Prior to COVID-19 Australian workplaces were besieged by bullying and toxic behaviours that put workers at significant risk. No industry or sector had been excluded from the devastating fiscal, emotional, psychological and physical impacts. The noxious discrimination and power fired behaviours which underpin and embolden bullying is tacit.
Estimates published from The Productivity Commission indicate workplace bullying costs the Australian economy up to $36 billion per annum. The cost of suicides, disability, mental health issues, family and social breakdowns is however incalculable.
In the report Psychosocial Safety Climate and Better Productivity in Australian Workplaces (PSC) commissioned by Work Safe Australia it was found that:
1. Low PSC is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism
2. Depression is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism and
3. Psychological distress is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism
Clearly workplace toxic behaviours from the PSC findings further impact productivity and wellness.
There are many misconceptions of what constitutes bullying, but suffice for this article, it is worth noting some of the examples outlined in the Safe Work Australia website:
a) Abusive or offensive language or comments
b) Aggressive and intimidating behaviour
c) Belittling or humiliating comments
d) Practical jokes or initiation
e) Unjustified criticism or complaints
Since COVID-19 there has been a marked escalation of bullying and harassment, both overt and covert. And in direct correlation has been a decline in trust driven performance workplaces.
Trust is the outcome of healthy workplace behaviours in and within teams and the custodians of corporations and enterprise leadership.
We are regularly observing COVID-19 being a shrouded ‘excuse’ to ratify bullying. Intensified with passive-aggressive behaviours going unchecked and sanctioned by separation.
Neuroscience of human nature shows that in crises, existing harmful behaviours are magnified and rarely decreased Whilst there can be an enforced moratorium of face to face bullying, many have pivoted unacceptable behaviours or become temporarily dormant. This will be evident when work from home restrictions are rolled back and, in some instances, already being exhibited.
For tens of thousands, working from home has held numerous challenges and mental health and stress has been an issue, irrelevant of pre COVID-19 toxic or healthy workplaces. There are indicators for many that workloads have also increased by 50% in this crisis as people fear losing their jobs.
But for many, there has been a new and insidious pivot of unacceptable behaviours and bullying.
Many complaints of management calling and requesting Zoom hook ups within 10 minutes. Incessant text messaging and excessive logging to check into the work remotely.
For office-based staff this wasn’t a bullying behaviour manifest pre COVID-19, but there would have been other types of behaviour indicative of leaders without trust or concern for wellbeing.
A new level of sexual voyeurism has been unearthed during the ZOOM explosion. It was reported in Human Resource Director where “leaders have been abusing their authority by requesting female employees dress in a more provocative way, claiming that it would 'help to win business'
This is a breach of sexual harassment laws alone. The risk to staff off business Zoom are immeasurable including stalking. Mental health impact aside it will result in commercial reputation damage.
Employers can though ask for relevant staff to dress in an appropriate professional manner including supplied uniforms if they have a documented dress policy in place.
Many reporting in line with an extra 50% workload that extra sales requests and pressure are being applied to KPI’s. Survival of the fittest in uncertain times are clearly driving unrealistic expectations and endurance tests. With millions now under-employed and unemployed, many workplaces are using that as a subliminal security tactic to push unfairly. Employee’s mental and physical health suffers and productivity declines to the point that exhaustion will result in workplace mistreatment and psychological injury claims.
With staff working from home often the perpetrator is a staff member whom ingratiates themselves to management and hence their behaviour goes unchecked.
Such toxic employees in fear that their job maybe in jeopardy due to the ongoing and unknown impact of COVID-19 purposefully decide to play nicer for the moment. Once workplaces start to return to some form of normal the lid will be exploded and behaviours predicted to be even more dangerous.
Many workplaces, retail, health and manufacturing where work from home is not viable are not supporting staff with PPE requests. Staff are in fear of their health and wellbeing and feel undervalued and trust in leadership is further declined. This is starting to play out in many environments where client care is impacted negatively through absenteeism and presenteeism.
There are workplaces where there are employees who have a complete disregard to wear PPE and follow hygiene practices and instructions that put the whole of the workplace at risk. Management are taking a laissez faire approach which is downright dangerous.
Most workplaces have and will continue to be impacted for some time due to COVID-19. Even for workplaces that have had low or nil bullying complaints the challenges of this time can create the perfect firestorm for future conflict. For those workplaces, prevention and intervention strategies would be recommended.
For organisations that have perpetrators, identified or under the radar but damage is clear, it is urgent to address now.
1. Not all working from home environments are the same. Know the limitations that each employee has and redefine their tasks and workload to suit, setting clear boundaries and expectations.
2. Communicate openly with your employees about the psychological risks and what systems are available or may need to be implemented to support these risks.
3. Revisit policies and communicate that you have an open-door policy.
4. Implement Flexible Work Arrangements where practical and appropriate.
5. If working from home is going to be continued, then consider how this office space is to be fitted out. Complete a working from home checklist for each individual employee to ascertain potential OHS/WHS risks.
