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Managing bullying: advice to members on updated HR Policy and Procedures

Posted 17 March 2011 by John Pezy (Flinders University)

Monash staff recently received a Global Email about significant changes and updates to the HR Policy and Procedures website, which we list below together with the URL for each item.

  • Work Life procedures (including job-share, home-based work and children on campus) (revised)

http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/workplace-policy/

  • Resolution of Unacceptable Behaviour in the Workplace procedure (new)

http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/workplace-policy/conduct-compliance/unacceptable-behaviour-intro.html.

  • Adjunct procedure (revised)

http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/workplace-policy/recruitment/other-appointments/adjunct.html

  • Retirement procedure (new)

http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/workplacepolicy/termination/retirement.html

  • Conduct and Compliance Policy (revised)

http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/workplace-policy/conduct-compliance/conduct-compliance-policy.html

We are going to concentrate here on the “Resolution of Unacceptable Behaviour in the Workplace procedure” as we have many concerns about it.

The NTEU has long been concerned about the prevalence of bullying behaviour at Monash. As bullying behaviour becomes more severe in its impact, that impact leads to deterioration in the health of the person subjected to the behaviour.  Sadly, the NTEU tends to see the worst of this impact rather than the milder forms. People rarely come to the union about such issues until they have become desperate. 

At its worst, we have seen severe breakdowns in mental and physical health and we have seen teams of HR professionals ignore the warning signs even when they were accompanied by blaring sirens indicating a workplace problem requiring attention.  Bullying behaviour by whatever name is a workplace health and safety hazard.

The University prefers to remove scrutiny of such behaviour from the arena of OHS and place it into a Human Resources environment.  The new website says of this:

“The emphasis of the processes described in these procedures is on the resolution of the actual conflict between staff. The process is intended to be non judgemental and assumes no assignment of fault or responsibility, rather it provides the parties with a facilitated process and safe environment in which to reach a mutually agreed solution (where possible).”

Is there really an early intervention strategy? What has changed within HR, during a period of staff cuts, that increases intervention resources to achieve such worthwhile objectives? We suspect that nothing has happened to improve these resources. 

We also suspect that the real motive lies in the paragraph that follows:

“If satisfactory resolution cannot be achieved and, only when in the opinion of the Director, Workplace Relations there is thought to be substance to the complaint, will the process move to identifying fault or determining that formal disciplinary action is to be taken in accordance with the relevant Enterprise Agreement.”

So Director, Workplace Relations of the University – head of a division whose managerial philosophy is to protect the senior staff member from allegations made by a subordinate one - is charged with the responsibility of determining whether your complaint is sufficiently serious to merit whether formal disciplinary action should be taken. 

These HR consultants and managers are also the people who recently conducted an investigation into an allegation of workplace bullying and failed to interview even one witness that the person who lodged the claim had identified for the purpose. That report found that bullying had not occurred.

And how does the University’s procedure help you to recover your health, recover lost time from work?  Will you be moved to a safer location? Will the perpetrator be moved to create a safer workplace, pending investigation?

If someone reported a live electric socket that was sparking, first the risk would be managed (cut power to the socket and eliminate the risk), and then the corrective action would be taken (fix the fault).  Here, it is the opposite.  Keep them together (keep the risk present) and see if we can fix it. We know that relations between people are far more complex than a faulty electric socket, but when the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety legislation was revised in 2004, one significant element was to place front and centre that psychological health hazards are similarly subject to the Act as are physical hazards.  The University is attempting to remove this psychological risk and hazard from the OHS sphere.

Whatever happened to OHS? Whatever happened to Workcover? Both of those remain law in Victoria, but largely ignored at Monash. While there are good elements within the University’s approach if properly resourced and staffed by people genuinely interested in and empowered to act for the welfare of people subject to the behaviour of which they complain, it seems to the NTEU – and we argued this in the University’s OHS Policy Committee – that this is designed to reduce the University’s potential exposure to allegations of bullying and to divert its staff from such a path.

What does the NTEU recommend?

1. Learn to recognise bullying early – it can take many forms.

2. Seek advice early and try to find ways to prevent the behaviour from recurring.  Get support.  Approach HR. Approach counsellors to learn strategies that may assist and empower you.  This is all appropriate behaviour when you are unsure what is happening, upset by the behaviour but not distressed. Distress is a sign that a hazard is present.

3. Keep records of behaviour that troubles you, as it occurs.  Note the date and time, the place and who was there, as well as what happened.  If there is a written record such as an email, keep a copy.

4. Keep track of what HR did once you approached them.  Who did you speak with?  What did they do?  How timely was it?  Were you listened to?  Was what you said given serious regard?

5. If you become unwell, if you lose time from work because of this, it is certainly time to lodge a Hazard and Incident Report even though University procedure steers you away from this.  A workplace-based risk to your health and safety is covered by the OHS Act and cannot be expunged by University policy despite their efforts.

We have prepared some documents that will support you in this. If you need them, please contact the Branch Office and they will be sent to you.

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