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The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease: Managing bullying when the employee won’t speak out

12 May 2015


The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease: Managing bullying when the employee won’t speak out

Beverley Triegaardt, Associate

Meet Mavis

Mavis is a self confessed introvert, although everyone in the workplace is familiar with her easygoing disposition. She’s a quiet contributor, just ask Carolyn, who admits that “nothing is ever too much trouble for Mavis.” Mavis frequently finds Carolyn’s behaviour towards her belittling and suffers anxiety at the thought of being alone with her. She feels as though she is an easy target for Carolyn’s unprompted attacks. Mavis’ concern for her job’s security means she wouldn’t dare tell anyone how she feels about Carolyn, but her employer is starting to feel the cost of the workplace disharmony.

Bullying in the workplace is not always as conspicuous as imagined. Many people may feel that piping up about a grievance at work could put their job on the line.

Just because you have never had a formal complaint of bullying in your organisation doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t take a proactive approach to workplace behaviour and culture. In fact, it is crucial that employers have the infrastructure in place to encourage the shyest of employees to deal with their grievances constructively to safeguard against the consequences of bullying.

Being proactive about workplace bullying means educating your staff through policies and training to make clear that its occurrence in the workplace is unacceptable and will result in disciplinary action.

This is key as the adverse affects of workplace bullying on an organisation can result in:

  • high staff turnover;
  • low morale and motivation;
  • increased absenteeism and presenteeism;
  • loss of productivity;
  • work disruption during investigation of complaints;
  • negative media attention; and
  • costly workers’ compensation claims or legal action.

Anti-bullying and the Fair Work Commission

The consequence that should be of most notable concern for employers is the potential impact an anti-bullying order can impose upon an organisation if an employee applies to the Fair Work Commission (“Commission”) for an order to stop the bullying they are being subjected to.

Silent victims of bullying pose a threat to organisations in that they may resort to reaching out to the Commission in the first instance, instead of resolving their issues internally. However, a workplace that encourages open conversation about bullying and sets clear expectations may be less susceptible to this risk.

Upon receiving an application from an employee that believes that they are being bullied at work, the Commission is compelled to deal with it within 14 days. If it considers it appropriate to do so, the Commission is at liberty to make any order it sees fit (with the exception of imposing a pecuniary amount) to ensure the bullying stops. This scope of power granted to the Commission means orders of almost any kind can be made if deemed necessary. How would your organisation manage if orders were made that restricted your key employees or executives from performing aspects of their role? What about if significant and costly structural changes to your organisation were ordered to separate a worker and their bully? What’s more, compliance with an order is compulsory and breaches can attract civil penalties of up to $10,200.1

“Bullying is the repeated and unreasonable behaviour of an individual or group of individuals towards a worker that creates a risk to health and safety. Where this occurs at work (or even in connection to work) an employee will have recourse under the anti-bullying jurisdiction of the Fair Work Commission.”

Who is at risk?

Workplace bullying can affect the health and safety of a range of people, from the person subject to the bullying, by-standers and an entire organisation. Bullying can affect anyone. It can occur amongst co-workers, from managers to workers and even upwards from workers to their managers. It can also occur between workers and customers, clients, contractors, work experience students and others who are present at a workplace.

The nature of a business, the industry within it operates and the types of stakeholders it has can influence who might be engaging in or affected by bullying behaviour. For example, the hospitality industry may be more exposed to employee-client bullying as opposed to traditional office environments where instances of bullying amongst co-workers may be more common.

How to handle bullying when the victim won’t speak out

If there is a victim of workplace bullying in your organisation that won’t speak out, chances are you will only learn of their circumstances once it is too late. For this reason, proactivity is key. This means taking steps to create a work environment where expectations and avenues for redress are well known and the workplace culture reflects the organisation’s values.

Best practice tips

Read the signs: Mavis never made a peep about Carolyn’s bullying until she cited it as her reason for quitting. If only their manager had picked up on the signs such as:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or complaints of sleep disturbance;
  • physical illness;
  • reduced work performance;
  • loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation;
  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends;
  • depression; and thoughts of suicide.

Empower your leaders: managers and supervisors are the eyes and ears of an organization. Encourage them to stop bullying in its tracks and report upwards if they recognise that someone may be suffering in silence or if workplace gossip of bullying is making the rounds.

Train for gain: ensure your policies are up to date, easily accessible and followed up with training. Consider including workplace behaviour and culture training as a compulsory part of your induction programs and follow it up with annual retraining to reinforce its importance.

Procedure is prime: design grievance procedures that don’t intimidate your employees. Your processes for dealing with grievances should encourage informal resolutions in the first instance and escalate to more serious and formal investigations. Tailor the process to suit the needs of your organisation, document it in a grievance policy and circulate it widely.

Hire a “fly on the wall”: if there is room for improvement in your organisation’s culture but you can’t quite pinpoint the issue, consider engaging a Culture Auditor to assess your workplace. This can help you gain clarity around the potential causes of bullying in the workplace and create strategies for dealing with them.

If you are in doubt as to whether your organisation is exposed to the risks of bullying, please contact People + Culture Strategies for further advice.

Key Takeaways

  1. Silent victims of workplace bullying are a threat to an organisation as they may seek to resolve their grievances externally to the organisation;
  2. An anti-bullying order from the Fair Work Commission can have unimaginable impacts on an organisation
  3. Creating a culture of openness and respect is the best form of prevention against workplace bullying.
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