6. Investigate issues as they arise and go deep to understand the root cause factor that had escalated this situation at hand. Take heed of small incidents immediately and make sure that you listen to what is being said.
7. Create collective goals for accountability for both parties.
8. Review how all remote work is monitored. Google drive and Dropbox are favourites. Schedule planned interactions with remote workers and don’t forget to set up a social interaction with all staff once a week.
9. Check in with those in leadership roles to monitor and support them manage teams remotely.
10. Workers can often fall through the cracks when exclusion happens. Monitor communication plans for inclusion.
11. Monitor how your workforce are responding to daily situations and how they may differ from pre COVID.
In 2020 we have been given a critical wake-up call on all levels. Eradicating bullying and the underpinning behaviours that cause it will encourage trust driven workplaces and by virtue ensure commercial and human survival.
Maureen is a Workplace Crisis Strategist and skilled investigator of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment claims; real world experience which underpins the highly effective bullying prevention programs she delivers across multiple sectors in metropolitan and regional Australia. She drives behavioural and cultural change within organisations to ensure people don’t end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, including jail.
When it comes to striking fear into parents’ hearts, few things do it more effectively than the thought of having the ‘birds and the bees’ conversation.
Similarly, managers and directors often experience trepidation about broaching workplace sexism and sexual harassment. However, it’s crucial you find the courage to step up and create a safe, trust-based culture. Being proactive about what’s happening in your workplace helps avoid damage to your employees and your business.
Parents can save a lot of confusion, fear and misunderstanding by visiting the birds and the bees talk early on. Likewise, managers can reduce the incredible potential damage of casual sexism in the workplace through early intervention.
To explain, imagine driving your shiny new car down a road pocked with small potholes. You avoid them by swerving over the road. If council does nothing, those potholes get bigger and now, you can’t swerve to avoid them. Instead, your lovely car gets scraped and scratched. It may even suffer irreparable damage.
If sexism or sexual harassment exist in your workplace, there may be little evidence of damage at first. When it goes unchecked, your staff will suffer serious consequences, such as loss of career momentum and mental health issues.
Moreover, there will be significant costs to your business, both in fiscal and reputational terms.
Returning to our car analogy, repairing damage is costly and inconvenient. When it comes to damage from sexism in the workplace, the costs can be huge. They include:
If your staff are suffering, they’re likely to talk with their feet and you’ll incur the cost of finding and training a replacement. Research conducted by PwC revealed that almost one in four Australians leave their jobs within the first 12 months, at an estimated cost of $3.8 billion in lost productivity and $385 million in avoidable recruitment costs.
Replacing someone costs up to four times their annual salary. So, an employee earning $100,000pa could cost you $400,000 to replace. Moreover, you could have six months’ downtime while you’re recruiting and training a new candidate.
Perhaps less obvious is the potential for irreversible reputational damage. Not too long ago, I learned a local company had paid $1.2 million to a woman in a ‘secret deal’ over workplace sexual harassment.
Even secret deals can have significant fallout. Firstly, they rarely stay entirely secret. Are you prepared to risk having to make one?
In another ‘secret’ I heard about 18 months or so ago, the manager involved left the business and hasn’t worked since.
Moreover, you could become liable for punitive damages. Take the case of Kristy Fraser-Kirk, who sued former David Jones chief executive Mark McInnes and the retail giant for about $37 million.
The case captured media headlines – and national attention – for many weeks. She ultimately accepted a settlement of $850,000 and her case set the bar for future sexual harassment claims. Other reports show women have been paid over $1 million and these do not include punitive damages.
This pales in comparison to the situation in the United States, where claims worth up to $20 million have been awarded where punitive damages are included. How long until Australia catches up?
Sexual harassment doesn’t yet fall under Fair Work legislation. However, Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has called for reforms to empower the Fair Work Commission to deal with both sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims. Fair Work claims may only be a matter of time.
Depending on your board structure, failure to respond to sexual harassment or sexism could call your position into question, or even lead to loss of your job.
There’s an upside to having courageous conversations about sexism and sexual harassment.
When things aren’t going well, discretionary effort plummets. Many businesses are languishing in the mid 50% range. Conversely, engaged, valued employees are more likely to work hard. I know a Queensland law firm who achieved discretionary effort figures of over 80% thanks to their commitment to creating an excellent workplace culture exceeding the national benchmark of 75%.
Having the courage to talk turkey about sexual harassment and discrimination can position you as an employer of choice, thereby helping you attract and retain the best talent (and reducing the costs discussed above).
Companies who value their employees are positioned optimally for growth and success.
Did you avoid the birds and the bees talk with your kids? Perhaps you abdicated responsibility and left it to your partner?
Avoidance is one of five conflict resolution modes defined by the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI). They explain that “Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative—the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual.”
You might get away with avoidance at home, but you can’t palm off your workplace responsibilities. Managers must take courage and find ways to have the hard conversations. Here’s some suggestions for getting started.
Take an honest look at what's going on in your organisation. For example, how many complaints are being lodged? What is the root cause of those complaints? Could sexual harassment or sexism be disguised in complaints of workplace bullying?
