Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Performance management: Are you a boss or a bully?

Published 06 March 2013 06:58, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40

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Performance management: Are you a boss or a bully?

Bosses may say they were “just joking” but even misunderstandings can cost up to $24,000. Photo: Andrew Quilty

If your boss calls you into a meeting to talk about the need to improve your performance, are you being bullied, or are you being coached?

Increasingly, employees are deciding that their manager is a bully and they are laying complaints or making stress claims under workers compensation.

As lawyer Joydeep Hor says: “No one accepts that they are performing at a substandard level.”

Humans have a psychological bias in tending to believe that they are above average.

So they often misconstrue criticism as an attack on them as a person, rather than an attempt to correct a fault.

This means that coaching conversations become very tricky indeed.

About 6.8 per cent of workers say they have been bullied in the past six months and each case costs employers $17,000 to $24,000 in direct and indirect costs.

Hor, the managing principal of People + Culture Strategies, is warning that things could get a whole lot worse with the proposed anti-bullying amendments to the Fair Work Act.

The changes, due to be implemented by July 1, will define bullying as “repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.

It also recognises that bullying does not include reasonable management practices including performance management conducted in a “reasonable” manner.

Employers could be fined up to $33,000.

This has a broader reach than the current arrangement, where complainants must prove they have been discriminated against for characteristics including gender, race, religion or disability.

The changes will also require the Fair Work Commission to respond to complaints within 14 days.

Hor warns such changes would result in a “pandemic” of claims from people who will use the Fair Work Commission as their first port of call in a complaint, rather than starting off by trying to resolve the matter with the employer.

Because people find such matters hard to deal with and talk about, they may initially feel more comfortable going to the commission than undertaking a complaints process with the people they work with.

However, once this litigation process starts, it is not generally feasible for them to stay with the same employer.

“It destroys the relationship,” says Hor.

The commission will also be deluged with complaints – some of them mere misunderstandings – and it will not have the capacity to deal with them all in that time frame, says Hor.

So, what can employers do to reduce the frequency of bullying complaints? Hor organised a round table discussion of human resources leaders to come up with some answers:

Educate:

Talk to staff and managers about what bullying is, and isn’t. This can forestall complaints that would be better dealt with quickly by managers and HR. One representative of a 4000-person organisation said he was receiving two to three bullying complaints a day when he first joined, but this has now fallen to one per month.

“Sometimes it was as simple as someone [the complainant] saying ‘You can’t talk to me this way’ or ‘You can’t direct me to do that’,” he said.

“Just speaking to a woman in our industry in the wrong way [can bring accusations] of harassment.”

Explain:

In a firm of lawyers and accountants, people felt they were being victimised when they were rotated to another team, which was a requirement of the area they worked in.

An accusation of bullying was “the first thing they leaned towards, the first thing they would shout”, said the HR manager. The necessity of the move had to be explained to them.

Document:

One company has a policy of requiring managers to do a walk-around once a month to talk to staff about how they were doing and then document the conversations. If a complaint of bullying is made, the documentation can prove a process of performance management.

Separate:

At one hospitality company, there was a problem with staff socialising outside work and bringing behaviour into the workplace that was inappropriate in that context. The HR department sent some communication about the issue across the business and equipped front-line managers with a manual to help them deal with the problem.

Recognise:

Industries and workplaces may have different kinds of bullying. In an advertising company, staff were using their creative software to “graft” pictures of their colleagues’ heads onto different bodies.

A head of HR at a construction company, on the other hand, had received no complaints of bullying for the past 10 years from the predominantly male workforce. He speculated that the culture of the people who worked there was to accept “straight talk” and to tough it out.

However, rather than complain, they may instead use all of their personal leave to try and deal with the impact of a difficult situation, he said.

Model:

The culture of an organisation is heavily influenced by the behaviour of its leaders. A number of people at the round-table organised by Hor mentioned confronting behaviour and talk by their CEO and top level executives.

“Often, they will couch their comments by saying ‘we are just joking’,”.

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