By 2016, this figure had plummeted from 20 per cent to 7 per cent.

This case study tells the story of how not dealing with bullying early can lead to severe consequences for an organisation. However it also tells us how taking strong action against bullying is a critical start to mending poor workplace cultures. It demonstrates the importance of a workplace that is built on values such as mutual respect, trust and collaboration. It is based on interviews with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Human Resources (HR) director and other staff.

The problem

Issues of bullying in the organisation came to a head in late 2013 within weeks of the current HR director joining the organisation. Bullying behaviours had been surfacing in the organisation for some time. While some action had been taken on complaints, they were not handled systematically The organisation dealt with single incidents rather than seeing a pattern of behaviour.

The organisation had just finished a significant restructure and the previous HR director had been appointed to lead this change. The CEO said the restructure process was complex and managing individual bullying issues was particularly difficult at the time. The current HR director was appointed once the restructure was complete to help the organisation to focus more on its people.

This case study focuses on one major case of bullying, where a manager was both aggressive and intimidating to staff. Their behaviour worsened the longer it was not addressed. Staff reported that the perpetrator targeted women and used offensive language. As the bullying started to escalate, further reports of serious misconduct emerged.

The bullying behaviour increased and tensions started to rise. Some staff stopped coming to team meetings if the perpetrator was going to be present.  Staff would also avoid discussing work with the perpetrator and would instead go straight to the perpetrator’s team members. The HR director said that the behaviour from the perpetrator led to many staff losing confidence in their ability to do their jobs.

The catalyst

As complaints started coming to the new HR director, the CEO and HR director started a formal investigation, which substantiated a number of allegations. The perpetrator was then dismissed.

This started a year-long arbitration process for the organisation. The perpetrator lodged an application for documents under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to obtain information to use as part of a planned unfair dismissal submission to the Fair Work Commission. The organisation obtained legal advice and collected statements from staff who had experienced bullying as it prepared its response.

The organisation eventually settled with the perpetrator before the case was put forward to the Commission but not before the organisation, and particularly the HR director, had invested substantial time and work in preparing to defend against any unfair dismissal action.

Response and reflections

1. Be ready and willing to take strong action when needed

The CEO does not regret embarking on the challenging process of investigating and dismissing the perpetrator. She wanted to send a strong message that certain behaviours would not be tolerated, regardless of any individual’s senior status.

While the CEO and HR director could not directly inform staff of what was happening, staff suspected the organisation had taken firm action, given the perpetrator was removed. The HR director said: ‘Staff were coming into my office and saying, “I don’t know what you did, but I know you did something, so thank you!”’

2. Building trust is the key to identifying bullying early

The HR director said because reports of bullying had not been addressed before she arrived, there was no confidence or trust in the process. Staff reported that in the past, they were made to feel like they were the problem, with suggestions they undergo resilience training to be able to better deal with the situation. Others felt that the perpetrator’s behaviour had almost become normalised, with everyone ‘getting the same treatment’. Because no action was taken, people stopped reporting the misbehaviour.

The HR director placed a focus on building relationships with staff so more employees were willing to speak with her about bullying issues. She said at times, staff had come to her to report what they thought was bullying behaviour but was actually a misunderstanding that was sorted out through a conversation between her and the other staff involved. Staff said they were comfortable talking to the new HR director about a range of issues. There is more trust in the way the organisation deals with bullying, with bullying and misconduct issues not left to fester.

3. New workplace behaviours policies

The new HR director developed new workplace behaviour policies, focusing on the organisation’s values and behaviours. These set out the behaviour expected of staff, explained the grievance process, and encouraged self-resolution among staff where possible.

The organisation ran multiple training sessions to teach staff how to identify bullying and to empower them to self-resolve issues. The sessions included: how to have assertive conversations, managing difficult personalities, relationship management and managing workplace stress. Staff were given psychometric profile tests, which found the vast majority of staff were highly introverted. This meant extra care was needed in dealing with each other so issues did not simmer.

Staff agreed that if bullying behaviours were now to occur, they are clear on the type of action that should be taken.

4. Focus on values and collaboration

The organisation focuses on the public sector values and collaboration, endeavouring to put these at the heart of everything staff do. Workshops help staff identify how to make the values and behaviours real, and include examples from managers of when and how they have demonstrated the values and behaviours. Staff agreed that the values and behaviours were prominent in the organisation and it was clear what behaviours would not be tolerated.

New starters have to complete a thorough on-boarding process which also focuses on the values. Rather than being asked to develop performance plans as soon as they start, new staff are placed on an initial 12-week plan where they have to complete a range of tasks, such as building relationships with units across the organisation.

Much work has been done to build strong, collaborative work environments. For example, project teams are set up to have people working together from multiple teams to avoid siloes forming.

5. Happier staff = engaged staff = productive staff

In exit interviews, departing staff regularly report that the organisation is flexible, healthy, friendly and respectful. The HR director said the organisation caters for all types of flexible arrangements, including working from home and part time, or supporting secondments.

Recognising good behaviour and actions in the workplace has been a major driver for positive change. The organisation has set up a reward and recognition program, which includes staff recognition awards and a ‘What Outstanding Work’ (WOW) card system. Any staff member can hand out a card to a colleague, regardless of hierarchy, if they’ve demonstrated outstanding behaviour in line with the values of the organisation. The uptake of the program has grown substantially over the last couple of years.

Current Situation

The HR director said she is not currently aware of any issues of bullying. The organisation monitors workplace culture and bullying with quarterly reviews into health and safety incidents and how staff are demonstrating the values.

Staff said they had greater trust in the organisation and the courage to approach senior leaders when having issues at work. They believed the environment was supportive and friendly. Staff also said there is a stronger understanding of the values and behaviours expected of them.

The CEO said it was certainly possible for bullying behaviours to emerge again, despite the strong organisational culture. Given the small size of the organisation, a single bully can have significant impacts. However, the CEO believes the strong culture and regular monitoring of the organisational climate will help mitigate these issues.

Advice to others

1. Focus on good human resource support

In a small organisation, there is limited support and resources for human resource functions.  The CEO consciously built up the human resource capability which led to a greater focus on people and culture. This has helped ensure a strong workplace culture which can help mitigate bullying behaviours.

2. Deal with issues early and be consistent in order to build trust in the organisation

One of the key lessons is to deal with bullying early, rather than letting it grow into a major problem like it did for the organisation. Dealing with matters consistently was also important. Trust can be damaged if one person can get away with behaviours and others do not.Keeping records of poor behaviours and complaints is essential to gathering evidence of persistent bullying behaviours and identifying systemic issues. If a bullying case progresses to legal proceedings, the CEO would encourage organisations to tackle this head on if there is strong evidence of bullying behaviour. It sends a message and builds trust among staff.