Complaints processes key to tackling bullying

By David Donaldson

November 4, 2016

Bullying in the workplace isn’t just a matter between individuals — it impacts on morale and turnover, making it more difficult to maintain a productive workforce.

Public servants who have been bullied are more likely to say they’re thinking about leaving their agency, according to People Matter survey results released by the Victorian Public Sector Commission. The Productivity Commission has estimated that total cost of workplace bullying in Australia is estimated to be between $6 billion and $36 billion annually.

But the People Matter results also show how important it is to have good complaints processes in place.

While it comes as no surprise that staff who have experienced bullying are more likely to be unhappy in their job — only 33% of people who have been bullied say they are satisfied at work, compared to 77% of those who haven’t — respondents who felt their bullying complaint was well handled had similar levels of engagement and satisfaction to peers who had not been bullied.

While 60% of people who had not experienced bullying said they rarely think about leaving their organisation, among people who had experienced bullying, this was only 19%. The interesting thing is that respondents who reported having submitted a complaint and were happy with how it was handled were most likely to stay put, with 64% saying they rarely considered quitting. This suggests that agencies with high quality complaints processes may be better at retaining staff.

Public servants whose bullying complaints were handled satisfactorily have similar levels of happiness at work to those who haven't been bullied.
Public servants whose bullying complaints were handled satisfactorily have similar levels of happiness at work to those who haven’t been bullied.

But given that only 19% of those who experienced bullying submitted a formal complaint, and then just 26% of those were satisfied with how their complaint was handled, there is still lots of room for improvement. The commission recommends that organisations ensure that employees are aware of, and have confidence in, grievance processes and that these processes produce fair outcomes.

Just over half of respondents said they were confident that if they lodge a grievance it would be investigated in a thorough and objective manner.

The survey results also show that the effect of bullying endures after it stops. Those who indicate that they experienced bullying during the past 12 months, but are not currently doing so, are still less positive than those who have not experienced bullying at all. “This supports qualitative research findings that negative workplace behaviour damages trust in the organisation and can make negative perceptions of even relatively benign behaviour more likely,” the VPSC points out.

Those currently experiencing bullying at work were much more likely to report severe work-related stress (65% compared to only 16% of those who weren’t bullied), work-related stress negatively impacting on their personal life (76% vs 31%), and not feeling that they had control over workplace issues that cause them stress (81% vs 35%).

Unsurprisingly, experiencing bullying has a big impact on stress levels.
Unsurprisingly, experiencing bullying has a big impact on workplace stress levels, but it also spills over into personal life.

Around one in five Victorian public sector employees said they had experienced bullying in the past 12 months — 20% among VPS staff, 22% in the health sector and 11% in water.

That number masks greater frequency among certain groups, however. People with a disability were most likely to respond that they had experienced bullying at work (34%), followed by Indigenous people (28%) and same-sex attracted people (24%). Women were more likely to say they’d been bullied (22%) than men (16%).

Previous tranches of data have revealed that many Aboriginal public servants are concerned that cultural background is a barrier to success in their workplace, that nearly a quarter of people with a disability had experienced discrimination at work, and that same-sex attracted people were nearly twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at work.

The survey received 62,354 responses from staff in 177 public sector organisations — 35% of Victoria’s public servants — between May and July. Employees with a disability comprise 3.3% of respondents.

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