What Is Acceptable Behaviour In The Workplace?

The idea of behaviour being acceptable or otherwise can, for some, be very subjective and often very personal. Sometimes it even depends on the environment and even ‘the times.’

Induction and hazing rituals once believed to be necessary to develop resilience and teach respect are now viewed as demeaning and in some situations constitute unlawful, criminal assault.

Violence for example, isn’t condoned on the streets yet, in the past it has often been encouraged and applauded on the sporting field. Nowadays thankfully, sports administrators are beginning to take a firm stand and ensure that negative consequences are delivered for such behaviour. This is especially critical as sports fields are often in fact workplaces..

While hazing and violence are quite clearly unacceptable in any workplace (except perhaps the boxing ring) there exists a range of behaviours for which it may seem unclear as to which side of the line they sit. Behaviours that might result in ‘psychological injury,’ such as bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination in the workplace, or even aggressive language according to legislation and workplace policies fall on the ‘unacceptable’ side of that line.

And while employers may not have total control over the behaviour of staff members, or even customers, they do have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace for all. Legislation decrees this and forces employers to develop and uphold policies that support the creation of a safe workplace including the prohibition of unacceptable behaviour.

I discussed the concept of acceptable workplace behaviours with Martin Reid an industrial relations, safety and employment law specialist with Coulter Roache Lawyers. We talked about the grey areas of workplace safety, how employers can protect themselves and their staff from unacceptable behaviour , and how critical it is for employers to uphold standards of conduct.

Summary notes are provided below the video link. If you would like WPCR to conduct a review of your workplace behaviour policies or deliver training in relation to each individual’s responsibility to contribute to a safe and respectful workplace please contact us for more information.

https://youtu.be/nffT9TsX2QE ;


  • Workers are entitled to attend to their tasks in a workplace where the employer has eliminated or, as far as reasonably practicable, minimised the risks to health and safety.
  • This includes harm in terms of psychological or physical events. Workers are also entitled to enjoy the ‘quiet benefits’ of their workplace.
  • When the courts refer to quiet benefits of work they are drawing a distinction between what was the traditional threat to psychological and physical harm such as a scaffold falling on your head, and the resulting psychological injury from that, to the less obvious risks to health and safety. This includes bullying and harassment at work, sexual harassment, discrimination in the workplace, those kinds of things that can happen in what would be normally a relatively physically safe environment like an office..
  • The law has developed and continues to develop around recognising that these types of behaviours (bullying and sexual harassment) can cause a risk to health and safety, not only making the job uncomfortable for the targeted employee but bystanders as well.
  • The courts expect workplace policies to refer to the legislation because it creates an expectation for employees and that the policies give examples of the kinds of behaviours from employees that could be considered to be unlawful and to at least provide an outline of sanctions should unlawful or inappropriate behaviours occur.
  • References to legislation give some legitimacy to a policy.
  • An employer sets the standard and says this is what is acceptable and is not acceptable in the workplace.
  • Creating a code of conduct is essential for numerous reasons. It can help to prevent a vicarious liability case.
  • In a vicarious liability case an employer would be liable for the actions of its employees unless it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent such things from happening. 'All reasonable steps' will be different depending on the size of the employer, but when you have a well written, easily understood and promulgated policy saying this type of conduct is not accepted and will be opposed by the employer, and steps will be taken if it occurs, that can avoid that risk or minimise the risk of vicarious liability for employers.

To view the full transcript of this video click here.

Views: 1054

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on July 21, 2017 at 12:08

Great article Catherine.

We live in a complex and adaptive world where variious forms of violence are 'celebrated' sometimes apparently innocently if one listens to the words of various songs.

As individuals struggle to separate reality of everyday life and work to address gaps that exist between their personal values, systems and beliefs, they also struggle to separate the imagery promoted through various social media outlets.

When it comes to workplaces, there seems to be a trend to reduce the amount of face to face training and replace that with self paced or online training.  Assessments conducted in relation to those forms of training may see little change in behaviours.  For example, over recent times, I have questioned employees about various training they have attended on workplace issues such as bullying and harassment.  Invariably, when asked what they have learned, they have indicated that they really didn't read the content but only completed the 'tick and flick assessment' i.e. the multiple choice, short answer or fill in the gap type assessment. When asked if they understood the individual and organisational implications of the training they had completed, they replied in the negative.

As I talk with these employees, I ask whether or not they understand the connections between various policies e.g. workplace bullying, code of conduct, social media, and even performance management.  Invariably it is a negative response.

Whilst organisations may be providing some form of educational process to managers and workers, it seems that in some cases, the training is provided for compliance reasons, with little expectations that behaviours will change. In some places, what is acceptable to one, is not acceptable to others.  For example, two employees can make a joke with another employee (generally female) with the joke being extremely borderline and everyone laughs, and yet the other employee can tell the same joke or make the same comment, it is comes across as creepy.  When chided for their comment, neither can see anything wrong.

So in my view, whilst policies and procedures may say the right thing, individual workers may not have had an opportunity to discuss in a shared forum, their personal understanding of what is and what is not acceptable.  Training needs to have more face to face time, managers and workers need to participate collectively so that different viewpoints can be discussed with the outcome being a change in behaviours if required.

I suspect that some organisations may actually be sitting on the tip of an iceberg where all it will take is for one person to make a complaint.  Some individuals will push the boundaries as to what they can get away if managers and supervisors (and often co-workers) turn a blind eye because they don't want to be the one to upset the applecart.  As individuals remain silent, unacceptable behaviours become tolerated to the point where they are accepted.

For some, speaking up will have an impact on their career either in the same organisation, or as they seek employment elsewhere.  In a case that I was made aware, an employee raised a number of issues around bullying, they were transferred to another Department and were met by their new manager who said "so you are the trouble maker we have been told about'. Was another complaint made? No, but the individual did tell others about their experience.  Whilst the original organisation may have had policies and procedures in place, the workplace culture was such that 'whistlebloweres' and others who spoke up had to be punished.

It is important in my view, that educational processes become even more focussed starting with the reality of litigation costs and then working backwards.  All too often, I hear an apparent disconnect between what people think addressing counterproductive behaviours such as bullying costs, and what it actually costs.

We still have a way to go.

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of HR Daily Community to add comments!

Join HR Daily Community

© 2018   Created by Jo Knox.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service