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Nine steps to building a bullying-free workplace culture

Bullying is a chronic and relentless facet of the workplace, and the consequences are considerable. Workplace bullying doesn’t just hurt those involved.

The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims. It is estimated to cost Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion annually.

While we often think about bullying as an individual or interpersonal issue, Beyond Blue’s research shows that the main drivers are broader environmental factors such as poor organisational culture and a lack of leadership. 

What is bullying?

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person or a group at work. Workplace bullying can happen anywhere, from offices to shops, cafes, restaurants, workshops, community groups and government organisations. 

The Australian Workplace Barometer (AWB) reports that on average, across Australia, almost 1 in 10 (8.6%) of the 2020/21 Australian employees who responded identified as being bullied. However, this figure may hide the true extent of the problem, with much antisocial workplace behaviour going unreported and research suggesting that up to two-thirds of workers may experience unfair treatment on the job.

Examples of bullying include:

  • Verbal bullying – saying or writing mean things and includes teasing, name-calling and inappropriate sexual comments
  • Social bullying or relational bullying – hurting someone’s reputation or relationship. Examples include leaving someone out of a meeting on purpose or embarrassing someone in public.
  • Physical bullying – hurting a person’s body or possessions. For example, unwanted touching (sexual or not), taking or breaking someone’s things, and making mean or rude hand gestures.
  • Cyberbullying – takes place over digital devices. It can include sharing personal or private information to cause embarrassment or humiliation.

Nine ways to foster a civil workplace

1. Get leadership involved

It is critical that management fully supports any measures taken to build a harassment-free workplace. Leadership must “walk the walk” and “talk the talk.”

2. Put it in writing

Your organisation’s code of conduct must not only clarify what is unacceptable regarding harassment and bullying but also what is expected in terms of positive behaviour. Organisations should also seek legal advice to ensure the policy complies with the laws and regulations of every jurisdiction in which they operate. It is also essential that this policy outlines initial actions, investigative procedures, and proportionate responses to suit the degree of the infraction.

3. Provide training

Ensure that employees and managers understand your organisation’s expectations around behaviour and the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.

4. Teach managers how to respond

While all employees understand appropriate conduct, managers and supervisors must know how to respond to an allegation.

5. Create a clear reporting and escalation process

Employees who feel harassed or intimidated should know the steps they need to take and believe that their claim is heard and will be acted upon promptly.

6. Establish appropriate investigative procedures

Define a transparent process for investigating complaints, ensuring your organisation avoids bias, and treating all claims justly.

7. Protect claimants

Employees who come forward must feel confident that they will not suffer any retaliation or negativity for making a claim.

8. Offer acceptable solutions

Work with a legal professional to establish solutions that work for all parties involved. These can cover everything from reassignment to termination of the offender.

9. Make the consequences clear

Everyone in your organisation needs to know that bullying has implications for the perpetrator, including termination.

How training can help secure bullying-free workplaces

One of the most significant benefits organisations and employees derive from comprehensive training is understanding:

  • Employees will identify protected classes and the legal criteria that established unlawful harassment.
  • The use of real-world scenarios helps employees recognise what unlawful harassment or bullying looks like and its effects on employees and the organisation.
  • Employees who feel bullied or harassed know what action they can take and their right to seek outside help.

Bullying is sadly still far too common in Australian workplaces. However, these adverse psychological and physical health effects and negative organisational costs can be prevented.

A comprehensive workplace bullying prevention program and appropriate training can provide valuable tools to minimise negative behaviour and empower individuals to understand what to do when bullying occurs. 

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Kath Greenhough

Kath Greenhough

Kath has been with Skillsoft since 1995, originally starting in the Customer Success organisation. During her tenure leading that organisation in APAC, she was instrumental in transforming the teams' direction in readiness to embrace the ground-breaking Percipio as the Learning Experience Platform of choice among customers.  Underpinning this, the strategy to harness the power of technology to enable skills and performance improvement remained the ultimate outcome for customers. Today, Kath is the Vice President Asia Pacific and New Zealand Country Manager.  This realises her passion for helping New Zealand and APAC organisations improve the performance of their people, unleashing their edge, and building the skills of tomorrow with the workforce of today.

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