This means more than reviewing your sexual harassment policies – especially if they’re simply a ‘tick and flick’ process repeated every second year. Instead, revisit your education around sexual harassment, minus your rose-coloured glasses.
Consider what message is being communicated. The training you’ve been doing for the last 10 years might need a complete overhaul if you’re committed to changing workplace culture for the better.
Be prepared to have open, frank conversations with your employees about what’s become acceptable and normalised within your organisation. You need to create a platform, such as an ‘open-door’ policy, where people feel safe to express their concerns in an environment of trust.
This represents the opposite of the ‘avoidance’ style. TKI describes the collaborative approach as “an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals.”
You might even choose to celebrate people’s concerns and complaints as an opportunity for change.
Look for people to become the champions within your team. Even if staff may not come to you, you can build a network of people they feel safe talking to. Who do you trust to form that safety net within your organisation?
Unless we model the behaviours we want others to embrace, nothing else works. Consider whether your own behaviours need to be modified to create the culture you really want for your business.
This strategy is fundamental. You may have weaselled your way out of having the birds and the bees talk at home, but avoiding it at work can have devastating consequences for you, your employees and your business.
I understand the difficulties around instigating these conversations. Perhaps you fear broaching this sensitive subject the wrong way will cause more harm. Maybe you lack the confidence or skills to tackle the issue. I know many CEOs who love their staff but struggle to have these conversations.
This is where I can help. As a confidante and advisor, I guide managers, executives and directors to have courageous conversations about difficult issues, like sexual harassment, sexism and bullying in the workplace.
My team and I focus on preventing inappropriate workplace behaviour before it becomes an issue. If you’re experiencing problems, we can address the often-complex underlying causes.
Ultimately, we can help you create a safe, trust-based culture that boosts employee morale and your bottom line.
I write this article after reflecting on a workplace investigation I undertook last month and the connection it has to some of the workshops I have conducted in relation to workplace behaviour.
The investigation started with one complaint that involved 6 employees and rapidly became 14. The disturbing factor throughout the investigation was the acceptance for behaviour that had crossed the line, otherwise illegal. The issue I struggle with was that a couple of employees in leadership roles thought the behaviour was not serious enough to act on.
To add to the complexity was how the unlawful behaviour was impacting the employees outside of work.
Figures from The Victorian WorkCover Authority estimates that workplace violence costs $57 million per annum. Compared with international studies it could be much higher.
What is Workplace Violence?
“It is - Incidents where employees are abused, threatened, assaulted or subjected to other offensive behaviour in circumstances related to their work.”
It can be Physical and/or Psychological
Whilst Physical Violence is easy to identify, it is the existence of Psychological Violence that has been long underestimated. Psychological Violence is often perpetrated through repeated behaviour of a type which may seem minor but which cumulatively escalates to a serious form of violence. It often consists of repeated, unwelcome, unreciprocated and intended action which may have a devastating effect on the target, not to say a single event would constitute an act of violence.
Often Physical and Psychological Violence overlap one another, making it difficult to categorise different forms of violence. Some of the most frequently used terms are:
It involves the misuse of physical and psychological strength, it is behaviour that is uncivil. It includes harassment, bullying and mobbing.
To menace hurt or injure resulting in fear of physical, sexual, psychological harm or other negative consequences to the target(s).
To physically injure or attack a person(s) leading to physical harm.
It can be unwelcome conduct - physical or psychological, verbal, non-verbal, visual – based on the protected attributes under EEO legislation such as age, disability, domestic circumstances, sex, sexual orientation, race, colour etc, including sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written.
With violence comes stress for the targets, other employees, the employer and those outside of the workplace.
What is Stress?
“It is the state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”
Both positive and negative stresses can be present at any given time. Employees build up their own resilience and skills to deal with stresses as they arise in normal circumstances, which is a positive phenomenon. Stress one would say is normal and necessary. It’s when this stress changes and builds in intensity, is continuous and repeated leaving a person being unable to cope, lack of support being shown where stress then becomes negative, leading to physical illness and psychological disorders.
In a report written by (Hurrell et al., 1997, pp. 163-170), it was concluded that assaults may occur more frequently among highly stressed workers than those experiencing less stress.
Knowing what Physical and Psychological Violence is, is the first step in establishing a framework to manage both Physical and Psychological Violence in the workplace.
This brings me back to the beginning of the article, so what went so incredibly wrong last month and in other workplaces I have worked in.
Stress was a common denominator in many of the discussions both in the workplace and in some cases the domestic situation. So why did it get to this level?
One needs to consider the correlation between Psychological Violence the employee was going through in the workplace and the impact this may have on their personal life. There have been relationship breakups, physical violence against women, strained relationships and suicidal tendencies.
It is the responsibility of all workplaces to work towards creating a workplace that is built on mutual respect.
At Maureen Kyne & Associates we deliver the Civil Treatment® Series that is designed to help organisations prevent, detect, and correct inappropriate behaviours and build productive, inclusive cultures. We use engaging, interactive learning to put participants in real life scenarios.