Harnessing experience to address bullying and improve performance

By David Donaldson

May 22, 2017

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Workplace bullying affects not just employees themselves, but the productivity of the whole organisation. Yet it can be difficult to stamp out.

It’s a wide-reaching phenomenon — in the Victorian public service, for example, around 20% of employees report having been bullied in the workplace, a rate that has remained largely unchanged in the past decade. One in four say they’ve witnessed bullying.

But some organisations do manage to make a significant difference, whether through direct intervention with problem individuals, training staff to recognise bad behaviour, or by creating a more open and trusting workplace culture.

A new report from the Victorian Public Sector Commission, Turning the tide on bullying and poor workplace culturesaims to make it easier to tackle the problem by providing five case studies of public sector bodies that have managed to successfully turn around acrimonious work environments.

“With bullying, it’s not hard to focus exclusively on the problem. The impacts can be dire for organisations and tragic for individuals, and our understanding of the issue is less than what it could be,” said Damian West, deputy commissioner of the VPSC.

“But it’s not enough. You need to know how you could make things better. This report is all about that.”

The five organisations profiled represent a range of public sector functions, sizes and locations. The case material is a mix of interviews with CEOs, human resource directors and employees.

Notably, the successful organisations didn’t solely focus on tackling the specific issue of bullying. Instead, leaders understood that bullying behaviours tend to stem from poor workplace cultures, and strategies to reduce bullying were integrated with strategies to improve culture more broadly.

Several other themes emerged from the case work:

  • strong leaders who set the tone of what is acceptable in the organisation.
  • clear grievance processes.
  • training for staff to be aware of bullying and to self-resolve issues where appropriate.
  • encouraging respectful and positive workplace behaviours throughout the organisation.
  • investing in leaders to effectively manage and build harmonious teams.
  • clear and transparent communication, particularly during change.
  • building a positive organisational culture.

“There’s no simple recipe here for organisations to follow, as every case will be different,” West said. “But you can make improvements, and the report provides are a series of ideas and solutions that may help organisations get on the path to recovery.”

The VPSC’s anti-bullying agenda was announced in April. The commission is rolling out a range of initiatives throughout the remainder of the year in three waves: setting the agenda, presenting options and channelling effort.

Key advice from leaders in the five case studies

  1. Focus on good human resource support to ensure a strong workplace culture which can help mitigate bullying behaviours.
  2. Deal with issues early and be consistent in order to build trust in the organisation. Keeping records of poor behaviours and complaints is essential.
  3. Don’t just talk the values, demonstrate them.
  4. Be open with staff. Being honest about action to be taken can build confidence in the system.
  5. Identify and address issues early so you don’t lose good people.
  6. Watch out for ‘This isn’t show its done here’ attitudes. Just because a person has been behaving a certain way for a number of years does not make it right.
  7. Make sure leaders are aligned. For example, performance must be assessed consistently with everyone following the same processes.
  8. Ensure new staff fit the culture.  Meet every prospective employee before they are hired to talk about the cultural environment and understand if the recruit will fit into the culture the organisation is trying to build.
  9. Ensure every choice has the same volume. Ensuring staff feel they can approach any level of the hierarchy with issues means there is less chance of these matters festering.
  10. Good behaviour starts from the top. Senior leaders who treat each other with respect set an example for the entire organisation.
  11. ‘Communication, communication, communication!’ A particular focus on making sure middle managers are all aligned with the executive team’s vision and what was expected from staff helps ensure these messages trickled down to all staff.
  12. Have patience as changing a culture does not happen overnight.
  13. Be brave as performance management can be really difficult and take an emotional toll. This is necessary even when the perpetrator is good at their job.
  14. Take early action. Delaying and not being transparent will lead to bigger problems in time.
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