When it comes to tackling bullying, workplaces could learn a thing or two from schools.

New Zealand children receive guidance from an early age about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, as part of school anti-bullying strategies.

However, research by Victoria University of Wellington Master of Commerce student Hamish Crimp has revealed a significant shortfall in similar preventative measures in workplaces he looked at.

Crimp’s research focused on 12 core government departments but his findings are relevant to other workplaces too.

They were discussed at a presentation to human resource, trade union and other specialist practitioners organised by the Centre for Labour, Employment and Work in Victoria’s School of Management.

Dr Geoff Plimmer, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management, spoke alongside Crimp, with the first part of the seminar featuring Andrea Fromm of the New Zealand Public Service Association talking about European bullying research she worked on.

The last State Services Commission integrity and conduct survey, in 2013, reported that 25 percent of staff respondents had personally experienced bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months, 28 percent had observed bullying and 23 percent had observed abusive or intimidating behaviour.

The effects of such bullying can be devastating.

It can lower self-confidence and increase stress levels, putting victims at greater risk of mental health issues, including heightened anger and anxiety and feelings of isolation and sadness. It also makes them more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse.

Bystanders are affected too, and organisations themselves suffer, with lower staff performance, commitment and job satisfaction, and increased costs associated with higher absenteeism, recruitment and compensation for unjustified dismissals.

Crimp found that although all the government departments he looked at had anti-bullying policies and these generally followed best practice, they tended to focus on managing complaints rather than preventing bullying in the first place.

Study participants discussed poor managerial skills as a key reason for complaints. Managers’ failure to deal with performance issues in a timely and effective manner allowed minor conflict to escalate to bullying, and inconsistent performance expectations across managers resulted in either real or perceived injustices, prompting bullying complaints.

This squares with international research showing that poor leadership and low managerial accountability are persistent problems in public services, leading to high rates of bullying.

Crimp found that 111 of the 155 formal complaints (72 percent) received between 2010 and 2016 in the government departments he studied were ruled unsubstantiated.

One explanation could be unjustified accusations – often associated with performance, behaviour or relationship problems. ‘Crying wolf’ damages the trust of all parties, said Crimp and Plimmer.

Along with loss of self-confidence and other factors, it makes it harder for people really being bullied to make a complaint, with international research showing workplace bullying is hugely underreported.

Another, related explanation for the number of unsubstantiated complaints might be that staff don’t properly understand what constitutes bullying, said Crimp and Plimmer, who recommended better training in the subject.

A further explanation might be confirmation bias on the part of investigators, with human resources staff telling Crimp they view most bullying allegations as in fact performance management, relationship or behavioural issues. Again, training could counter this.

Crimp and Plimmer also recommended training staff in conflict management, interpersonal communication and identifying such bullying antecedents as work-related stress.

Another recommendation was improving managerial skills around timely and effective performance management, having ‘courageous conversations’ and ensuring consistent intra-organisational performance standards. Even where bullying allegations were not upheld, the complaint often indicated poor managers and workplace cultures.

Unskilled and unaccountable managers, weak processes, inadequate performance management and unclear job responsibilities are common to bullying allegations whether they are justified or not, said Crimp and Plimmer. Fixing these areas would have many benefits beyond reducing bullying, for both people and organisations.

In earlier research, staff at New Zealand organisations with high rates of self-reported bullying recorded less cross-unit co-operation, less managerial responsiveness to staff concerns and poorer climates of trust and support. To check if staff that said they were bullied weren’t just generally negative, the analysis was done again, but only including staff who didn’t say they were bullied. They made the same criticisms.

Crimp’s study of government departments found that anti-bullying policies rarely reference trade unions, although in practice unions play several important roles: as intermediaries between complainants and management; as a source of information and support for complainants; and providing a ‘toolbox’ of innovative and practical ideas to help prevent and manage bullying. They can also help discourage bullying allegations being misused as a tactic in another form of conflict, such as one about performance.

Crimp and Plimmer suggested involving unions in a partnership approach from the start of any anti-bullying initiative — with some government departments already taking steps in this direction.

They said there needed to be stronger emphasis on the consequences for perpetrators of bullying and negative workplace behaviour more generally, and that affected parties should continue to be supported after a bullying situation is ‘resolved’, to avoid reescalation. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Employment Mediation Services might be useful.

Discussing Crimp’s research, seminar attendees spoke of the need for early intervention before the onset of full-on bullying.

Language is important, said one practitioner. If you use “the big B word” you are being driven down a particular path. It is preferable to talk about ‘behaviour’ — with schools “better at developing those language strategies”.

Another practitioner spoke about a district health board bullying prevention programme where participants are given Post-it notes on which they write behaviours that are OK and ones that are not. The notes are put on a board, from OK to not OK, and participants discuss whether they are in the right place. The result is then turned into a poster.

“Then bullies can self-moderate, people can stand up for themselves, and bystanders can stand up for everybody. You have a shared language: ‘Remember, we agreed that’s not OK.’”

Such “low-level stuff at the front end”, said Plimmer, “is way better than a disciplinary process or ambulance at the bottom of the cliff at the other”.

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