Less formal approach to bullying dilemma

by Rose Sneyd22 Apr 2013

A workplace bullying expert is championing a greater focus on informal workplace procedures to deal with potential instances of bullying. “That’s the area that’s most lacking in organisations, and it’s actually the one that can potentially transform situations,” Hadyn Olsen, founder of Workplaces Against Violence in Employment, said.

But many organisations aren’t even aware of the difference: while a formal process involves a complaint, an informal one is a question of raising a concern. “There’s no such thing as an informal complaint,” Olsen added.

The problem with complaints is that they are adversarial by nature, since the accused party may be disciplined, or even dismissed, and must defend his or herself. “If I have a complaint made about me, then I turn up to for an interview, with my lawyer, and I’m not going to say anything that’s going to incriminate me,” Olsen said.

In an informal process, on the other hand, the focus is on resolution. “I need to be able to go through some kind of dialogue process that’s going to involve understanding how my behaviour has affected someone else and how we can both work together better,” Olsen explained. While the formal process looks back in time, the informal one looks forward – to creating better working relationships.

Examples of informal procedures:

  • First of all, you might try to resolve the issue with the other person alone. Ask yourself: “Am I able to go and have a conversation with the other person and create something better?” If not, don’t press forward or the situation could deteriorate.
  • At the next level, you might want to involve your manager. “So I might approach my manager or I might approach HR, and I might say, ‘Look, I’ve got a problem with my relationship with this person … I would like some help to sort this relationship out’,” Olsen said.
  • At its minimum, this might simply mean having a third party sit down with you while you have a conversation with the other person in order to keep the discussion on track.
  • Otherwise, your manager might engage in shuttle mediation: going between both parties to try to come to a resolution.
  • Or you could request a mediator from your manager.

“This is the area, that I believe, we’re on the cusp of developing in workplaces,” Olsen said. Although it’s now ‘embryonic’, Olsen predicted that in 20 years’ time workplaces will be much better equipped to resolve bullying allegations in an informal way.


  • by Harriet Stacey 22/04/2013 2:27:54 PM

    I think you have to be very careful to determine the difference between a workplace conflict involving two parties on an equal footing where the above process can work wonders and a case of genuine bullying where any one of the above recommendations can lead to further undermine the self esteem of the victim and empower the bully.

    Bullying as opposed to disrespectful conduct involves a power play, the more powerful the offender the less likely any informal process has of working. Think about this - you are a junior employee being bullied and have suffered loss of self esteem, are you going to walk up the head of your department and ask for a conversation about how their last belittling comment at the staff meeting made you feel hurt? There are many ways a bully might respond to this, most of them involve making a mockery of the victim.

    Informal responses will only work if the conduct is unintentional, where peer support is around the victim or where there is a real and present danger of termination if the bully doesn't change their conduct ( from the top).

    Whilst i support the innovation of new ways of dealing with the problem but they must be aware of the dynamics of bullying.

  • by Vanessa Tomaselli - Professional HR Business Consu 22/04/2013 4:42:39 PM

    You catch more bees with honey ... attempting to resolve an issue amicably and rationally is always a must at any level. You only win employee confidence and trust by recognising the merits of all concerned. And, identifying with all that each party contributes in one way or another, intentionally or not.

  • by Leanne Faraday-Brash 22/04/2013 5:11:14 PM

    I don't disagree with any of these strategies in the right context. Bullying grievances are by nature adversarial and they take no prisoners. Informal means to resolve issues will only work where the behaviour was perceived to be unintentional, the bully shows remorse and the 'victim' or target feels safe to engage with the bully and is open to a facilitated outcome.
    I don't believe an informal strategy is “embryonic” as managers have been opting for "informal" by brushing such issues under the carpet or telling complainants to lighten up for a long time. Formal investigations are sometimes the only appropriate option in the face of serious allegations but rarely can the parties return to a workable relationship in the aftermath.
    My preference is for mediation any day of the week but the one element that is not easily addressed by this strategy is the feeling by the complainant that the bully "got off" without being punished and this often leaves them embittered and feeling unsupported despite management's best intentions.

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