What happens when the CEO finds the workplace culture toxic?


Senior leadership can experience workplace bullying, too. If it’s happening at the very top, what hope does the rest of the organisation have?

It’s not unusual to hear complaints about a toxic workplace culture posted on social media sites. Whistleblowing has become one of the most effective ways for employees to be heard in the face of unresponsive or ignorant management. What is more unusual is when the CEO is the one to sound the alarm, which is exactly what has happened in the City of Perth.

CEO Martin Mileham unexpectedly took stress leave earlier this month citing an “unsafe workplace” amid reports of bullying. Mileham, who has been in the role since 2016, alleges that the council has breached the terms of his contract and an investigation is currently underway after he met with the Department of Local Government to discuss how councillors were behaving towards administrative staff.

With half of all Australian employees experiencing workplace bullying during their careers, according to a 2016 University of Wollongong study, many will no doubt be gratified to see Mileham walking the talk on this issue and going public with his own problems.

At the City of Perth, Mileham’s actions appear to have unleashed a wave of discontent among the workforce, exposing an ugly side of life at the council. A survey of staff found that over the past five years, morale has deteriorated with their work environment being described as “toxic”. While staff had avenues to report misconduct, harassment and bullying, only half felt confident that their complaints would be handled “confidentially and appropriately”.

Acting chief executive Robert Mianich admitted in the West Australian newspaper that the City had faced “many internal and external challenges” and said it had identified ways it could change, including improving processes in human resources and project management.

A mentally healthy workplace is not just about employing and supporting people who live and work with mental health issues, it’s about the culture of the place, says Georgie Harman, chief executive of beyondblue.

“It can only be created with a top-down commitment that leaves nobody out. There has to be a willingness to treat good mental health practices as good business practices,” says Harman.

When bullying occurs at the top

It is fairly common for bullying to occur at higher levels says Karen Gately, People Leadership Expert at Ryan Gately. “It can and does happen, whether you are a CEO experiencing bullying from those more senior than you or from other executives. But the HR director has a duty of care to every member of the workforce including their CEO, so it is necessary that the organisation takes it seriously.”

Whether HR is observing the impact or has direct reporting of it, it makes sense to offer support, advice and coaching, says Gately.

“I would be having a conversation with the CEO about what steps they are taking to influence the behaviours. Are they being clear about what they won’t tolerate? Are they taking an assertive stance? And, obviously, too giving them emotional support and professional guidance to influence the situation and be resilient in the face of what is awful behaviour,” she says.

Gately agrees that it “takes courage”, particularly if you are a less experienced HR professional, “but it is about approaching the situation with honesty, respect and sensitivity.” The value of that to a senior executive and the effective running of the business will not go unnoticed, she says.

Learn more about how you can deal with bullying and harassment with the AHRI short course.

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Rick Rebeiro
Rick Rebeiro
4 years ago

I’m not sure how CEO Mileham’s actions could have “unleashed a wave of discontent among the workforce”, given the only indication of discontent, the employee survey, was taken in September, some 4 months before Mileham took stress leave. Karen Gately’s comments are also a little off the mark. While the HR Director does have a duty of care to the workforce, so does everyone there. Every OSH Act makes that clear. And as we don’t know what assistance and interventions HR provided in this case, it seems unreasonable to imply that it didn’t do enough. Having said that, it would… Read more »

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What happens when the CEO finds the workplace culture toxic?


Senior leadership can experience workplace bullying, too. If it’s happening at the very top, what hope does the rest of the organisation have?

It’s not unusual to hear complaints about a toxic workplace culture posted on social media sites. Whistleblowing has become one of the most effective ways for employees to be heard in the face of unresponsive or ignorant management. What is more unusual is when the CEO is the one to sound the alarm, which is exactly what has happened in the City of Perth.

CEO Martin Mileham unexpectedly took stress leave earlier this month citing an “unsafe workplace” amid reports of bullying. Mileham, who has been in the role since 2016, alleges that the council has breached the terms of his contract and an investigation is currently underway after he met with the Department of Local Government to discuss how councillors were behaving towards administrative staff.

With half of all Australian employees experiencing workplace bullying during their careers, according to a 2016 University of Wollongong study, many will no doubt be gratified to see Mileham walking the talk on this issue and going public with his own problems.

At the City of Perth, Mileham’s actions appear to have unleashed a wave of discontent among the workforce, exposing an ugly side of life at the council. A survey of staff found that over the past five years, morale has deteriorated with their work environment being described as “toxic”. While staff had avenues to report misconduct, harassment and bullying, only half felt confident that their complaints would be handled “confidentially and appropriately”.

Acting chief executive Robert Mianich admitted in the West Australian newspaper that the City had faced “many internal and external challenges” and said it had identified ways it could change, including improving processes in human resources and project management.

A mentally healthy workplace is not just about employing and supporting people who live and work with mental health issues, it’s about the culture of the place, says Georgie Harman, chief executive of beyondblue.

“It can only be created with a top-down commitment that leaves nobody out. There has to be a willingness to treat good mental health practices as good business practices,” says Harman.

When bullying occurs at the top

It is fairly common for bullying to occur at higher levels says Karen Gately, People Leadership Expert at Ryan Gately. “It can and does happen, whether you are a CEO experiencing bullying from those more senior than you or from other executives. But the HR director has a duty of care to every member of the workforce including their CEO, so it is necessary that the organisation takes it seriously.”

Whether HR is observing the impact or has direct reporting of it, it makes sense to offer support, advice and coaching, says Gately.

“I would be having a conversation with the CEO about what steps they are taking to influence the behaviours. Are they being clear about what they won’t tolerate? Are they taking an assertive stance? And, obviously, too giving them emotional support and professional guidance to influence the situation and be resilient in the face of what is awful behaviour,” she says.

Gately agrees that it “takes courage”, particularly if you are a less experienced HR professional, “but it is about approaching the situation with honesty, respect and sensitivity.” The value of that to a senior executive and the effective running of the business will not go unnoticed, she says.

Learn more about how you can deal with bullying and harassment with the AHRI short course.

guest
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rick Rebeiro
Rick Rebeiro
4 years ago

I’m not sure how CEO Mileham’s actions could have “unleashed a wave of discontent among the workforce”, given the only indication of discontent, the employee survey, was taken in September, some 4 months before Mileham took stress leave. Karen Gately’s comments are also a little off the mark. While the HR Director does have a duty of care to the workforce, so does everyone there. Every OSH Act makes that clear. And as we don’t know what assistance and interventions HR provided in this case, it seems unreasonable to imply that it didn’t do enough. Having said that, it would… Read more »

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