If your boss calls you into a meeting and says you need to improve your performance, are you being bullied or are you being coached?
Increasingly, employees are deciding that their manager is simply a bully and a growing number are laying very serious complaints.
A case in point is a boss, working in the healthcare sector, who was having a hard time giving direction to the often very experienced people who reported to him. The employees, mostly women, had been doing things the same way for a long time and any attempt to change or improve the way they did their jobs was met with offended resistance.
At one stage, the 4000-person organisation was receiving two to three complaints of bullying a week.
“Just speaking to a woman in our industry in the wrong way [can bring accusations] of harassment,” says the HR manager of the organisation, in frustration.
Managers may think they are performance managing, but workers can read it as bullying. Sometimes the problem stems from a lack of understanding about what is bullying, and what is not. Other times, the accusation can be a defensive tactic against criticism.
But while unsubstantiated bullying allegations are on the rise, the incidence of genuine bullying is also unacceptably high. About 6.8 per cent of workers say they have been bullied in the past six months, according to the Australian Workplace Barometer, and each case costs employers $17,000 to $24,000 in direct and indirect costs.
Those costs could be set to rise when the federal government’s proposed anti-bullying amendments to the Fair Work Act come into effect from July 1.
In a pointed warning to the business community, workplace lawyer Joydeep Hor, the managing principal of People + Culture Strategies, says employers should brace for a “pandemic” of claims once the changes are in effect.
Bullying is defined behaviour that is repeated, systematic and is intended to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten. Given that definition, there should be no confusion between a manager’s feedback and bullying.
However, associate professor Julie Cogin, from the Australian School of Business, says performance conversations have become so tricky that managers will do just about anything to avoid them.
“It explains something that a lot of managers avoid giving critical feedback for fear of being subjected to a bullying complaint. They tend to skate around the issue,” she says.
Managers will often ignore the problem, flick-pass it to someone from human resources or hire an executive coach to try and tackle problems with performance.
The chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute, Peter Wilson, agrees that managers often “chicken out”.
“But the best performance discussions are between a boss and a subordinate, not HR and a subordinate,” he says. “HR is better as an independent third party – not doing the manager’s job for them.”
Cogin says dodging tough conversations can have a serious consequences:
- That the employee will not improve and they will not do their job correctly.
- That the manager is giving implied approval of the way the employee goes about their work, which could be a problem if the employee later contests a dismissal.
- Others in the team will resent that they have to carry the load of an ineffective colleague and they may leave. Over time, the effectiveness of the team will diminish.
“There are loads of consequences of doing nothing,” says Cogin.
False allegations, however, can destroy a professional reputation and can be intensely stressful for the people who are subjected to them. It is no wonder people are increasingly wary of sparking a confrontation.
Cogin has personal experience, once being accused of racism while trying to coach better performance from one of her staff members.
“What you want to do as a manager is just to defend yourself,” she says.
However, focusing on the accusation would be a mistake in a conversation that’s meant to be about the performance of the accuser. If they tackle the slur then and there, the manager is allowing the accuser to deflect the critical feedback and derail the conversation.
Cogin says a better response is to suggest the employee take up that issue later and that they continue to concentrate on the matter at hand.
“For a manager, this [tactic] requires a lot of self-regulation,” Cogin says .
Dealing with bullying accusations
AHRI’s Wilson says once such an allegation has been made, a third party should be brought in to deal with it.
In giving feedback, setting the right tone is important. Managers are often ill-equipped for performance management and blundering into a meeting with some direct observations about an employee’s failings could be inviting trouble.
Nothing that is discussed in the meeting should be a surprise to the employee. Wilson says that an annual or six-monthly performance review is not the time to bring up a new problem. Feedback conversations should take place throughout the year and should be based on performance objectives that were agreed upon at the start of the year.
If there has been no such agreement and a problem emerges some months down the track, it is hard to convince an employee that they haven’t come up to scratch, Wilson says.
In a meeting, rather than making accusatory statements, the manager should focus on drawing out the employee with questions: “How do you think you are going?”, “Have their been any issues in the broader environment that have prevented you from doing your best?”, “Do you have all the resources you need to do your job?”.
Says Wilson: “In performance management, the last thing you talk about is their personal exertion. You have to concentrate on establishing a non-hostile environment”.
Cogin says complaints of bullying have risen because people have become more aware of their rights, but says the terms bullying and harassment are being overused.
“They are used in day-to-day conversation without understanding the true meaning,” she says.
Joydeep Hor of People + Culture Strategies, says the expected changes will have a broader definition of bullying as “repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.
The changes also recognise that bullying does not include performance management conducted in a “reasonable” manner. However, the crucial definition of “reasonable” is yet to be decided.
Employers could be fined up to $33,000 for breaches.
The changes will also require the Fair Work Commission to respond to complaints within 14 days.
The current legislation requires complainants to prove they have been discriminated against for characteristics including gender, race, religion or disability.
Hor warns the changes will encourage people to 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.
Executive coach and director of Horizons Unlimited, Graham Richardson, says leaders must take responsibility for the culture of the organisations they run. Any bullying complaints are a problem – whether they end up being proved, or not.
Richardson says he was pleased to be in a meeting recently with a senior executive of a corporation who had been accused (probably justifiably) of bullying staff and his CEO.
“It was amazing to hear the CEO apologise to the executive, saying ‘I made you this way, but the culture needs to change and you have to change with it’,” Richardson says.
The two men had risen through their careers together in a company that was famous for its aggressive nature. The executive had been trained in that culture and was probably wondering why he was being singled out for criticism, but his CEO had come to the realisation that the way people treated each other was damaging.
Workplace affairs writer Fiona Smith blogs on the HR and career issues that make Australian companies tick at BRW magazine. This article was first published on the BRW magazine website.