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University Workers Complain Workplace Bullying Policies Fall Short

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When Policies Don’t Work

I would give anything to have the U.S. replicate the broad national investigation of abuse in our work cultures that Australia is currently undergoing.  [sign our petition] At least we can watch from halfway around the world and learn from information being presented.  Because, one of the issues being discussed is that policies in the workplace need certain components if they are going to be effective.   Unfortunately, here in America the most popular template for legislation, the Healthy Workplace Bill, doesn’t even require employers to put policies in place much less dictate that the point person for employees to complain to should be separate from HR.  Hopefully that will change and the bill will be amended by some smart legislator before it passes.

The Problem

The National Tertiary Education Union [NTEU] submitted their report to the Australian Inquiry into workplace bullying.  They presented the results of their survey and investigation of bullying at an Australian university (the name was redacted).  It’s a well researched and documented paper and although their survey represents a small number of respondents and is based on email distribution their discussion is hard to pick apart and should be taken seriously by anyone interested in finding solutions:

When more than eighty per cent of bullying complainants did not receive the kind of response recommended by the bullying policy, a number of conclusions can be drawn – that the policy is not operating well, that there is an urgent need for management training and that the employment of staff with specialised knowledge in this area is critical. Numerous comments were made by respondents that they had been advised about not ‘making a fuss’, to not ‘make trouble’, to not ‘demoralise’ the work unit by making a complaint, to not be ‘over sensitive’, to not to ‘take things too personally’, to learn to accept the bullying behaviour as ‘just the way they are’, that it was just a ‘misunderstanding’, to ‘work it out amongst yourselves’, that the bully ‘is very stressed at the moment’ and that ‘there are two sides to every story’. There was a strong sense among responses that making a complaint was useless and, in some cases, made things worse. As one colleague put it, ‘I was disheartened when nothing came of it. I felt like I wasn’t important and that I was making a fuss over nothing.’ Several respondents described situations where the confidentiality of discussions regarding the bullying was breached by the person to whom they complained, and sometimes to the bully. Others made comments about the protracted nature of making a complaint and getting action, which exacerbated the stress experienced by all involved…

The Solution

This is what NTEU suggests:

Appointment of a bullying officer

We see the appointment of a bullying officer whose sole job is to carry out an initial investigation of complaints and do workplace training as a key component of making improvements in this area.

The incongruence of HR practitioners’ roles as both management, and supposedly, employee representative strongly suggests the need for wider oversight of particular cases to ensure fairness to all parties. We suggest that the appointee be a qualified welfare practitioner whose professional obligations are sourced from beyond the organisation and might be expected to meet a higher standard of impartiality. Many respondents commented that some bullies were considered to be in positions of power, inviolate from criticism, and that HR would not, or could not, discipline senior staff, especially if they were ‘high performers’.

Although we recognise the limitations of a bullying officer being a University employee and potentially subject to ‘management capture’, publicly stating that the bullying officer was empowered to investigate any matter ‘without fear or favour’ would go a long way to changing the culture of bullying that we feel is, so far, unchecked. It is vital that the incumbent be able to concentrate solely on this job and not have it as an ‘add on’ to an existing position. NTEU representatives who have handled bullying cases can attest that each situation can be very complex and take time to resolve. In one case alone, more than 200 emails were sent/received before the situation was ‘resolved’ by the departure of the bullying target. Given the NTEU alone handled eighteen bullying cases and several cases of misconduct and performance management that contained elements of bullying in the past two years, the workload would easily support a fulltime position. We think this is the case even if management were to adopt more methodical, routine and accountable practices for dealing with cases. The costs of investigation alone could be greatly reduced.

Training and organisational development

Bullying investigators

The workload involved in dealing with bullying also suggests that the bullying officer is a facilitator, rather than the sole ‘go to’ person on bullying, and that their job would involve training, supporting and monitoring a number of strategically placed staff members who take on investigating and reporting roles. By broadening the number of staff at who have a nuanced understanding of bullying issues, a number of problems would be addressed – bringing bullying out into the open, raising the level of debate about the issue, encouraging proactive responses to complaints and perhaps even prevention of future problems.

