Workplace bullying complaints are on the rise, and imminent changes to the Fair Work Act will allow complaints to be dealt with at a Federal level. According to Steve Champion, Director of ER Strategies, the best prevention is to recognise workplace conflict and deal with it before it escalates into allegations of bullying or harassment.
“The solution often lies in early mediation, rather than an over-emphasis on investigation and disciplining someone. This is particularly the case where the problem is interpersonal, rather than clearly bad behaviour from one person to another.”
Every workplace has conflict – whether it is a difficult co-worker, simple personality clashes, or ineffective management. In fact, some conflict is good for a workplace. But if conflict is not dealt with swiftly and effectively, bullying allegations may follow
According to a draft code of practice recently released by Safe Work Australia, “Low-level workplace conflict is generally not considered to be workplace bullying. This is because not all conflicts or disagreements have negative health effects. When conflict is at a low level and is task based, it can benefit an organisation by generating debate leading to new ideas and innovative solutions. It does not always pose a risk to health and safety. However, in some cases, conflict that is not managed may escalate to the point where it meets the definition of workplace bullying.”
While businesses can’t expect all their employees to get along with each other all the time, they need to ensure that people are treated fairly and that interpersonal behaviour is professional and appropriate.
What most managers don’t want is for simple conflict to escalate to bullying, and Champion says that “bullying” appears to be turning into a catch-all phrase for any workplace dispute.
“While it is tempting to put complaints ‘out of mind, out of sight’, managers need to step in early to resolve conflict – even those petty disputes that are common in most workplaces,” Champion said.
So what steps can managers take to ensure everyday conflict does not escalate to bullying?
Often “difficult” employees are simply sidelined or ignored, both of which could eventually lead to a bullying complaint. Instead, these staff members – who are often the loudest complainers and the poorest workers – need to be managed correctly, rather than just hoping they will go away.
Most organisations have a performance management policy, and this is when it needs to be dusted off. What you are managing is not trying to change what someone believes, but their actions or behaviours around in the workplace.
Go through the appropriate steps – whether they be counselling, written warnings, professional development – and make sure you follow your own policy and processes. That way, you do not leave yourself open for a bullying complaint from other employees (performance management, when done correctly and reasonably, is not bullying) and reduce the risk from the employee you are performance managing.
When there are two or more staff members who simply don’t get along, it’s time to bring them all together and work out a plan. Ask them what outcome they want – and it may surprise you. It could be as simple as a change in desk allocation, or more complicated such as a review of their position description. Sometimes employees clash because there is not clear delineation of their roles.
And if it is that their personalities are unsuited, as a manager, you need to find a way to work around that and they need to play their part and be professional at all times. There is no law that says work associates all need to be “mates”. There can be some benefit in letting it be known that this is the case and that not everyone should expect that they will be friends with everyone, but that civility to others in the workplace is what is required.
Don’t play favourites
It is very likely that as a manager, you have your preferred staff members. But it is important to never let this show. Treat everyone equally, and don’t appear to side with the more productive “easy” staff member in a dispute unless there is a clear factual basis on which to do so.
Champion says it is often the case that workplace conflict is a product of poor management, so don’t let your management style let you down. Not only could it lead to bullying complaints, but you might find that your better performers leave for greener pastures.