More than a personality clash

By Val Leveson

Many still assume workplace bullying is a personality clash however the whole organisational system has a big influence on bullying. Pic Getty
Many still assume workplace bullying is a personality clash however the whole organisational system has a big influence on bullying. Pic Getty

Many organisations still see workplace bullying as a type of personality clash, says HR consultant John Butters of John Butters and Associates. The trustee of the newly formed Andrea Needham Leadership Trust attended the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment held recently.

He said though workplace bullying is taken seriously, it's not always dealt with well. What companies don't seem to realise is alleged bullies often need the same level of support as is given to their possible targets.

The focus in organisations has been on employees, managers and staff members, says Butters.

"Many still a view that workplace bullying is a personality clash. However the conference reinforced that the whole organisational system has a big influence on bullying.

"Job design and work environment can create risk factors leading to workplace bullying as well."

He said, interestingly for Auckland, which is more and more multicultural, managers from different countries and work cultures may not be aware of what is and isn't bullying behaviour in the New Zealand context in 2016. Such managers may be very surprised and dismayed to learn that they're being accused of bullying.

Butters says alleged bullies may not be given the same level of support as the "target". "It seems often to be about guilty until proven innocent," he says. The alleged perpetrators may not have intentionally bullied others. What they thought of as joking may seem to another person as bullying.

"Indications are that the suffering bullies endure following an accusation bears striking similarity to what those targeted experience. They feel isolated by their organisations and this can be described as organisational bullying of the alleged bully."

Something else that came out of the conference was the fact that bullying need not be face to face. "Workplace cyberbullying is an area receiving growing attention, not only in the media but also in research. However, academics have yet to reach a consensus on how to define this phenomenon.

"The change in the way people work with technology has broadened the scope of bullying behaviour by electronic communications including email, phones and social media," says Butters.

The globalised world is one where competition within and between boundaries is the norm. Businesses often respond by continually repositioning themselves: changing structures, technology, people and culture. Such changes erode social bonds established between staff members, in turn it can create uncertainty and conflict. Aggression and workplace bullying may arise because of perceived threats to individuals or groups.

Butters says some of the main points that came from the conference were that research suggests that strategies to decrease destructive leadership and to reduce team conflict may have beneficial effects for the reduction of bullying.

"This in turn will lead to more positive outcomes for individual staff members and their organisations. Bullying is more likely when there are stressful working conditions and destructive leadership styles occurring at the same time.

Butters says what needs to be put in place by companies to prevent workplace bullying is that "there seems to be agreement that an anti-bullying corporate policy is step number one to solving workplace bullying.

"Everyone agrees that organisational culture allows bullying to thrive but specific advice on how to change organisational culture is quite scarce."

He says in practice as well as anti-bullying policies there is varying use of: employee assistance programmes and counselling services being made accessible to staff members; coaching of bullies; anti-bullying training; manager and employee training on civility and creating a positive workplace (rather than on ending workplace bullying); wellbeing and healthy workplace policies (not an anti-bullying policy); investigations in response to grievances; audits and surveys of staff members; leaning on corporate values, codes of ethics and performance management processes; and if necessary creating a real tangible actionable strategic plan for culture change.

"An organisation's communications with staff also needs to make it clear that the organisation will support all of its staff members and action taken must supportive to all parties and stakeholders, not only the alleged victim and alleged bully but also line managers, human resource personnel and union representatives."

Butters says it's important to note that workplace bullying is a hazard. "The new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 defines a hazard as "anything that can cause harm" and to also quote from the Act:

"A person's behaviour can also be a hazard where that behaviour has the potential to cause death, injury, or illness to a person (whether or not that behaviour results from physical or mental fatigue, drugs, alcohol, traumatic shock, or another temporary condition that affects a person's behaviour."

He says bullying-Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying published online at the Worksafe website is a "must go to" comprehensive set of guidelines and information for both employers and employees affected by or interested in workplace bullying.

Allan Hallse, director of CultureSafe NZ, says the Act does not go far enough. He says he was unable to attend the conference because of the number of incidents of workplace bullying he is currently dealing with. He says: "Workplace bullying can only get worse in New Zealand as there is currently no real accountability for the actions of bullies or the organisations that enable/condone that bullying."

His opinion is based on the fact there is currently no jurisdiction in the land that employees can access that can rule on workplace bullying as a health and safety issue.

The employment relations authority and employment court are "civil" jurisdictions and therefore can't make determinations on health and safety legislation that is heard in a "criminal" jurisdiction ie. the magistrates and high courts, Hallse says.

"The other significant problem is that Worksafe NZ inspectors have no comprehensive rules of 'psychological' harm and are not investigating any workplace bullying complaints."

In New Zealand, The Andrea Needham Leadership Trust has been registered with Charities Services and was established following Needham's death to fulfil her wishes that her work in the prevention of workplace bullying through quality leadership continues. Needham is known for her book Workplace Bullying and being one of the first people in New Zealand to blow the whistle on the problem here.

Her work has been taken on by others in a big way, says Butters.

Many people at the conference gained much insight from her books and her legacy is the excellent work being done by a largish group of NZ scholars, PhD students, consultants and practitioners to further the understanding of workplace bullying and how to lead the creation of healthy workplaces.

- NZ Herald

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