Training for managers

In many instances, line managers, such as heads of school and research centre directors revealed to us a distinct lack of understanding about their obligations to operate within the dictates of university policy, mandated procedures outlined in the relevant enterprise agreement and generally accepted ethical practices. It is often assumed that overworked heads of school have read and understood the implications of every policy that affects their day‐to‐day obligations as managers. This is often not the case. Failure to recognise and adequately address the lack of managerial skills in this area only serves to extend the suffering of bullying targets, exacerbates workplace conflicts and, even in managerialist terms, potentially exposes the University to risks of expensive litigation and embarrassing public exposure. One respondent commented on the lack of self‐awareness among senior staff which was revealed when a manager chastised them about certain behaviours they were surprised to learn were unacceptable. It is also likely that there are any number of academic supervisors of casual tutors who are not well versed about their responsibilities, making training in this area an important focus of attention.

Recognition of the necessary contextual preconditions for a bullying‐free environment 

Placing reasonable limits on management workload expectations, in our view, will be crucial to weakening the culture of overwork that forms the basis upon which bullies are supported – almost any behaviour, it seems, can be justified or condoned as a necessary component of performance and workload management. Of course, we would argue that the opposite is true and that unchecked workload and performance expectations will more often underpin burnout, loss of motivation and high turnover. Even a colleague who largely supported a ‘high performance culture’ saw the dangers involved in unreasonable managerial demands. As they put it:

I have found an excellent culture in my school and would feel very able to report bullying if it occurred, although I have very little faith in any process that involves HR. Behaviours like changing goalposts and large workloads are prevalent and to an extent institutionalised – this is an extremely grey area because these kinds of behaviour are associated with a high achieving university (the kind I want to work at). So I acknowledge that they exist and might be on the rise (gradually), but I’m fairly ambivalent about them because my ambitions largely match those of the university.

While many university workers feel a great deal of passion for their work, setting guidelines about what can be considered the ‘reasonable’ expectations of local managers, and collectively resisting pressures to go beyond what is reasonable, will be vital for protecting workers’ rights to decent hours, work and life balance and good health. Genuine commitment to observing the spirit and the letter of local workload policies, alongside transparent assessments of the impact of organisational change on workload, would assist to undermine the basis upon which many workplace bullies operate.

Procedural justice

The University must ensure that no backlash is experienced by staff when they make a bullying complaint. In order for employees to trust the process, they must feel safe to make a complaint without fearing that their job is on the line (Searle 2011). Having a bullying officer, and a staff committee with oversight of all cases to whom that person reports, would arguably contribute to a sense among staff that their complaints would be assessed fairly. It is simply untenable for one person to have sole discretion to interpret and adjudicate on workplace bullying matters. It is also recommended that the Bullying Officer operate from OHS, rather than HR.

Industrial regulation

A major problem with the processes currently in place to regulate bullying is management’s insistence on self‐reference and self‐regulation. Investigation of complaints is completely ‘in house’ and management acts as judge and jury on the basis of sealed evidence. As Josh Bornstein, a leading employment lawyer, put it:

Bullying behaviour thrives in a culture of darkness. It can persist for years in workplaces that are not exposed to external scrutiny. The key to addressing bullying is for policymakers to legislate a practical means for employees to expose their work environment to external scrutiny in a court or tribunal. Once the spotlight is activated on bullying behaviour, it tends to wither and die (Australian Financial Review, 30 August 2011).

The NTEU argues that it is vital that enterprise agreements contain clauses that regularise the treatment of bullying complaints and ensure management accountability, through external regulation and enforceable standards. We feel that systems can be constructed that adequately protect the rights of those involved to confidentiality, while still providing the necessary checks and balances on bureaucratic processes and outcomes. It is vital that the principles enshrined in the bullying policy are incorporated as commitments in staff enterprise agreements. For example, at the University of New England, the academic staff enterprise agreement binds the University and all its employees to the principles expressed in their local bullying policy about the importance of dignity and respect at work.

There is no reason why this industrial protection could not be provided to all staff as well.

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