I have been accused of workplace bullying and harassment
Accused of workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying is commonly described as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a particular individual (or even a group) that creates a risk to health and safety. It can take the form of direct or indirect bullying.
Accusations of workplace bullying are endemic
Within Australian executive culture, workplace bullying is very common and at times seems to be approaching epidemic proportions. For those who are accused and found guilty of workplace bullying, the consequences can be devastating.
Many of our clients have been falsely accused of bullying when all they have done is to engage in reasonable management action which was carried out in a reasonable fashion. Under the Fair Work Act 2009, that is a legitimate statutory defence.
It is very easy for a bullying accusation to be made against you if you are an executive working in a dysfunctional organisation, or if your role includes being a “change agent”. Staff members who feel their roles are being redefined, or more is expected of them than under previous managers, can easily become hostile against those they perceive to be responsible for their discomfort. It is very easy for false allegations to be made or for comments or circumstances to be taken out of context.
Categories of bullying
In considering bullying as a species of human behaviour, it can be useful to distinguish its different forms and the context in which it can occur.
Bullying is recognised as occurring in two forms i.e.:
Direct bullying is where the bullying behaviour itself is capable of causing the victim to feel humiliated, undermined, disparaged or threatened. Bullying of this type can take the form of offensive language, commenting upon a person’s appearance or the spreading of malicious rumours.
Indirect bullying is behaviour which – if taken in isolation – would not of itself qualify as bullying but actually forms part of a pattern of behaviour which fits the definition. Examples of this type of behaviour include the withholding of information that is vital for you to perform your role, excluding you from committee meetings or staff functions, allocating to you tasks which are beyond your core competency, or setting timelines that are difficult to achieve given the poor allocation of marketing or other company resources etc.
Power relationships and hierarchical positions
Bullying can occur in unexpected ways and the victim does not necessarily have to be in a lower hierarchal position to the perpetrator.
Bullying can be categorised from top-down i.e. from senior managers to middle/lower managers, or from bottom-up i.e. from staff to middle/senior management. Lateral bullying can occur between senior staff at the same level. There is a final category that should be noted i.e. in reverse. This is where the person who claims to be the victim is in fact the perpetrator. Such a person often acts in conjunction with other staff members for the purposes of engineering a resignation of the real victim. This bizarre behaviour can occur in the context of any type of bullying.
There appears to be an increasing trend of bottom-up/indirect bullying. Where more than one staff member makes a similar complaint, then this can be dangerous territory for any executive to be in.
HR managers and appointment of investigators
The involvement of HR Managers is often not helpful, and they are often only too willing to escalate the matter by the appointment of professional investigators. Invariably, this will involve the interviewing of witnesses and reviewing evidentiary statements and forwarding on to the executive a list of allegations seeking a response. It may also involve the standing down of the executive pending an outcome of the investigation.
Formal allegations that emerge out of this process must be dealt with comprehensively and accurately and not simply allowed to “go through to the keeper”. You do not wish to have unanswered allegations of this nature left on your personnel file.
Strategic response needed
When faced with accusations of workplace bullying, your contractual position – as an executive – needs to be urgently reviewed. Consideration also needs to be given on how best to respond to the allegations.
This requires an assessment of your particular matter based on the allegations that are made and your response to the allegations. Where there is more than one complainant making the same or similar allegations of bullying, then this is clearly going to reduce the likelihood that all of the allegations will be dismissed. The rise of allegations of this nature underscores the importance developing a high level of people skills and not being naïve in the handling of staff members whose poor performance needs to be addressed etc.
You need to work hard to ensure that your employment is never terminated on the grounds of workplace bullying. Any outcome of that nature could have serious long-term career consequences.
If you are accused of workplace bullying and termination of your employment appears to be a likely outcome, then you may have to be open to a negotiated exit from the company on the best terms you can get.
Take early legal advice if you have been accused of workplace bullying or if you believe you are in the process of being set up for false allegations of workplace bullying.
The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for individual advice regarding your own situation.