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Jul 15 2011

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AU: Learn to knock out bullies at work

By Ruth Callaghan, The West Australian

The young doctor looked after patients in his hospital unit on weekends and provided the details to a senior specialist each Monday – and that’s where the trouble started.

In a complaint letter to his hospital director, the young doctor said he dreaded the handover meetings.

If he summarised the patients’ situations, he was attacked for not providing enough detail, he said. If he provided detail, he would be told to be more succinct. Sometimes he would be ignored, then accused of not keeping his superior informed.

“Every day, I enter the hospital with apprehension and tension, fear of being trivialised and humiliated in front of my colleagues, other staff and my patients,” he wrote.

As the Australian Industrial Relations Commission tried to untangle the conflict – one of several incidents that led to the senior specialist’s dismissal – it wasn’t clear if bullying was taking place. More experienced doctors saw the senior specialist as excellent, professional and able to make swift decisions.

Junior staff found the same behaviour rude and patronising. The commission eventually found the senior specialist had been unfairly dismissed and ordered his reinstatement.

The dispute is one of thousands heard every year in formal settings like the AIRC or informally in the staff canteen, showing the complexity of relationships formed at work.

Where previous generations might have clocked off and gone out for the evening with friends, it is increasingly common for our work to represent our most significant connections with other people.

So when those connections get crossed, things can get bad – fast.

Michael Sheehan, from Relationships Australia, says misunderstanding other people or believing they should be seeing things a particular way are common problems where even reasonable people can be misled by their own perceptions.

Mr Sheehan, who helps train organisations in the skills needed to deal with angry clients, says differences of opinion are normal and accepting this is a first step to finding some compromise.

“The whole aim of living with other people is to negotiate,” he says. “People need to expect that no one will agree with us all the time and that people have different points of view and it is about coming to some sort of consensus.”

When you mix those different opinions into a work situation, though, conflict can result, particularly when there is friction between layers in the office hierarchy.

“With a hierarchy, the person is in charge and they have the right to direct what you do,” Mr Sheehan says. “You can still be assertive and say how you feel and offer your suggestions, while understanding it is their decision.”

Relationships Australia encourages people to be assertive in their workplaces but warns there is a difference between that and being aggressive.

“Someone might have an opinion or the boss might ask you to do something, or there might be an issue where you are asked to do something additional. Then you might need to clarify things or point out you have other work to do,” Mr Sheehan says.

“You need to be assertive but that means being able to tell someone how you feel about the situation, then listen to their response, then come up with a compromise.”

If that fails, he recommends appealing to a higher authority.

“I always encourage everyone to know what the grievance procedure is and ask about it so you know what you can do if someone is bullying you or your immediate line manager is being difficult,” he says.

Many organisations do work to reduce the chance of office relationships falling apart – for good economic reasons.

The number of complaints about bullying in the workplace in WA has risen to above 600 a year. Nationally, there are about 1500 successful workplace claims each year for bullying and work-related harassment, each taking an average three months of lost work time to resolve.

A recent Productivity Commission report puts the number of Australian workers who are likely to be bullied or harassed in the workplace at 1.5 million, while the Beyond Bullying Association estimates up to 5 million Australians will experience bullying at some point in their working lives.

That makes it a threat to employers as well: the Productivity Commission estimates the annual cost of workplace bullying to employers and the economy in Australia can be up to $36 billion in lost productivity, stress leave, higher staff turnover and other costs.

And for every reported case, there are many more toxic office relationships in which a person might be aggressive, sarcastic, intimidating, rude or insensitive, yet not reach the threshold of “bully”.

Graham Castledine is a solicitor and accredited mediator, as well as chairman of the WA chapter of LEADR, the Association of Dispute Resolvers.

The association trains mediators and can connect businesses or community groups – or even families – with a professional who can help resolve problems when they arise, before they get into more complicated legal waters.

He says mediation is not new in bigger workplaces but more organisations are seeing the value in having a third party untangle damaging conflicts.

“More and more employers are understanding the benefits of mediation because it is an informal process that can enable people to discuss the issue in a confidential way,” Mr Castledine says. “It can maybe help them resolve what is going on without needing more formal processes that can be costly and damaging to relationships.”

The role of the mediator is to help all parties have a chance to discuss the issue in a controlled way – and even if one side is more articulate than the other, the mediator can help drill down to the core problems.

“I think when a working relationship has reached a point where it is becoming destructive to the people involved and their workmates, then that’s the time for mediation to begin,” Mr Castledine says. Obviously there is a certain amount managers can do and you would encourage them to get involved and see if it is just a matter of working through the issues.

“But when you have a problem that has gone from being a basic personality clash to something being very negative and destructive to the workplace then it is probably a good idea to get those people off site into a different location and try to get to the bottom of what is going on. Part of mediation is to work out where you do have common ground and building on that.
“Even the smallest consensus can lead towards resolution.”


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