Tuesday, 7 June 2016

6 risk management strategies to interrupt negative workplace behaviours

While visiting family recently I was talking to two ladies, "Jed" and "Dani" about their work experiences in State education and human services. I was surprised when Dani, a lady in her 60s & a highly respected member of the family, related recently being relocated to a different team after ticking “yes” to the “Are you being bullied in your team?” question within her school's annual “health” survey. Dani said she hadn't previously reported the long-term bullying because she'd thought she was supposed to just “suck it up….isn’t that what everyone does?”

So, I'm now wondering… how many people feel "stuck" in disrespectful, bullying and harassing work environments and feel they have no other option but but to “suck it up.” Is this similar your experience, or someone you know? Email and let me know at DrFlisLawrence@gmail.com


Why ignoring intimidating or bullying behaviour is bad for you, for your co-workers, concerned friends & family, and for workplace safety.

I know it can be very hard to assertively confront bad workplace behaviour, especially when you're in the middle of it and feeling hounded and cornered and perhaps worried about your job. However, if you ignore it the behaviours will only get worse and affect not just you, but your co-workers, and concerned family and friends. Indeed, research has consistently found that, without intervention, the continuum of occupational violence inevitably escalates from online or offline disrespect and intimidation into bullying, harassment and mobbing, to verbal and cyber assault and aggression. If you want to learn more about the occupational violence continuum, read this linked article.

Ignoring negative workplace behaviours is now viewed as an untenable risk to people’s well-being and organisational safety, and is seen as unproductive and uneconomical. Workplaces characterised by high levels of bullying, interpersonal abuse and aggressive organisational behaviours also report heightened employee stress and unscheduled absenteeism as people withdraw from the work environment, resulting in unproductivity. In Australia, nearly 2 million employees out of an 11.6 million strong workforce report face-to-face bullying. This behaviour alone costs the national economy between $6 – $36 billion dollars annually in employee absenteeism, recruitment and training, health and hidden expenses. Psychological injury claims are now so bloated the costs are significantly effecting organisations’ compensation premiums.

Additionally, over half the adult participants in a 2013 survey across 10 countries reported cyberbullying, cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking occurring over work-related sms, email, and social media technologies led to heated face-to-face interactions and eroded employee privacy. This behaviour is also seen as risk to workplace safety.

One way to mitigate this risk is to use some or all of the risk management strategies listed below, which are designed to allow you to take back control of the situation and help you realise that it's not about you. 

Six risk management strategies


 Risk management strategy #1: Identify and clarify the behaviour you are experiencing.

Takeaway: Classifying negative workplace behaviours helps you realise that this is not about you. It is the first step to regaining your power & control. This is empowering!

Do you find that the workplace confrontations or interpersonal aggression is eroding your ability to defend yourself, undermining your confidence and making you hate coming to work, and decreasing your productivity? Is the negative behaviour conducted face-to-face or across workplace communication technologies (e.g., email, social media, telephone), or a mixture of both? Do you feel defenceless to protect yourself due to a real or perceived power imbalance with the perpetrator?

 Do you feel threatened and unsafe at work? You need to know exactly what behaviour you’re dealing with and how it is affecting you - one way is to Google “workplace bullying” or “workplace discrimination” or “workplace harassment” so you are across the definitions and the detail. Identifying and clarifying the behaviour is the first step to empowering yourself and taking back control, particularly as you realise that this behaviour is more about the perpetrator, not you!

        Risk management strategy #2: Document the behaviour.

Takeaway: Journalling the negative workplace behaviour is cathartic - it helps purge you of the toxic emotions & clear your head. Journalling helps you realise that this is not about you and develops clear evidence that will protect you.

Even if you have absolutely no intention of reporting the behaviour to HR, your supervisor or your union, you may be called upon to provide evidence proving you are not bullying the bully. Why do I say this? Research has found bullies are often more conversant with organisational processes and will use these to protect themselves from being investigated particularly if they sense you may be lodging a complaint. Documenting the behaviour is part of your risk management strategy. Your documentation must include the dates and times of the events, who else was present, what was said, and the outcome. 

