ensuring that the employer is able to continue to manage the employee's performance”, Woodward said. 
“Of course, this can be difficult to manage, and, as we all know, one man's ‘bullying’ is another man's ‘robust performance management’,” she added.
“Ultimately, the managers who conduct the performance management process must be given the appropriate support and training in relation to these matters.”
During her presentation at the upcoming Employment Law for HR Manager masterclass events, held in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in November, Woodward will discuss this and other common problems encountered during the performance management process.
Woodward will draw on recent case studies and offer tips as to how performance should be managed, to reduce the risk of a successful bullying claim. Click here for more information or to register.
You might also like:  


  • by Gerard 22/09/2014 1:05:36 PM

    Unbalanced article!

    To allege that they have been bullied by their manager, take personal leave, and make a workers compensation claim, is ALSO the easiest and most reliable tactic used by those who are not performing, are worried about their performance, or are indeed incompetent. In fact, the only time I've seen a college pull that tactic was then they were not performing or had been caught lying on their resume and were never going to be skilled for their role.

    The tactic described is so easy and learnable, in fact, I've seen people coaching others on how to do so convincingly. The WIIFM is compelling - "extra holidays with a bonus". If only they put that much energy and creativity into their work...

  • by Bernie Althofer 22/09/2014 2:32:13 PM

    As many have commented across a range of discussion groups, it seems that both managers and workers have concerns with performance management and the potential for allegations to be made during the process.

    It seems that whilst many organisations do have well documented policies and procedures, the implementation thereof or the actual workplace practices in relation to performance management do leave the door open to allegations.

    It seems that to reduce allegations, all parties involved or potentially involved in the process of performance management and appraisals, need to be actually trained in what is specifically required.

    In addition, the policies and procedures have to be followed (irrespective of whether or not people like it) so that natural justice and procedural fairness are present. From experience, it seems that individuals may be more likely to perceive they are being singled out when there are variances in how the policy and procedures are applied.

    It seems the best way to reduce the potential of allegations being made is to ensure consistency in the application and implementation of the process i.e. the same process for everyone.

    All too often organisations provide training in relation to workplace bullying and overlook the need to ensure that hazards or factors that contribute to bullying or the potential for bullying to occur are addressed and controls put in place.

    Relying on word of mouth to learn about performance management is hardly ideal. In much the same, emailing a performance form to an employee with a time for completion, is in my view, one way of creating a situation where a worker will challenge any assessment.

  • by Michael Collins 22/09/2014 4:23:01 PM

    Unfortunately, workplace bullying and harassment by managers is more common than previously thought, and is responsible for mental and physical harm to employees as well as damage to organisations. Whilst managers are often praised for 'getting results', e.g., by managing poor performance, sometimes employees view such task-focused actions as bullying or abusive.

    There are at least two issues that need to be resolved here. First, impulsive aggressive behaviour often occurs in demanding work situations where managers feel under pressure to perform and have difficulty controlling strong negative emotions. This outcome is more likely for managers with low attentional resources (e.g., working memory/fluid intelligence).

    Second, poor performing employees often react anxiously or angrily to such behaviour. This can lead to avoidance (e.g., unplanned leave) or aggressive behaviour (e.g., arguing), respectively. Both reactions are clearly ineffective and often demonstrates further poor performance by the employee.

    The solution involves helping managers recognize the impact of frustrating situations on their emotional reactions and inappropriate behaviours. The tendency for managers to react this way under pressure is the subject of a number of recent studies at the Australian School of Business, UNSW (available on request).

Most Read