Bullying is in the eye of the beholder, at least for the time being, in this country. There is no national definition of bullying or non-sexual harassment behaviour in law at present.
Now it appears there is an emerging disparity between the way leaders see bullying and the way their employees see it.
A new survey has found leaders believe bullying is on the decline. The survey, by Leadership Management Australia, a national management training company, shows that 28% of leaders believe bullying is happening in their organisation, down from 35% in 2006.
More companies than ever have a bullying policy (87% today compared to 79% in 2006), but these policies appear to have little impact on the floor.
Employees report absolutely no change in the incidence of bullying.
Over the past six years of the survey, the percentage of employees who have observed incidents of bullying has remained static at 33% or 34%, the number of victims at about 15% (19% in 2006) and the number who were being bullied at the time of the survey steady at 4% (this year) or 5% in 2006.
This year’s survey, which closed on September 30, had 4077 respondents, comprising 264 leaders, 448 managers and 3365 employees. LMA has conducted the Leadership, Employment and Direction (LEAD) survey of workplace trends for the past 12 years.
LMA’s CEO, Andrew Henderson, believes there is a lack of managerial commitment to the issue.
“There are more organisations today with a bullying management policy than six years ago, yet there is no apparent reduction in the incidence of bullying over that time which suggests managers and leaders are not policing the policies,” said Henderson.
Incidence of workplace issues (2012)
Workplace issues observed (2012)
Source: Leadership Management Australia
Looking behind the numbers
The Productivity Commission estimates the total cost of workplace bullying in Australia as between $6 billion and $36 billion annually, and there is currently an inquiry into workplace bullying by a House of Representatives Committee. It is yet to report.
Complaints about workplace bullying are on the increase, according to Kathryn Dent, a director of workplace law practice, People + Culture Strategies. “We are seeing that an increasing number of our clients are subject to receiving complaints, which leads to an investigation,” says Dent. She says the survey findings surprise her. “The leaders and managers we are seeing are taking it seriously.”
Workplace consultant, Leanne Faraday-Brash, says the economic climate may be silencing employees, except under the anonymity of a survey. “We have experienced a profound rupture in economic certainty. Employees may be frightened to speak up to managers now for fear of recrimination, or losing their job. Rather than stick up for themselves, they may feel more of a pressure to comply rather than to ask questions.”
Faraday-Brash believes staff are becoming more conscious of the issue, and able to name it, but Henderson does not think this is the reason for the outcome. “I think maybe it is that our managers and leaders are not talking to employees and finding out if what they are doing is having a positive impact.”
Dent says the two groups may have a different view of what bullying is: what an employee considers bullying, a leader can see as performance management. “There is fine line,” says Dent.
Bullying or performance management
Given that there is no law defining bullying or non-sexual harassment, a lot of organisations are left struggling to interpret various state codes and guidelines. The test is what a “reasonable person” would do.
The tight economic conditions are playing a role, with leaders under pressure.
Faraday-Brash says that, while employees are more sensitive to unacceptable workplace behaviours, employers are making their staff more accountable. “In the past it was about coming into work and putting in an effort,” she says. “Now employees are facing with more precise and accurate descriptions about success in the job, and they are being asked to measure up to more clear and rigorous standards. Some are feeling the pinch.”
On the other hand, the pressures on leaders might be contributing to perceptions of bullying. Faraday-Brash says: “Managers themselves are feeling the heat. Because they have to justify their position, some may execute that poorly and push for results unreasonably. They may be well-meaning but sloppy in their execution.”
Watch the emails
Both leaders and employees recognised problems with inappropriate emails.
Faraday-Brash says the pressure contributes: “What is lost is the ability to fineness the tone of emails. Without context or a jocular expression, an email takes on huge importance.”
Gerard Phillips, industrial relations partner at Middletons Lawyers, says email is a “red-hot example” of how easy it is to misconstrue exchanges. “We’ve all received emails and thought, ‘Gee whiz!’ The tone and context of email is frequently misconstrued, yet people have a tendency to fire them off without thinking.”
Receiving a nasty snail mail is a rare occurrence, by comparison, he points out.
More than policy
Henderson says the data from the survey provides an opportunity for leaders to step back and rethink their approach.
“If organisations are going to improve, they need to ensure their managers and leaders set the example, and check that, at the top level, their style is not bullying
“Then we suggest that they set about getting the facts. Run internal anonymous surveys where people feel free to give feedback and compare themselves to the LEAP survey.
The third step is being committed to implementing a zero-tolerance policy. If they understood the effect on morale – besides it being their responsibility – bullying is number two in terms of its effect on the people’s performance.”
Workplace lawyer, Kathryn Dent, says: “It is very important for managers and leaders to be aware of bullying and harassment; it can give rise to workers compensation claims and breaches of Occupations Health and Safety laws for both the company and the individuals.”
On top of workers compensation costs, there can be sick leave, negative impacts on morale, productivity, and absenteeism and there might be litigation for issues such as unfair dismissal.
Dent says training is essential to make bullying policy a “living, breathing document”. It has to be reviewed to keep up with changes in processes and technology, and become part of the induction process.
Leadership is the essential element to successful policies and training. “It is refreshing for me to see it led from the top, where you have the managing director attending the training with everybody else, or introducing the sessions.”
Crucially, once it is implemented, a policy must be enforced. Dent says: “It is a matter of pulling people up and disciplining them over a breach, and making sure that breaches are not ignored.”