When bul­ly­ing is al­leged, it must be probed

The Timaru Herald - - BUSINESS - Opin­ion

We’re see­ing me­dia re­ports and al­le­ga­tions about bul­ly­ing in a num­ber of work­places, which is a mat­ter of some con­cern.

Bul­ly­ing in any work­place is harm­ful. It causes stress, anger, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and it takes away con­fi­dence. Bul­ly­ing be­hav­iour raises the need for work­places to take ac­tion, and I’m pleased to re­port that many New Zealand busi­nesses are tak­ing it se­ri­ously.

Some­times it’s hard to say what is and isn’t bul­ly­ing.

Strong lead­er­ship or clear state­ments of ex­pec­ta­tion in the work­place could be ex­pe­ri­enced by some as bul­ly­ing. Younger em­ploy­ees or those from dif­fer­ent cul­tures might find some work­place in­ter­ac­tions per­son­ally threat­en­ing, and our rather di­rect Kiwi style of ‘‘ro­bust con­ver­sa­tions’’ could seem in­tim­i­dat­ing.

But bul­ly­ing is some­thing else. Ex­perts say it is the in­tim­i­da­tion or per­se­cu­tion of some­one weaker, de­lib­er­ately and re­peat­edly. There must be a power im­bal­ance, an in­ten­tion to cause harm, and it must be a re­peated be­hav­iour.

Con­firm­ing whether there is an in­ten­tion to cause harm may not be ob­vi­ous, but if bul­ly­ing has oc­curred or been al­leged, then there’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity to in­ves­ti­gate and deal with it.

The Health and Safety at Work Act says work­places must act to pre­vent and deal with any haz­ard that can cause harm (bul­ly­ing cer­tainly qual­i­fies as a haz­ard that can cause harm).

Busi­ness is tak­ing heed. A Busi­nessNZ and South­ern Cross Health So­ci­ety work­place well­ness sur­vey shows Kiwi com­pa­nies are in­creas­ingly fo­cused on pre­vent­ing and deal­ing with harm.

The lat­est sur­vey in 2017 showed more busi­nesses re­port­ing that they have stress iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tems and as­sis­tance pro­grammes for em­ploy­ees who need them.

Large com­pa­nies, of more than 50 staff, that have sys­tems in place to iden­tify and man­age stress have in­creased from about a third of those sur­veyed to more than half of those sur­veyed since the 2015 sur­vey.

Smaller firms are also more likely to have sys­tems in place, ris­ing from about 15 per cent to 32 per cent of those sur­veyed.

Such sys­tems are de­signed with the in­ten­tion of help­ing em­ploy­ees af­fected by ac­tions such as bul­ly­ing, and mak­ing bul­ly­ing less likely to oc­cur.

Work­places must also take ac­tion re­gard­ing per­pe­tra­tors. If an al­le­ga­tion of bul­ly­ing is made, a good process is re­quired – both par­ties must be heard, ev­i­dence must be gath­ered, and the use of a me­di­a­tor or in­de­pen­dent re­viewer can be help­ful.

For em­ploy­ers, al­le­ga­tions of bul­ly­ing can be fraught. An al­le­ga­tion will of­ten be made by a staff mem­ber about an­other staff mem­ber, and if it isn’t true or doesn’t meet the thresh­old for bul­ly­ing, a per­sonal griev­ance could fol­low from ei­ther party. So, bul­ly­ing al­le­ga­tions need to be treated cor­rectly.

An­other rea­son for ac­tive bul­ly­ing poli­cies is to en­sure the in­tegrity of per­for­mance man­age­ment. Per­for­mance goals can be un­der­mined if feed­back is viewed as bul­ly­ing. A work­place where bul­ly­ing is clearly not tol­er­ated is much less likely to have per­for­mance dis­cus­sions mis­in­ter­preted as bul­ly­ing.

Among all the ac­tions that can be taken to pre­vent bul­ly­ing, it is prob­a­bly most im­por­tant to en­sure a pos­i­tive cul­ture.

Cul­ture is set at the top, and lead­ers and man­agers should do their best to model the be­hav­iour they want to see prac­tised by all.

Re­spect­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion and clear mes­sages about per­for­mance ex­pec­ta­tions help to build the kind of work­place cul­ture where bul­ly­ing is much less likely to hap­pen.

Claims about a num­ber of MPs have raised aware­ness of work­place bul­ly­ing gen­er­ally.

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