This document is part of the Bullying Resources resource.

‘Organisation B’ in regional Victoria had a bullying problem. The small organisation with fewer than 100 staff once had very low rates of perceived bullying (11 per cent) – half its sector’s average rate of 22 per cent. However, the rate spiked suddenly, more than doubling to 24 per cent in two years.

The organisation took action and the rate fell back to 10 per cent a year later in 2016.

This case study is the story of how bullying behaviours can come from highly valued staff and one bully can have a big impact in a small organisation. It also demonstrates the importance of addressing uncivil behaviours early. It is based on interviews with the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and a former Human Resources (HR) director.

The problem

In late 2014, the organisation started to get complaints from staff about poor behaviours coming from a senior manager in the organisation. The perpetrator was considered very competent and had been with the organisation for several years.

The CEO said he believed changes in personal circumstances may have led to the perpetrator being more critical and negative towards colleagues. Staff who reported to the perpetrator noted bullying behaviour, including intimidation and ongoing criticism of employee competence and capability. The HR director said trainees in the organisation felt intimidated by the perpetrator and did not want to ask her work-related questions for fear of being reprimanded. When issues were raised with the perpetrator, she defended her actions as a response to the urgent nature of the situation they were in. The CEO said the signs that workplace bullying was occurring included staff wanting to reschedule their shifts so they did not have to work with the perpetrator. The CEO recalls the perpetrator being mentioned by at least one person in an exit survey as one of the reasons they were leaving. Recruitment also became difficult. The CEO suspected this was partly due to the perpetrator’s reputation in the region.

The catalyst

The situation came to a head in 2015 with a number of staff reporting bullying behaviours. The CEO and HR director met with the perpetrator to discuss the bullying allegations, which shocked the perpetrator. When the perpetrator asked for proof on the allegations, the CEO and HR director produced written complaints from staff. The CEO was keen to have a positive resolution; he did not want to lose the perpetrator as she was a valuable employee. In the end, the perpetrator chose to leave the organisation rather than take up offers of training and support.

Response and reflections

1 Bullying perpetrators can also be valuable employees

Although perceptions of bullying dropped with the perpetrator leaving, the CEO said losing the perpetrator was ‘the last thing we wanted’. The perpetrator had worked in the sector for a number of years and was a highly valued member of staff. The CEO believes the perpetrator never came to terms with the evidence presented and may have felt too embarrassed to stay on.

2 Trust is vital to raising bullying in a small community

The CEO admits that bullying behaviour could have been happening for months. However in a small, regional organisation, staff may not have felt comfortable reporting bullying for fear of potential repercussions in the organisation and wider community.

The HR director said that the nature of working in a small community meant that if you had issues at work, you would still have to ‘walk out the door and have your sons play cricket together’. The HR director said that while bullying awareness training helps in identifying bullying behaviour, ultimately individuals who reported bullying had to be willing to deal with potential repercussions in the wider community.

The HR director said the key factor in ensuring staff were willing to report bullying behaviours was trust. Staff had to feel that they could report bullying and know that it would be handled both appropriately and confidentially.

3 Equip everyone to be aware of bullying behaviours

The CEO said better training to help staff recognise bullying behaviours had now given affected staff the confidence to identify bullying behaviours.

The organisation has expanded bullying awareness training, delivered through eLearning, to all staff. Users can complete online modules at their own pace. This mode of delivery was the best option due to the various working hours of staff. Managers were given additional training to help them effectively deal with bullying. The HR Director and another senior manager also sought advice from the relevant professional industrial association on their bullying and harassment policies and procedures.

All new staff are advised during orientation where they can go to for support if bullying issues are raised. They are told that if the issue cannot be discussed with the line manager, then another manager, the HR director, or even the CEO would be willing to talk about the issue. The CEO and HR director said more awareness meant staff now felt more comfortable to discuss bullying issues when they arise.

4 The importance of having shared values and ‘walking the talk’

The CEO said that while bullying awareness training has helped encourage staff to raise issues of bullying, the strong workplace culture which is built on the organisation’s values is the more significant reason bullying rates are low.

The performance of all staff is assessed against the organisation’s values. These values, which include trust and mutual respect, are well publicised within the organisation.

Senior leaders within the organisation are expected to live the values and ‘walk the talk’. This is crucial to maintaining trust and mutual respect. The CEO said this has helped build a workplace culture where staff regard each other as peers, regardless of hierarchical status in the organisation. The CEO deliberately avoids making the organisation feel too hierarchical and is often seen in break rooms with staff. He sees forming meaningful relationships with staff as essential to building trust, particularly in small organisations. He believes staff members do not necessarily see him as ‘the boss’ and decision making is shared wherever appropriate.

The CEO said staff regularly come into his office and share their thoughts on how things at the organisation can be improved. The CEO believes that this is a reflection of the mutual respect and trust now experienced.

Current situation

Since the departure of the perpetrator, the CEO said the culture in the organisation had ‘never been better’.  However, the CEO said it was important to be continuously vigilant on the issue of workplace bullying. The impact of one bully can potentially affect a large proportion of staff in the organisation.

Advice to others

1 Don’t just talk the values, demonstrate them

The CEO emphasises it was important that management demonstrated it was willing to commit and tackle work issues as they arose. This was critical to building trust among staff and demonstrates a willingness to ‘walk the talk’. Managers often have difficulty sitting down with their staff to discuss issues of bullying and the CEO said that more work could still be done in the organisation to support senior managers to know what to do when staff raise bullying issues.

2 Be open with staff

The CEO said it was important to be open and transparent with staff when bullying was raised. He did not feel any concern with sitting down and discussing the actions he would be taking when staff raised the issue, with many thanking him for being honest about action to be taken.

3 Identify and address issues early so you don’t lose good people

The CEO said he wished the bullying issues had been raised with him earlier, as it may have been easier to resolve without the perpetrator or other staff feeling like they had to leave. The CEO hoped that the awareness training provided to staff would help staff identify these issues sooner if bullying were to occur again.

4 ‘This isn’t how it’s done here’

The HR director said raising bullying awareness is a big component in changing the culture around what is tolerated. Just because a person has been behaving a certain way for a number of years does not make it right. It also does not mean other staff members have to put up with it.

Organisations can only take action if staff are willing to report bullying. However, this will only happen if the workplace culture encourages people to speak out against bullying.