Australia: Workplace bullying - Tips for taming the beast

Workplace bullying is hazardous workplace behaviour that risks the health and safety of workers. It also presents reputational, legal and business risks for universities and individuals alike.

Astute employers usually conduct investigations into bullying allegations with a view to determining what occurred and whether disciplinary action should ensue. However preventing, managing and responding to bullying behaviour is often complex and involves considering many factors, such as the workplace's culture and environment, the behaviour itself, policies and procedures, risk management, dispute resolution and monitoring the effectiveness of anti-bullying measures.

Universities need to take proactive steps to address these factors and here are some tips for preventing and managing bullying in the workplace.

  1. Assess the risk

Safe Work Australia's Guide For Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying encourages workplaces to identify and assess risk factors that could lead to bullying. Consulting with your workers is an important way to obtain information about workplace behaviour that could help identify issues and areas of concern.

There are also recognised factors associated with an increased risk of bullying occurring in the workplace. These factors are not limited to particular behaviours and can also take into account the work environment and conditions more broadly, including:

  • role conflict and ambiguity
  • job insecurity
  • unreasonable work expectations
  • lack of work resources
  • lack of behavioural standards, and
  • autocratic leadership styles or a lack of effective leadership.

Understanding your workplace and identifying and assessing risk factors is essential for universities to develop appropriate anti-bullying measures.

  1. Set expectations

It is often said that workplaces should have policies and procedures that set clear expectations for workplace behaviour. While true, the mere implementation of a policy about bullying is unlikely to be effective.

Policies and procedures need to set clear expectations regarding behaviour and must also be supported by education and training. In addition to explaining bullying behaviour, effective training should:

  • Educate workers on how to respond to bullying and prevent it from escalating. This includes speaking to the other person about their behaviour, if they feel safe and comfortable to do so.
  • Educate workers on how to respond to concerns about their own behaviour. This includes encouraging workers to listen to concerns, stay calm and look for solutions to help the parties continue to work together. This could be as simple as making slight changes to behaviour or ways of interacting.
  • Give workers an opportunity to discuss examples of bullying behaviour that have occurred in workplace scenarios. This allows workers an opportunity to see how bullying can occur, ask questions and test their understanding of the issues.
  • Inform workers that they have legal work health and safety obligations to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, their acts or omissions don't adversely affect the health and safety of others. This includes not engaging in and not ignoring bullying behaviour.
  1. Just because it's not bullying, doesn't mean you should ignore it

It is not uncommon for workers to disagree about matters, cause offence or have conflict in the workplace. Yet not all unpleasant behaviours or interactions are considered to be bullying.

Nevertheless, instances of workplace conflict should not be ignored as it may be a precursor to bullying behaviour. In these circumstances, workers should be encouraged to discuss their concerns and explore options for resolving the matter before it escalates, as indicated above.

  1. Explore alternative solutions

Workplace bullying is a serious issue, but not all instances of bullying will require disciplinary action. It is important that when bullying complaints are raised, the expectations of workers about potential outcomes are ascertained and managed.

It may not always be appropriate for the alleged perpetrator to be dismissed. Alternative solutions should be discussed with those involved and might include exploring the possibility of workers continuing to work together, setting agreed parameters for interactions, alternative working arrangements, facilitated discussion or mediation. In all circumstances, solutions should aim to control risks to the worker's health and safety that arise from the other worker's behaviour.

  1. Monitor anti-bullying measures and keep in touch

Bullying is a work health and safety issue. Like control measures implemented for other workplace hazards, it is important to monitor the effectiveness of those measures. Even if bullying complaints are not raised, workplaces should maintain dialogue with workers about risk factors and workplace behaviours. Refresher training for workers should also be undertaken.

It is also important to keep in touch with workers who have been involved in bullying complaints. Sometimes the outcome of a bullying complaint may involve alternative working arrangements or some other mediated/facilitated solution. Where a change in behaviour has been required or agreed upon, it is necessary to monitor whether that change has occurred and is maintained.

Investigation and discipline is an important part of managing and responding to bullying. However, the maintenance of a safe and healthy working environment requires a broad understanding of the workplace, bullying risk factors to the workplace, clear expectations of workers, comprehensive training for workers and a proactive approach addressing bullying and other concerning behaviours. The ongoing monitoring of anti-bullying measures is also critical for maintaining a bullying-free workplace.

What about university students?

Universities should also have standards that address expectations of students' academic and personal conduct and have grievance procedures in place. This information should be readily available to students, such as on the university's website and through the student services department, the student representative council and the university's counselling and psychological services.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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