The main perpetrator was dismissed and the organisation was determined to learn from its mistakes. Within a year, bullying rates at the small regional organisation of fewer than 200 staff went from 36 per cent to 18 per cent.

This case study highlights the importance of open communication at all levels to create an environment of trust and respect. It is based on interviews from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Human Resources (HR) manager, a senior director, and staff in the organisation.

The problem

The current CEO recalls coming into the organisation during a period when staff had little trust in senior leaders, particularly when it came to addressing poor workplace behaviours.  The organisation was planning significant changes that would have impacted many staff members, social activities such as morning and afternoon tea had stopped, and there was also poor communication between senior leaders and staff, all of which was adding to the poor workplace culture. Staff recalled an environment where morale was low and staff were stressed.

Bullying problems came to a head in 2015. In particular, a senior manager was physically intimidating and demeaning to staff and had very little insight into the impact of their behaviour.

The catalyst

A significant bullying incident occurred at the organisation precipitating a flurry of allegations. This triggered an investigation. The organisation hired an independent industrial relations expert to look into the allegations. The investigation revealed there was substance to the allegations and the organisation dismissed the perpetrator.

Response and reflections

1 Poor communication can have significant adverse impacts on workplace culture

The CEO said part of the reason past senior leaders were not trusted was because communication was poor. The organisation was finalising proposals which would have impacted a large number of staff without any consultation with staff. The CEO received feedback that there was a disconnect between staff and leaders. Staff recall the previous CEO not being open or visible to staff. The current CEO said that a small organisation cannot afford to have poor communication channels with staff.

It had been particularly complicated for staff to report bullying to the previous senior director, with the main perpetrator having been recruited by that senior director. Staff felt that the senior director would not escalate matters and often dismissed issues of bullying when they were raised. Some staff believed this previous senior director did not have the appropriate skills to deal with poor behaviours. Staff stopped reporting issues and the problem continued to fester.

2 Rebuilding trust and respect through better communication

Upon commencement, the new CEO made it a priority to better engage with staff and build strong relationships. The CEO spent the first six months having open conversations with staff and listening to their thoughts on the workplace culture. Part of the strategy involved redefining the ‘symbols and rituals’ that would become part of the organisational fabric. For example, although there were no longer regular morning teas, the CEO set up a reward and recognition program which included a regular awards ceremony. The initial uptake was slow but nominations and attendance gradually increased until even board members attended. Other key initiatives to improve communication included:

  • changing the tone of monthly newsletters, highlighting positive stories and quotes from appreciative clients
  • running staff feedback sessions every quarter
  • ensuring the CEO’s office was more accessible to staff with a clear open door policy.

The CEO said staff immediately welcomed the change in communication style. The CEO said small things made a big difference to staff, such as remembering their names, smiling and saying ‘hello’. Staff said the new CEO’s friendly and welcoming style has had a big impact on the organisation. The CEO is regularly seen at events organised by staff and staff believe the CEO makes an effort to connect with staff.

3 Know what behaviours are ‘above and below the line’

The CEO set up an awareness strategy and staff attended sessions about what behaviours were considered acceptable and unacceptable in the organisation. These sessions were run to make it clear that the organisation would not step away from addressing inappropriate behaviours. The CEO believes these sessions encouraged staff to call out the bullying behaviours, which led to the perpetrator’s dismissal.

4 Empower managers to deal with difficult behaviours early

The CEO said part of the issue was that managers did not know how to have difficult conversations with staff. The CEO brought a program into the organisation, which included training on having difficult conversations, building morale, and other leadership skills. The CEO said such programs are valuable as they allow issues to be addressed before they escalate to bullying. Staff said this has had a strong impact on the organisation, with performance management now being applied consistently across the board.

5 Make processes clearer

Upon commencement, the CEO undertook a review of organisational processes, including a review of the grievance processes.

As part of this, the organisation simplified its reporting and complaints system. For example, processes were put in place to make it easier for staff to anonymously report inappropriate behaviour if they did not feel comfortable speaking to their managers or other staff.

The organisation also reviewed its recruitment processes as there had been a perception among staff that recruitment was not conducted in a fair and transparent way. The organisation developed a new code of conduct and the organisation’s values were refreshed to align with it.

6 Workplace culture comes first

The bullying perpetrator was a high performer in many aspects of their role. However, the perpetrator was not the right cultural fit. The organisation made the decision to dismiss the perpetrator as it would have been worse for the organisation as a whole if the perpetrator had stayed.

Current situation

The current senior director advises that the culture in the organisation has changed for the better. Staff are no longer shirking away if they see inappropriate behaviours. They are also getting better at self-resolving issues and senior management supports staff with this as much as possible.

Staff said the environment is more positive in the organisation. People are more willing to speak up and grievance processes are clearer. Staff said the organisation was moving from a culture of negativity, where there was little positive feedback, to one where staff felt valued.

The CEO said the staff were a great group who worked well together but there was still work to be done as it took time to change a workplace culture. The organisation is still building the skills of managers to manage staff appropriately.

The HR manager said more work had been done to improve culture in the past year than in the previous 10 years she has been in the organisation.

Advice to others

1 Be brave

Performance management can be really difficult and can take an emotional toll. While the perpetrator who was dismissed was good at their job, the importance of keeping a positive organisational culture is paramount in these decisions.

2 Take early action

It is important to take action as soon as problems are noticed. Delaying and not being transparent will lead to bigger problems in time.  The CEO said it was important to make it clear to staff that the organisation was not ‘just giving lip service’ to staff wellbeing and that swift action would be taken and bullies removed, if necessary.