Most employers in Australia know that they have a legal responsibility to ensure a safe workplace however some still do not realise that safety doesn’t just relate to physical safety.

We are becoming more and more aware of the psychological harm that can be caused by stress and workplace bullying is one of the major workplace stressors. It is also a stress that can be prevented or at least quickly resolved with approapriate safeguards in place.

If as an employer you are feeling like bullying in the workplace is something that is outside of your control read on. Failure to act when disrespectful and bullying behaviour is occurring will negatively affect staff morale and performance, increas sick leave and staff turnover and significantly affect productivity.

A significant percentage of staff productivity is discretionary. People will go the extra mile, do more than the minimum to keep their job and really boost your business if they feel appreciated, resepted and cared about. They will be looking for a way to escape if they are feel unappreciated, disrespected and that they don’t matter.

The cost of workplace conflict

Bullying doesn’t always show up in the form of workplace conflict. You won’t necessarily see people shouting at each other. Often it is more subtle with team members being excluded, given the least desireable work more often than others, singled out for criticism or blame.

If you are sensing that there is disfunction in a work area or you have received generalised complaints from team members you need to take action and take it early. Failing to act will result in time and money lost on speaking to the individuals involved (repeatedly), staff taking stress leave, and a risk of someone lodging a claim for Workplace Harassment. Defending a Workcover Complaint could cost many thousands of dollars, even if your company is successful and will no doubt cause further erosion of morale.

Mediation before Investigation

Mediators often shake our heads when we are called in to try and fix the damage after a workplace investigation has been undertaken. Investigating your staff, reading through their emails (a favourite activity) and then expecting everyone to keep working happily together is pretty unrealistic.

A more effective approach would be to call in a mediator as soon as interpersonal issues arise so that they can help your staff members to talk through the issues and negotiate a mutually acceptable approach to allow them to work together in peace. What is often not understood is that passive aggressive behaviour and behaviour that is interpreted as being bullying isn’t always intended to be so. Often a lack of communication exasibates differences in approach and then escalates as conflict inevitably does unless resolved.

What you can do to help?

If you have got this far into the article I’m guessing you are willing to do your part to help.

Here are some ideas on what leaders can do to prevent interpersonal differences and disagreements from escalating into conflict.

  1. Find out what is happening: There are lots of ways you can do so. Does your organisation have an annual, anonymous staff survey where staff report how they believe they are being treated by management and co-workers? These will often identify areas where bullying is occurring, who is being targeted, and how effectively it is being addressed. Review the last couple of surveys to see if there are trends occurring. If the survey isn’t asking appropriate questions, make suggestions for changes next time. The results should give you a baseline from which you can measure the effectiveness of your workplace harassment prevention programs.You can also find out what is happening by conducting exit interviews with those staff who are leaving and really try to ascertain their reasons for doing so. These exit interviews should not be done a staff members direct manager and you should ensure that staff members are reassured that nothing that they say in their exit interview will affect any reference checks that may be done for them in the future.If people are leaving due to workplace bullying or poor management they are often too frightened to tell the truth in their exit interview if the groundwork for them to really tell the truth is not done.

    Sick leave rates is another good indicator of poor morale and possible workplace harassment. People who are feeling unwanted, unappreciated or bullied are more likely to make full use of their sick leave as they find it difficult to face going to work.

    Talk to individuals who are taking a lot of sick leave to check if they are OK as well as those most at risk of being targeted such as people with a disability, those new to a role, those with a gender different to the majority, those with a different sexual orientation and individuals from a different ethnic background.

    The simplest and most effective way for leaders to keep an eye on your culture and workplace morale is by simply talking with employees at all levels of the organisation, asking how they are going and making it easy for them to raise any concerns.

  2. Encourage a respectful workplace culture: Workplace culture is the sum total of the behaviour that is and isn’t acceptable within a workplace. Respect in terms of a Respectful Workplace Culture means due regard for the feelings, wishes and rights of others. Respect in this regard must be shown by senior leadership and expected from all levels of management.It means actually enforcing the right things, and ensuring that the organisational values are known by everyone and promoted and practised by senior management. Has your organisation defined it’s guiding values?

    Values such as respect, inclusiveness, and working problems out can help. When promoting values it is really helpful to provide relevant workplace examples so that your people understand what specifically you mean by the concepts.The more people at work discuss and think about the values the more they will understand what is expected of them and the more they will be engaged they are in supporting them. That only works if behaviour that is not in line with the values, especially behaviour by those in leadership roles is called out and corrected. As Peter Cosgrove said, “the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept.”

    One way you can do so is to involve staff in developing the Workplace Harassment Policy or Code of Conduct. Such documents need to be clear about what workplace harassment is, what it is not, why it is not tolerated, and what people can do if they feel like the code of conduct is not being followed.

  3. Develop people’s skills: When conducting workplace mediation in cases where people are accused of bullying in the majority of cases the people genuinely do not believe that they are a bully. They often have not intended to be hurtful or disrespectful. Often they also feel that they are being bullied (sometimes by the person who has accused them and sometimes by someone higher up in the organisation to them)When people are under a lot of pressure or highly stressed they may speak inappropriately with others or the ways that they think are OK may not be acceptable in a respectful workplace. In the past many practices that would be without doubt harmful and bullying were considered “a bit of fun” or acceptable initiation to a workplace.Sending a senior leader to training may not be the most appropriate way to engage them in modifying their approach. If your have suitably skilled people within your organisation pairing up people who have accused of bullying with a mentor can be helpful. If not bringing in an executive coach who understands conflict and workplace bullying may be the best investment you can make.

