Why are we still dealing with bullying, harassment & discrimination?
HR Business Partner

Written by Marnie Brokenshire

May 7, 2023

Statistically, bullying and harassment in the workplace is as bad as ever. Despite the #metoomovement, the events of parliament and countless studies, surveys and token legal reform, there is still a problem. We think we know why.

Firstly, let’s get on a page. Language is very important here. Bullying and harassment are forms of discrimination. The terms “bullying” and “harassment” are frequently misused. This behaviour is not always unlawful.

Sometimes, behaviours are just annoying or inappropriate, misguided, ill-informed and ignorant, but may not constitute bullying and harassment in the sense of a breach of law. Knowing the difference is important.

I also want to be clear here about something else. Being strong, opinionated and direct, having the courage to take things on, speaking truth to power, or demanding a certain level of behaviour and output, and manage performance, is not behaviour that, by default, constitutes bullying or harassment. Many women will relate to this – we can be strong and it doesn’t make us a bully.

This is a simple definition, but for behaviour to be considered unlawful it must be repeated, unreasonable and of a targeted or personal nature, based on a protected category, AND it creates a risk to health and safety. If you want to understand more, click here.

Now we have that out of the way, it is true, there are still way too many events where people are unlawfully bullied and harassed at work. Equally, there are way too many examples where inappropriate, misguided, ill-informed and ignorant behaviour are also a problem even if not unlawful.

Having conducted hundreds of workplace investigations, and living in almost all versions of good and bad cultures whilst making them better, I think there is one core reason why this behaviour still exists – workplaces only do the minimum when it comes to bullying and harassment and it is not enough.

“Doing the minimum, the legal compliance approach, is simply not enough.”

There are 3 things that all need to come together to fix it:

1. Leadership

Leaders need to be more self aware. Leadership training must incorporate emotional intelligence competencies to understand how thinking links to behaviour and how behaviour is being received. Training also needs to incorporate how to deploy situational leadership model to adapt to individual needs.

Leaders must know their unconscious bias and prejudice and how that is impacting the culture.

In many cases I have dealt with, the root cause has been poor leadership where there is a need for more self awareness, where there is too much task focus, and a dire inability to communicate effectively. All this creates a culture where bad behaviour marinates.

Leaders must also be able to deploy and uphold the values of the business. If you espouse to be something like a “workplace free from bullying and harassment”, then you have to be able to put your money where your mouth is or it is just meaningless and you shouldn’t claim it.

Also, leaders must be courageous, where when they spot a problem they deal with it immediately – no excuses. Workplaces, where bullying and harassment exists, are the ones that don’t deal and where HR doesn’t use its voice to deal – especially if the problem is at the top. HR needs to find ways to influence and impact change in behaviour and culture. Just dealing with a complaint is as good as putting a bandaid on a broken leg.

2. Culture

Like half of Australia, I bought a COVID dog. To ensure the dog integrated well with the family, I hired a dog trainer. When the trainer arrived at our home, he chatted to us for 15 minutes without paying any attention to the dog. As we were on the clock, after the pleasantries, I asked when he would start training the dog. To my surprise, the trainer responded with a smile and said, “It has started. The way your dog behaves at home depends on the environment you create, the boundaries you set, and how you interact with them. So, I’m here to train you!”

This is a metaphor for all leaders who shape culture. It is solely up to you. If you want a workplace free of bullying and harassment, you need to proactively create one and this means that you have to demand more than a compliance focus, more than an annual training event and a policy hidden in the depths of your intranet.

You should be asking for the mirror to be held up and you need to be having a dialogue with questions like; what are we doing to create a healthy culture; what are our biases and prejudice; how are people behaving; do we have any bullying issue; do we have a hostile work environment; what do we need to do better to ensure this is somewhere people come to thrive in an inclusive high performing environment?

Leaders must know their unconscious bias and prejudice and how that is impacting culture and people.

3. Compliance Focus

This is the biggest issue – workplaces are just too compliance focused. Policies on bullying and harassment and mandatory training are the MINIMUM thing to do, not the ONLY thing to do. 

I’ve read countless bullying and harassment policies and they all say the same thing. Rote legal language. Nothing distinguishable, all about the dont’s. They get pulled out only when there is a problem, or at induction, and other than that, it’s a silent, ineffective compliance box ticking exercise. The same is true of the training.

Rarely (never) do I see one that actually steps out “HOW”. What does it mean to have zero tolerance and how do you know you do? How do you really know there isn’t a problem and how will you demonstrate that, how you will measure and report on it? What questions will be asked, by whom, to who, and how frequently? What is HR’s role in cultural development? What is the leadership role in accountability?

And rarely (never) do I see one that addresses the annoying behaviours, that may escalate, nor adequate training for the values of the organisation to be truly embedded. Read our article here on this topic.

Take this example.  We had a client that espouse all the right things – values, behaviours, zero tolerance, pretty posters, mandatory training, contact officers, videos. Yet most days inside that workplace, for a chosen few, was like a scene from the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street”. It was a culture that supported and rewarded those who could drink the most and stay out the latest, it turned a blind eye to bad behaviour “if it was in the spirit of having fun”, it allowed people who behaved poorly to rise to the top. Many mornings were unproductive due to hangovers. It was moody and broody. For those who were not “the chosen few”, it was alienating, the moody behaviour was of a bullying nature and hard to navigate, and to avoid the awfulness of being excluded, people were constantly forced to conform, despite their own values. Any suggestions from HR that this be changed, or modified in some way, always raised tentatively, was scorned.

They had a compliance approach. The policy with all the legal language, and the annual training, but it had no impact on how people behaved because the culture the leadership created was the opposite of its policy and training. The compliance approach did not work.

In this example, in some instances, the behaviour was unlawful. However, in most instances, it is the inappropriate, misguided, ill-informed and ignorant behaviour that was impactful. And here is why that matters too; it is the absolute opposite of creating a high performing, inclusive culture. All poor behaviour matters and it all has a detrimental impact.

My plea is this; to HR and all leaders, do more than just have a compliance approach. Do more than mandatory training. If you have a complaint, do more than deal with the complaint – treat it like a safety event and conduct a holistic deep dive and root cause analysis of the culture, not just the incident.

Building an environment that is unsusceptible to events of bullying and harassment should be one of the most important HR strategic objectives because it is intrinsically linked to building culture.

Companies that are serious about a workplace free of bullying and harassment will have a holistic framework that extends far beyond the minimum compliance legal box ticking. They will have entrenched culture initiatives that build an environment of high performance, high trust and high integrity, inspiring inclusivity and where what they write in policies and say in training will actually be true. Until this time, nothing will change.

If you want to know more, particularly how to develop initiatives to create a holistic framework, make contact now.

As practitioners with years of in-house Corporate experience, we know the role of HR is hard, we also know that becoming strategic, influential and value add is a journey supported by mentoring. This is why we offer people strategy workshops and HR masterclasses facilitated by Marnie Brokenshire (30+ years corporate HR, 15 at C-Suite), and Nicole Mathers (10+ years corporate HR, 5 at senior management).  Reach out to see how we can support you.

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