Bullying and other unacceptable workplace behaviour is often conducted in a culture that needs fixing, says legal counsel Dominic Lallo.
Lallo has witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly of workplace behaviour management. Now senior legal counsel at LS Partners, he has more than 30 years of experience on both the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ side of the law.
“We’re commonly brought in as part of a reactive measure, when the proverbial ‘you know what’ hits the fan and we’re asked to investigate a workplace behaviour issue or conflict,” he says.
“These investigations sometimes reveal a systemic problem where all key personnel aren’t held accountable.”
That’s the tricky part. Accountability rarely succeeds if it doesn’t have the whole team’s support.
When a bullying complaint is received, the focus is on the parties to dispute and other employees who may be involved are usually not part of any review, says Lallo.
“But future workplace issues can be prevented only by including all personnel as part of a review process.”
Case study: workplace accountability
This real-life case study demonstrates how accountability can help put an organisation’s damaged culture back on track.
After a serious bullying complaint, an employer asked LS Partners to review its complaint handling process from start to finish. The following issues were noted:
- The supervisor and manager made no effort to remain alert to and monitor unacceptable behaviour.
- Both were aware bullying was occurring, but turned a blind eye.
- The complainant reported bullying to the supervisor and was advised to ignore it.
- The complainant delayed reporting further bullying to the manager for another four months. By then, it had escalated to a serious level.
- The manager delayed investigating for five weeks.
- The (internal) investigator failed to comply with the reporting timeframe and processes set by the employer’s policies and procedures and did not inform the parties involved.
- Co-workers tolerated the prominent bullying culture. They offered no assistance to the complainant and didn’t report the culture to HR or management.
All employees had a legal duty to prevent and guard against risks associated with unacceptable behaviour. Yet there was no review of their role and fulfilment of duties. They weren’t asked to account for their actions or, more precisely, their lack of action.
This critical step – making all personnel responsible and accountable – is often missing in the difficult task of prevention. But it’s a step that doesn’t go unnoticed by occupational health and safety/bullying inspectors who include the role and failures of relevant duty holders in their investigations. No-one is immune to personal prosecution.
In this case, the investigation was successful, so far as it prevented the respondent reoffending. However, it did little to bring about general prevention in a culture of significant bullying.
Real prevention can be achieved only if all employees pull together to fulfil their roles and responsibilities.
Steps to achieve cultural change
A positive workplace behaviour environment is required to constructively manage bullying. Everyone must be involved in agreeing that inappropriate behaviour won’t be tolerated in the organisation and they need to be provided with the skills, procedures and knowledge to recognise inappropriate behaviour and deal with it.
How to create a positive workplace behaviour environment
- Write plain English policies and procedures, that detail roles and responsibilities.
- Provide clear instructions, directions and training for workplace behaviour expectations.
- Include workplace behaviour expectations in induction programs. Provide regular training for all employees.
- Regularly review employees’ performance in meeting their workplace behaviour duties and responsibilities.
- Let employees know they will be held accountable.
Gaining collective accountability may not be easy. But Lallo has seen the pay-off.
“From my experience, organisations that follow these steps and empower their personnel will effectively create and maintain a positive workplace behaviour environment.”