Bullying: What's the Role of Leadership?

Workplace bullying is somewhat of a scourge in modern society. Broadly categorised by Reach Out Australia as any behaviour which is physically, mentally or socially threatening and takes place in the employment context, it can have an enormous impact on staff effectiveness, employee retention, the number and type of worker's compensation claims and, of course, employee happiness.

Legally, employers have a responsibility to ensure that all workplaces are safe for their staff, including preventing workplace bullying. So what are the key things business leaders should be doing to tackle this problem?

1. Prevention is the best cure

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with workplace bullying is to try and ensure that it does not happen. As suggested by Safework Australia, workplace bullying can best be prevented by the leadership team identifying potential risk factors within the organisation for bullying.

In addition to ensuring that new staff, wherever possible, are likely to mesh with other employees and not experience personality clashes, this process should also involve regular consultation with employees as to their levels of job satisfaction and the quality of interaction with co-workers, conducting exit interviews with departing employees, obtaining regular feedback and ensuring that there are detailed incident reports recording complaints and other potential instances of workplace bullying behaviour.

Being aware of possible triggers for workplace bullying can also be an effective strategy, for example, awareness of the various leadership styles in the organisation. Ensuring adequate communication between management and employees and requesting forthright feedback on work styles and interactions can help to reduce the risk of workplace bullying significantly.

2. Listen to the alleged victim - and the alleged perpetrator

It is important for leaders to be empathetic and open when speaking with a claimed victim of workplace bullying. Remember that the person alleging bullying, whether this has actually taken place or not, is already harbouring strong negative feelings about the workplace, or at the very least certain people in the workplace.

A heavy-handed or suspicious approach by the employer is likely to further upset the employee and worsen the ongoing impact and consequences of the bullying. At the same time, a leader investigating a workplace bullying claim does not need to blindly accept everything put forward by the apparent victim.

Both the "bully" and the "victim" are the employer's responsibility, and both are therefore entitled to have their full version of events listened to and acted upon appropriately.

3. Take detailed contemporaneous notes

In the worst case scenario, an employee's bullying allegations may become the subject of legal proceedings.

This means a record of conversations and interactions between senior staff and claimed victims of workplace bullying may become essential evidence. In any event, regardless of the possible outcome, it is always best practice to ensure that all conversations with management are properly recorded, not least to make sure that further claims of workplace bullying are not levelled against management!

4. Ensure impartiality

Depending on the size and type of your workplace, ensuring that investigations are conducted impartially may be difficult. In certain cases, it may be more appropriate to engage external workplace investigators to review workplace bullying complaints.

However, if employers choose to keep investigations in-house, prejudgement of the ‘facts’ or a bias toward one side or the other must be avoided. Where possible, it can be helpful to task someone who doesn’t work directly with either party with the investigation.

Negotiating the many tricky aspects of investigating workplace bullying complaints can be very stressful. At Wise Workplace, we provide advanced training courses in conducting workplace investigations, to make you and your leadership team as self-sufficient as possible. Register for an upcoming course date now. 

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