If you think a worksheet would help you document this behaviour, email me at DrFlisLawrence@gmail.com and I’ll send you the one I've developed. If nothing else, the actual process of journalling and analysing the events will activate the rational side of your brain (humans tend to respond emotively to bullying and other aggressive behaviour, and it's incredibly hard to think through an issue if you're feeling scared or afraid - there's quite a bit of research about this side-effect). The very act of journalling the events can be cathartic as you increasingly realise the behaviour you're experiencing is unacceptable (e.g., ask yourself, "would I do this to someone?").

     Risk management strategy #3: Report the behaviour to your organisation’s HR or OHS representative.

Takeaway: Officially reporting your evidence regarding the negative workplace behaviour, and its effect on your sense of workplace safety, helps to regain your confidence and control of the situation.

Look, I know HR generally is often castigated about their response to employee bullying complaints (my six months in an HR area demonstrated that while most HR staff mean well,they are either over-worked, untrained, unsupported, or being bullied themselves - I didn't hang around long!). However, I still recommend you sit down and calmly and rationally (this is really important!) share a copy of your documented evidence with HR, and/or your supervisor (or their boss). 

Be crystal clear that the workplace behaviour is making you feel unsafe at work and eroding your productivity and well-being.This languages links to OHS and WHS laws. The matter should then be officially filed and hopefully investigated by an external agency. Be careful of offers of mediation. While mediation is useful in dispute resolution between peers, it is ineffective where one of the individuals involved feels powerless to defend themselves.

Remember, this is also about risk management in case the bully reports on you first (as I've said above, research has found that this can happen). I also recommend asking a neutral “party” to accompany you to this and any future meetings, such as a friend, mentor, work coach, family doctor, legal or union representative.

     Risk management strategy #4: Seek advice, guidance and/or counsel from neutral, external sources.

Takeaway: You are entitled to seek external advice or counsel, especially if you think the negative workplace behaviours are defaming your professional reputation, or you doubt the organisation's ability to protect you.

Let’s say you've now reported the matter to HR and they advise that they will now investigate it, and to not talk to anyone about your complaint.  Or your organisation doesn't have an HR area. In such cases, you can seek advice, guidance and counsel from a number of external authorities. These include:
  • 4(a) The Work Safety agency in your State or Territory (see list below) can provide advice about your workplace rights under relevant Australian OHS and/or Work Health Safety laws.
o   WA 1300 655266
o   NT 1800 019 115
o   QLD 1300 362 128
o   NSW 13 10 50
o   ACT (02) 6207 3000
o   VIC 1800 136 089
o   TAS 1300 366 322
o   SA 1300 365 255
  • 4(c) The Commonwealth Fair Work Commission (1300 799 675) may be able to raise a stop workplace bullying notice under the Fair Work Act.
  • 4(d) The Fair Work Ombudsman (13 13 94) can advise on your workplace rights and rules, and the protection you have against harassment and discrimination.
  • 4(d) You can also make an appointment with your doctor and ask to be referred to a psychologist for personal support.

    Risk management strategy #5: Seek legal advice about your rights and responsibilities and those of your employer.

Takeaway: Cases of professional defamation are on the rise due to online/offline bullying & harassment. Protect your reputation, career & financial security by seeking legal advise.

This step can be important if you are facing workplace defamation and are concerned about damage to your professional reputation and/or career, the impact of the defamation on your future job prospects, and the effect on your family’s financial safety. This issue is becoming prevalent for cyberbullying cases, but as research consistently demonstrates, human communications are messy, so one case is likely to include elements of both negative online and offline behaviours.  In addition to the links provided at www.lawstuff.org.au, try Google-ing for workplace or employment legal advisers in your State or Territory.
   Risk management strategy #6: Report to your local police

Takeaway: Remember, your local police can help you if you feel threatened at work by abusive online or offline workplace behaviours.

If you feel threatened by abusive, bullying and aggressive online or offline workplace behaviours or communications, then report the matter to your local police, who can investigate under the Criminal Code Act. For non-urgent matters ring 131 444, except for Victoria where you will need to visit your local police station.

Dr Flis has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and works with individuals and organisations as a consultant, speaker and trainer. She uses her social science expertise to enhance interactions between organisations and the people who lead and work in them by fostering new insights for diagnosing organisational problems, and build new capabilities and culture.

Contact Dr Flis at DrFlisLawrence@gmail.com, LinkedIn  or follow & "like"Dr Flis on Twitter or Facebook.

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