Bullying in High Stress Workplaces: Can an Investigation Help?

A disproportionately high number of allegations of bullying in emergency services and other high stress environments have led to a referral to the NSW parliament for an inquiry in May 2017, looking at the policy response to bullying, harassment, and discrimination in certain emergency services. A review is also being conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission of allegations of bullying and harassment into the MFB and CFA. 

The very nature of the tasks undertaken in these workplaces understandably provokes a variety of extreme responses in both senior and lower-level staff. A combination of observed trauma, time-critical demands and associated spikes in adrenaline for individual professionals can lead to tense communication and decision-making.

It is essential that Human Resource (HR) managers take an objective approach towards all issues raised by the parties when allegations of bullying in emergency services arise. 

In many cases, a well-planned workplace investigation will mark the difference between costly repercussions and an efficient resolution of issues within these high stress environments. 

ALARMING WORKPLACE REPORTS

Incidents of workplace bullying are on rise across Australian emergency contexts. A 2017 report on emergency departments highlighted the deplorable extent of workplace bullying reported amongst emergency doctors. Shaming, verbal abuse and sexual harassment were just some of the parlous behaviours reported by 1/3 of survey participants.

Similarly, NSW has announced that the extent of workplace bullying within emergency services now requires a dedicated investigation. There are indications that the hierarchical nature of these services leads to the depersonalised treatment of personnel involved. 

Submissions for the NSW Parliament inquiry closed in July, with hearings scheduled for September - October 2017. During the inquiry, police, ambulance and fire services will each be scrutinised in relation to allegations of bullying and the troubling aftershocks that can accompany such incidents. 

WORKPLACE BULLYING AND HR RESPONSES

The importance of HR departments in recognising and dealing promptly with allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services cannot be overstated. 

As part of this focus, it is essential that any workplace investigation into alleged bullying be carried out in a professional and objective manner. Moreover, important decisions need to be made about an organisation's capacity to conduct an investigation that complies with the demands of procedural fairness. 

In some matters that are likely to prove particularly complex or sensitive it might be preferable to source the expertise of a trained workplace investigator. 

If HR managers can find prompt and accurate answers to these questions, any future costs of workplace disputes are likely to be mitigated. 

THE GOOD AND THE BAD OF WORKPLACE INVESTIGATIONS

Unfortunately, even a workplace investigation, if carried out without careful preparation and execution can be entirely unproductive - or even a costly blow to the organisation. At times, employers can underestimate their own lack of objectivity during investigations of workplace bullying. Unlike many workplace procedures, knowing the people involved can actually prove a hindrance to workplace investigations. The ability to see things in a truly fresh and clear manner is crucial to investigations; and sometimes hard to muster if preconceptions exist. 

Some employers are fortunate enough to have within their ranks staff that are fully trained in the nuances of workplace bullying allegations and the right way to conduct workplace investigations. When carried out correctly, an in-house investigation can do all that is necessary to produce a fair and accurate investigation report. 

Yet if any doubt remains about the potential bias, pre-judgement or lack of resources within the organisation, then an external workplace investigation will pay dividends. If an investigation has fatal flaws that are later picked up in official proceedings, then employers will find themselves in an unenviable position.  

INVESTIGATION WOES: A CASE IN POINT

In a recent Federal Court matter, Justice North made a piercing analysis of the deficiencies in one organisation's methods of investigation. Victoria's Royal Women's Hospital conducted a workplace investigation into the alleged contribution made by a neonatologist to the deaths of two infants. His Honour explained that the deficiencies within the investigation report were significant. Vague allegations against the worker and the lack of specifics concerning event, time and place led to a report that was devilled by 'apparent holes' as well as 'pollution' from fraught relationships. 

The case highlights the importance of gaining true objectivity from the situation whenever a workplace investigation is undertaken.

CARE AT EVERY TURN

Employers understand that when allegations of workplace bullying arise it becomes essential to keep the elements of procedural fairness front-and-centre. HR and senior management must make fast and accurate decisions about how and when to activate a workplace investigation. 

Considering the disproportionately high number of allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services, it is hoped that good decisions are made around the best way to investigate these troubling situations. 

Should you or your organisation be seeking clarity on the best way to conduct a workplace investigation, please get in touch with us. 

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