    Good quality professional development can also help these people become more aware as to how their behaviour is sometimes coming across, and, for those in management, how they can improve on their people management skills. The old command and control style of management that longer term managers may have been trained in is no longer effective. In fact what a manager believes is expected of them may increase the likelihood of complaints about bullying.

    Mediation provides an opportunity for people on the receiving end of what they consider hurtful or disrespectful behaviour to safely speak to the person concerned before the matter becomes a major concern. If using an internal mediator make sure that they have been trained in mediation otherwise they may cause more harm than good. Anyone who has been trained in mediation will be aware of issues related to bias and conflict of interest and only mediate when they can do so in a way that will ensure a fair process.

    Brining in a professional mediator may be a worthwhile investment and they can usually provide talks or training in dispute resolution related topics and skills.

    Providing permission and encouragement for bystanders to speak up with they see unacceptable behaviour occurring in the workplace can also help to nip unacceptable behaviour in the bud and prevent people who feel that they are being singled out from feeling that they are completely isolated.

    Most people can benefit from training in both informal and formal ways of defusing conflict and influencing change with their managers and co-workers.

    Why not host an event for Mediation Awareness Week where a mediator comes in to talk with your staff about conflict resolution and ways to have a constructive disagreement? Click on the Host an Event tab above.

  4. Support an open and respectful culture: Putting in place a regular two-way discussions where both team members and those in leadership roles feel free to give each other open and honest feedback can go a long way to supporting a culture where bullying doesn’t get a foothold.Giving and receiving feedback is an art in itself.  Don’t just assume that people will know how to give feedback respectfully which means giving due regard for the feelings of others. Also many people have trouble receiving feedback. If feedback is not given properly they will become defensive and may not be able to accept the message or even consider that the feedback is a form of bullying. That doesn’t mean that attempts to provide feedback should be abandoned.

    Learning how to effectively communicate positive and negative feedback is a skill that all managers need to have.Some workplaces appoint a contact person for support or advice for those concerned about or accused of workplace harassment.

    This person could be someone appointed to the role of Workplace Harassment Prevention Officer, a person from your HR department (with suitable training) or an outside professional or organisation.

    Mediation Institute provides an external complaint handling service but can also provide an early intervention independent phone help line for staff members who feel that they are not being heard or that they are being bullied.

    If you have someone in a dedicated workplace harassment prevention role they need to have expertise in supporting and coaching people around interpersonal communication and conflict. It is important that if you have an opportunity for people to raise concerns about workplace issues and sources of conflict that there is a process in place to address those concerns. Raising expections that there is a process to deal with the high workloads, unrealistic deadlines, and role conflicts  that are often the foundations for bulling claims without actually doing anything about issues raised can be highly negative. It isn’t about providing a free for all opportunity to ask for anything you want. It is about respectfully listening, understanding the issues and then working to improve the situation as much as possible.

    If workplace stressors can be reduced in some way, people tend to be more tolerant of others and move away from extremes of their own behaviour. When under stress people tend to become less flexible and accepting, are prone to more unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviour resulting in impaired problem solving ability and greater risk of behaviour that is inappropriate.

    As with any culture change program it is never a straight line. Some people will enthusiastically adopt a more open and respectful culture ( it’s what they have been asking for), others will be more mistrustful (they’ve seen initiatives to improve the culture be tried and failed in the past) and others will be either actively or passive aggressively resistant to change.

    Be respectful, listen, make it safe for people to express their concerns and have back up plans in place. You may lose some people who enjoyed a culture of power and control as they feel like they have worked their way up to being able to lord it over others only to find that the rules of the game have changed and they now need to be more inclusive and collaborative in their style.

    Apart from informal ways of influencing change, there also needs to be clear steps about how to lodge a complaint, how investigations are to proceed, and what the possible outcomes may be. Proactive workplaces also monitor, over time, the effectiveness of their anti-bullying and behaviour change programs.

Psychological Resilience

Resilience is the ability to recover from adversity and stress without lasting mental health damage. Literally to bounce back rather than break under pressure.

When you think about increasing the psychological resilience of your workplace that does not mean blaming victims or telling people to “suck it up”. Resilience actually depends on support, having people you can vent and debrief with, feeling Linkedin you have some say in your role and future and not helplessly at the whims of others.

All of the strategies discussed in this post help to build the resilience of your workforce and protect your organisation from the expense of a poor workplace culture, unhappy and unproductive employees and heightened risk of work cover claims.

Why not consider hosting a “Let’s talk about it”  Morning Tea for Mediation Awareness Week in 2018 as a part of your culture change program.

Facilitated by a local mediator the goal of the “Let’s talk about it” Morning tea is a facilitated discussion about topics that need airing in your organisation as well as an opportunity to ask questions about conflict resolution, mediation, dealing with difficult people and having difficult conversations.


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