Australia: Is it OK for bosses to shout at their employees?

Last Updated: 26 February 2018
Article by Geoff Baldwin

Probably none of us needs media revelations to be aware of bosses who command attention – or try to – by shouting.

A study recently published by the Harvard Business Review, Is It OK to Yell at Your Employees? cited a list of famous people from all walks of life – sports, business, science, music, and others – whose trademark method of getting things done has been the raised, angry, voice directed at subordinates.

While the HBR list was largely American and European, Australia has its own examples: cricket's Allan "Captain Cranky" Border; Wallaby coach Michael Cheika; various rugby league coaches; a string of prime ministers led by Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd; and in business the legendary Kerry Packer; and Sir Frank Packer before him.

What is common to all these people is that they were indeed successful, at least to the extent of becoming household names. But does that mean we should follow their example if we want to achieve success?

Leaders may be successful despite their shouting, not because of it

It was once said of Paris Hilton that she was famous for being famous. Similarly, the success of these people just proves not much more than that they were successful.

From Aristotelian times there has been a recognition of the kind of false reasoning which attributes cause and effect between an action and an event, when in fact one or more other hypotheses are equally possible.

We know that the people we have listed are both successful and overbearing, but we do not know that they are successful because they are overbearing – indeed we might, on closer analysis, conclude that some or indeed many are successful despite being overbearing.

The legal profession's take on this kind of logical fallacy is the maxim "hard cases make bad law". This is a rather terse way of saying that it is a bad idea to try to design some rule of general application based on an unusual set of circumstances.

So let's not assume that shouting at your staff is the right way to manage a business, for all that some successful businesses are headed by people who yell.

Successive waves of management theory fail to advocate aggressive behaviour

What we now think of as theories of management were born essentially of the industrial revolution, and initially aimed at maximising productivity. Thus Taylorism, which emerged in the first twenty years of the 20th century, was all about the production line, with each worker repetitively performing a task comprising a minute fraction of the overall process: for example, attaching the driver's side front wheel to each vehicle on the conveyor belt. But by the 1950s it began to be recognised that this was not in fact the best way for a business to get the best out of its workforce.

The 1940s analysis of Abraham Maslow proposed that employees were more motivated by feeling that they were part of a team, and that their efforts were appreciated by their employers, than by pay or conditions.

Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" – still cited today – led to theories such as Management By Objectives, which advocated arranging work in a way which would allow employees to understand what part their work played in the success of the business, and their employer to assess that and to provide recognition when they did their work well.

Management theories of course come and go in an apparently never-ending cycle. In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman), and somewhat more recently The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey) advocated nothing more complex than finding out what successful businesses and people do, and copying them. And, while yelling is not completely absent from the management literature, it doesn't get a high rating.

Legal risks employers face if they choose to be overbearing

If business owners and operators yell at their staff there is a significant likelihood that, sooner or later, there will be a complaint of bullying, or an application made to engage the anti-bullying jurisdiction of the Fair Work Commission under the Fair Work Act 2009. The other possibility is a claim under the NSW Workers Compensation Act 1987 alleging psychological injury. (Similar legislation exists in the other Australian states.)

While this is not the place for a detailed discussion of bullying, part of the notion of bullying concerns actions which, rationally, have little or nothing to do with the job of the employee who is complaining about being bullied. However, bullying can also arise from the efforts of an employer to get the employee to do his or her job properly.

Corrective instructions must be reasonable, relevant and proportionate to the failing

Obviously, the law recognises that employers have a legitimate right to require employees to do what they are hired to do, and to undertake their work in a diligent and competent way, in accordance with the employer's instructions. But the law also recognises limits.

The employer's directions must be reasonable. Corrective instructions given must be relevant to the key inherent requirements of the job, and not to peripheral or trivial things.

And, even if the employer's actions conform with these requirements, the way in which directions are given, and the employee's performance assessed, should be reasoned and professional; not disproportionate to the failing involved; and not abusive.

In other words, not by yelling, or in a sarcastic or otherwise demeaning manner.

Employees perform better when trusted and treated with respect

So, what can we conclude from all this?

First, it is widely accepted that incentives are more effective than threats. The main reason for a boss to refrain from shouting is not that this might precipitate a bullying complaint or a worker's compensation claim. It's because there is little, if any, evidence that it is effective.

There are undoubtedly highly successful shouters. But this is likely just one facet of people who have complex, dominant and possibly magnetic personalities. The true story of their success is likely to lie outside the very observable fact of shouting. US President Theodore Roosevelt memorably said: "speak softly and carry a big stick".

Where yelling is occasional rather than habitual, it may serve the purpose of conveying a strong emphasis, especially where demeanour is usually calm, and loud (but not abusive) language is like a referee blowing a whistle.

But the preponderance of evidence about effective management of businesses is that employees work best when they are given clear guidelines about what they need to do; are allowed to exercise their own discretion within those parameters; and are provided with appreciative feedback when they do their work well.

A manager who reposes trust in staff, and assumes that each employee is a competent person wanting to do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay (at least until there is evidence that these assumptions are wrong) is likely to get much better performance from the employee in this way, than by shouting.

Geoff Baldwin
Employment law
Stacks Champion

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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