Today’s blog was inspired by an unpleasant series of events I witnessed while travelling on business. Waiting to order at a café I was appalled to observe the way a member of staff was treated – yet again. Highly irritated by her team member, the offending manager was aggressive, rude, and in any reasonable persons mind, humiliating. In full view of her customers the manager berated the team member in question for not working quickly enough. A few moments later she had another go this time saying “you’re seriously hopeless, just get it right or get out of my way”.
This was the second day in a row I had observed this manager behaving badly toward this team member. What alarmed me most was the owner of the café witnessed both events and chose to do nothing. In fact not only did they fail to act, they glanced at the manager with a knowing expression that was in clear support of her attitude and actions. While I can vote with my feet by not returning to the café I chose instead to raise my concern with the owner. Unfortunately my feedback had zero impact – they simply didn’t get it or care.
It was obvious to me that the manager was inexperienced and stressed by the pressure of the busy café environment. However my heart went out to the team member who was clearly miserable and equally stressed. As I wrote in another blog post ‘Hug a Bully’ often those who bully are those who have been bullied. “If not the victims of poor behavior, often these people are fragile characters who struggle to love themselves as much as they struggle to create healthy relationships with others.” However while this remains true it’s no excuse for failing to address or in fact enabling bullying as the café owner did.
Bullying continues to be a serious issue not only in our school grounds but also in workplaces everywhere. While it’s difficult to access data that paints a full and precise picture of the extent of the issue, what is clear is that too many people are subjected to unacceptable treatment at work with serious risk to their health and safety. It is incumbent upon all leaders to take responsibility for ensuring our workplaces are free of conduct that is harmful to the well being of people.
Safe Work Australia’s revised code of practice ‘Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying’ is currently in draft and open for public comment. The code suggests that bullying is: “behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard for the circumstances, would see as unreasonable, including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening”. ‘Reasonable’ in the context of behaviour isn’t hard to understand; all we need to do is use our common sense and apply a dose of respect, compassion and sensitivity to know where the boundaries lie. Contemplate how most people are likely to feel in response to being subjected to a particular approach or behaviour, and it becomes clear what constitutes reasonable and what doesn’t.
Under what is being reported as a contentious bill before federal parliament, workers who accuse bosses, colleagues, suppliers or customers of bullying will be able to report them to the Fair Work Commission (FWC). The FWC will be able to order that the bullying cease within 14 days with anyone ignoring the order facing a fine of $10,200 each, and the organisation faces the risk of being fined $51,000.
In response however Coalition MPs are arguing that some people might “abuse” the proposed new law. An online news article by Natasha Bita titled ‘Workplace bullies face $10000 fine in Gillard plan’ quotes a dissenting report by Coalition MPs as saying “Frivolous actions, or even worse, actions driven by malicious intent would have the ability to tie employers up in rolling court actions for extended periods”.
Of course we need to safeguard against unfair or vexatious claims, however we also need to take a firm stance to remove bullying from every work environment. Too many leaders ignore, avoid dealing with or enable bullying in their business. Unless we apply serious consequences when employers allow the health and safety of people to be put at risk this issue won’t go away.
One CEO I worked with sincerely believed that people needed to toughen up and stop complaining. His attitude was that people were too sensitive and needed to get on with doing their job. Entirely incapable of understanding the impacts of his own conduct on the well being of the people in his team, I have no doubt that the only way to get the attention of leaders like him is through serious legal and financial consequences.
Leaders fail to deal with bullies for many different reasons; of course in some cases the bully is the big boss. Some underestimate the impacts of the conduct and others prefer to look the other way. At times the perpetrator is confronting to deal with even for their manager. In other cases the bully is an otherwise valued member of the team because they earn a lot of money for the business. Some leaders are unsure about how to raise the issue and others don’t hold bullies accountable for fear of reprisal.
My message to these leaders is ‘step up and deal with it’. Irrespective of why it’s hard you have a duty of care to your staff and allowing them to be bullied by you or anyone else is unacceptable. You have not only a legal but also a moral obligation to act with courage and decency in driving bullying from your workplace. If you are in fact the bully then get help; you need to change your approach or get out of business.