Bullying Complaints And The Critical Steps To Manage Them

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I’m sure that many managers have lost count of the number of times a staff member has come to them in confidence and said, “I’m being bullied. I don’t want you to do anything but…”

This dilemma is often discussed with me during Management Training for the Prevention of Unlawful Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying.

Managers explain that the situation poses as a dilemma for them because the staff member has sought their trust and confidence. Hence the manager believes they cannot act on the matter. However, ‘bullying’ is defined as any repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety. By virtue of this definition, adherence to WHS/OHS law now takes precedent over maintaining confidentiality. A manager, as both an employee and someone in a position of authority has a duty to ensure the creation and maintenance of a safe workplace. My response to these managers is that they have a positive obligation to provide a safe workplace and now that they have become aware that the workplace may not be safe for an employee, they have a duty to act to ensure the health and safety of that employee. Breaches of the WHS/ OHS act are a criminal offence. Failure to act on such a conversation at work may see the manager face significant fines.

It is imperative these managers have a structure to follow to ensure they are supporting their staff member and fulfilling their WHS/OHS obligations.

The following is the structure that I have always discussed with these managers and I am happy to share this structure/process with you now.

Step 1. A manager must interrupt this opening statement and clearly state that they cannot always keep information confidential and there is no promise that this conversation will be kept confidential. If required, they can explain their duty of care to ensure that the workplace is safe and as such they have a duty to raise issues with HR if there are any indicators that the workplace may be unsafe. (In doing this, a manager also understands their own vicarious liability.)

Step 2. The manager can ask against whom the allegations are being made and what behaviours or actions are occurring for the staff member to feel/believe they are being bullied?

Step 3. From here, the manager should refer to the organisation’s policy on bullying and provide the definition of this. (Usually the definition is similar to: Any repeated behaviour which creates a risk to health and safety and which a reasonable person, having regards to all the circumstances, might feel belittled, intimidated, threatened, offended or undermined by that behaviour). It is crucial that the staff member be asked if the alleged bullying behaviours or actions they believe are occurring are repeated in nature and are unreasonable given each party’s position/role in the workplace.

Step 4. If after this discussion, the staff member still believes they are being bullied, the manager should refer them to the correct policy that advises how such a matter should be reported and handled. The following steps are then:

  • Remind the staff member of the organisation’s EAP service (Employee Assistance Program).
  • Inform them you will be contacting HR about this meeting.
  • Before the end of the meeting, obtain agreement from the staff member on what steps they plan to take. (Taking no action is not an option.)
  • After the meeting, diarise the discussion.
  • Follow up with an email or memo to the staff member thanking them for the discussion and either referring them to the link where the specific policies discussed (bullying, complaints handling and EAP) can be found on the intranet or attach the policies referred to.
  • Next contact HR and report/discuss the matter to them.
  • Send a follow up email to HR putting the discussion in writing and advising what you have done about the matter.

(Note: If the staff member has submitted a formal complaint, then this should be a confidential matter and you should no longer talk to the staff member about it.)

Step 5.  If, after step 3, the staff member now believes they are not being bullied but instead are experiencing interpersonal conflict, disrespectful behaviour or the discomfort sometimes associated with a work process (i.e. receiving management directions or being subject to a formal performance management process) the manager should refer them to the correct policy on how this matter can be addressed informally. The next steps are as follows:

  • Check if the staff member wishes to utilise the self-management informal resolution option and ensure they are prepared with exactly what they plan to say to the other person and when. Some coaching may be required here so that the communication interaction is constructive and not destructive!
  • Ensure you mention the organisation’s EAP policy and how this can be accessed by the staff member.
  • Before the end of the meeting, obtain agreement from the staff member on what steps they plan to take. (Unless they now believe that from discussion with you there is no problem, taking no action is not an option.)
  • After the meeting, make notes in your diary.
  • Of equal importance is to make a diary entry reminding yourself to check in with that staff member in a reasonable time frame to follow up with them. Did they follow the course of action they had chosen? What were the outcomes? What are the next steps? Again diarise each of these interactions.

It is imperative that these less serious incidents (such as interpersonal conflict, disrespectful behaviour and differences of opinion) be resolved promptly and constructively. Left unaddressed or only partially resolved, the situation is more likely to escalate over time. (Bullying behaviour can often result from the escalation of interpersonal conflict.)The longer a conflict situation is left unaddressed, the more the workplace relationships deteriorate and the greater the need for a more sophisticated and time consuming resolution process.

Supporting managers to use this structured process will more likely than not ensure that legitimate bullying complaints will be properly escalated through the correct workplace processes, incidents of interpersonal conflict will be addressed promptly and constructively and vexatious complaints will be stopped in their tracks. Of certainty is the strengthening of workplace relationships – especially between the manager and staff member and a bonus is the strengthening of all workplace relationships as managers set an example of honest and empathetic discussion and constructive communications.

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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.