Business School Topics
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UWA Business School
‘When you mention bullying in any context most people will have a story,' says Associate Professor Jacquie Hutchinson. The workplace relations expert and former Director of HR for the ABC is part of the UWA Business School's Consortium for Diversity at Work, and has just completed a study of workplace bullying in Australian public sector organisations. After analysing various occupational health and safety (OHS) and equal employment opportunity (EEO) policies, and speaking to senior managers, policy implementers and employee advocates around the country, she has found that most organisations have failed to stem the problem of workplace bullying.
The first problem, argues Dr Hutchinson, is that the definition of workplace bullying is not broad enough. Research in the area to date has primarily been informed by the work of psychologists, whose classic definitions of workplace bullying require that for behaviour to be deemed to be workplace bullying it must: occur between individuals in the same organisation; involve one person acting to cause harm or disadvantage to another, whether through an action or perceived threat; be regular and sustained; and involve a power imbalance between the bully and the target (such as an imbalance caused by work hierarchy).
It is a definition that falls down in practice. ‘Workplace bullying has been too narrowly defined,' says Dr Hutchinson. ‘In reality it is fluid, dependent on what has happened the day before, dependent on relationships, and dependent on other factors such as gender, culture or job security.
‘We do see in the media and in the press quite a lot of headlines about workplace bullying. Unfortunately, the view put forward by the press is extreme, with headlines like "Toxic Boss" and "Bully Boss." While these are important issues and important matters, they are actually masking a much more prevalent issue in our workplaces.'
Every year, between 2.5 million and 5 million Australians are exposed to workplace bullying, either as a target (victim) or bystander. Workplace bullying can take the form of overt, visible behaviours such as sarcasm, shouting, humiliating, or ignoring someone, or less visible, covert behaviours such as the non-disclosure of information, undermining of confidence, anonymous messages, or anonymous acts such as the stealing of colleagues' mail. Whichever form it takes, says Dr Hutchinson, bullying affects workers' physical and psychological well-being, and costs the economy billions of dollars each year.
The fluid, complex nature of workplace bullying was highlighted when Dr Hutchinson interviewed 32 policy actors in four states, one territory, and the Australian Public Service. The interviewees identified organisational culture - including constant restructuring and under-resourcing - as one of the main causes of and contributors to workplace bullying.
‘People don't feel valued any more - themselves personally or the work they do. When you are expendable you can feel undervalued and also worried about your future. So you're more likely to put up with shit from your boss because you're afraid of what will happen otherwise,' explained one employee advocate.
These fears are understandable. ‘In the final quarter of the twentieth century, Australian governments, Commonwealth (national) and state, underwent extensive restructuring, a process which still continues,' proclaims the Australian Public Service Commission's own website. ‘This restructuring has encompassed organisation, public personnel management, public sector workplace relations, remuneration and employment conditions, and management and operational practices.'
Dr Hutchinson explains that this disillusionment with public sector organisational practices has led to some employees sympathising with "bullying bosses." ‘Some people see the organisation as the perpetrator, which for some researchers is a bridge too far,' she explains. ‘Quite a few of the people I interviewed actually do have sympathy for managers, in that they were only carrying out what the organisation had put into place.'
The frustrations of being a manager in the public sector are exemplified by another of Dr Hutchinson's interviewees. ‘The only way you can continue to meet on time, on budget objectives, is to have a staff that will go that extra mile,' he said. ‘Some managers use a carrot, if they have any, some a stick and sometimes it doesn't matter, staff just won't do what you ask.'
The constraints that managers face became even more evident during another one of Dr Hutchinson's interviews. ‘There was one state where I was sitting down [to discuss workplace bullying] with a senior manager and two of her staff,' recalls the researcher. ‘Then the door opened and in came another woman who was not introduced to me, who said, "I was asked to sit in on this interview." It turned out she was an advisor to a government minister. She kept saying things like, "That's her own opinion. That's not the opinion of [the department]". However, I have to say that everybody else was really very open, and one of the things I found was that most people found this an incredibly complex issue even when they had policies and training programmes in place. There was a sense of "we haven't got this quite right". So it made for a very interesting discussion.'
The study also highlighted a new and surprising trend: resistance. According to Dr Hutchinson, this occurs where employees engage in bullying behaviour - normally covert - aimed at their bosses. Resistance behaviours range from leaving managers to take the blame for unfinished work, through to sending anonymous and defamatory comments about managers to more senior managers.
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