Tackling a Toxic Workplace Culture

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Many people start off each year with a bundle of resolutions - to eat better, to exercise more, to spend more time with the kids... the list goes on. The start of a new calendar year is also a fantastic time for businesses to take stock and reassess. If your workplace culture is getting in the way of your business fulfilling it's potential, make change your top New Year's resolution for 2018.

what is workplace culture? 

Culture is loosely defined as the beliefs and behaviours that govern how people act in an organisation. 

While it is often considered to be a vague concept, how workers interact with each other is an incredibly important part of work life. Good organisational culture is now believed to be a key factor in a business' success or failure. 

If staff feel uncomfortable, unhappy or excluded, they will obviously not enjoy coming to work - which generally means that they will be less motivated, less productive and reluctant to go beyond the call of duty when asked.

how to identify if your workplace culture is bad

Whether a workplace is toxic or not is difficult to define. Generally speaking, if people are unhappy at work more often than not, you are dealing with a poor workplace culture. 

Factors that can contribute to a toxic culture include:

  • Staff not being trusted to take calculated risks or perform their jobs without being micromanaged.
  • Workers constantly being asked to perform under significant pressure and without adequate resources being allocated to assist them.
  • A lack of clarity or top-down direction.
  • Poor leadership behaviour or interaction 

what happens when workplace cultures are toxic

Toxic cultures can breed hostile, pessimistic team members, drive away top talent and prevent organisations from reaching their full potential. 

Some signs and consequences of toxicity include:

  • Increasing staff conflict
  • High staff turnover
  • High levels of absenteeism
  • Presenteeism (where people physically show up at work, but don't perform their duties to the best of their abilities)
  • Increased workers' compensation claims
  • Complaints of bullying or other types of harassment 

HOW to chage a negative workplace culture

In order to address workplace toxicity, employers need to be prepared to tackle issues head-on. 

These 10 steps towards changing workplace culture for the better can help make the task less daunting.

  1. Identify and assess the underlying problems. This is best achieved by issuing a staff survey, conducting exit interviews to determine why staff are leaving, or otherwise encouraging open and honest feedback. 
  2. Establish a concrete company vision. Ensure that all employees are engaged with the vision and understand where the business is headed.
  3. Rinse and repeat - ideally, make sure that surveys and opinion polls are conducted on a regular basis to identify what factors may be improving or worsening the workplace culture.
  4. Encourage consultation and open communication. In addition to helping filter ideas and feedback up to the leadership team, this makes staff feel valued and assists in reducing emotions such as frustration or anger.
  5. Facilitate friendships and encourage team building. If your staff actually like each other, they are much more likely to take additional steps to support co-workers and the business. 
  6. Be consistent and fair. One of the biggest gripes of staff who feel they operate in a toxic environment is that their supervisors seem to change attitudes on a regular basis, or that responses are likely to vary depending on what mood the boss is in. 
  7. Maintain a sense of fun - all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes, and creating a workplace where staff feel at home is much more likely to improve morale. 
  8. Pick your team wisely. When selecting and hiring new staff, consider how they will fit into the team and how they will get on with your other workers.
  9. Be physically present. Although senior staff will doubtless have different hours and regimes to stick to than average workers, it is disheartening to see supervisors roll in regularly at 11am with coffee in hand, head out for long lunches and then leave in the early afternoon. Allow your staff to see that you are working just as hard as they are. 
  10. Recognise the efforts of staff. Whether this is through an employee of the month program, an annual awards dinner or simply ongoing quiet acknowledgement of good performance, ensure that staff know they are appreciated. 

So, start this year the right way - make your workplace somewhere your staff want to be, instead of somewhere they have to be. And if you're having difficultly with a toxic workplace culture, WISE can help, through out investigation, mediation and governance services. 

A Modern Problem: The Face of Workplace Bullying in 2017

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Workplace bullying comes at a high price for Australian businesses and employees, costing billions and leaving a trail of physical and mental health issues in its wake. 

Even though employers are becoming increasingly conscious about bullying and most have anti-bullying policies in place, it is still very prevalent in 2017. 

We take a look at what types of behaviour constitute workplace bullying, its magnitude, and some of the key cases heard by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) this year.

the nutS and bolts of it

Workplace bullying can come in many forms. It can be broadly defined as repeated unreasonable conduct and can include different types of abusive behaviour, whether physical, verbal, social or psychological, that occurs at work. It does not matter whether the behaviour is engaged in by a manager, a boss, or co-worker, or what the employment status of the victim is. 

Many different types of behaviours can fall within the meaning of workplace bullying. Some of the most obvious ones include:

  • Physical intimidation or violence
  • Excluding co-workers from social or work-related interactions
  • Mocking or joking at the expense of somebody in the workplace
  • Spreading gossip or rumours
  • Threats of violence or abuse

There are also a number of more subtle types of abuse frequently being employed in workplaces. According to research released in June 2017, these include: 

  • Unnecessarily micro-managing an employee so that they cannot perform their role effectively - or not providing enough supervision and support in order to permit a job to be performed competently
  • Consistently providing work well below an employee's competency 
  • Frequent reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines or timeframes
  • Ignoring opinions or input
  • Exclusion from work or social events. 

what is the extent of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is prevalent in Australia. 

According to research undertaken for BeyondBlue, almost half of Australian employees will report experiencing some type of bullying during their working lives. Workplace bullying can impact performance and career progression, and result in a range of physical and mental health issues. 

It is estimated to cost Australian organisations up to $36 billion a year. 

the need for an anti-bullying culture

In order to appropriately respond to the many different types of bullying - including some of the more hidden, indirect types of bullying set out above - employers must implement clear and direct anti-bullying policies outlining what type of behaviour is considered to be unacceptable. 

Rather than solely focusing on punitive measures for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, employers are also encouraged to attempt to build a positive workplace culture through feedback, independence and trust. 

WHen employers are accused of bullying 

Given that almost anything could potentially lead to allegations of bullying, it is not surprising that many employers are concerned about being unable to treat employees with anything other than kid gloves. 

However, employers are within their rights to performance manage, discipline, retrench or otherwise alter the employment conditions of an employee in appropriate and legally permitted circumstances.  

how did the fair work COMMISSION view bullying in 2017

A number of cases before the FWC this year highlighted the need for fair and unbiased investigation of bullying allegations, and demonstrated that employers taking appropriate steps to discipline or dismiss an employee won't be penalised. 

Case Study 1: The email is mightier than the sword

In early 2017, FWC upheld a ruling that Murdoch University was right to terminate an employee for serious misconduct. That employee had sent a number of abusive emails - from his university work account - to the chief statistician of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Even after complaints were forwarded by the ABS directly to the University, the employee continued to send emails to the chief statistician, and forward those on to third parties, including a federal member of parliament. In one of those emails, the worker tacitly acknowledged that his behaviour was bullying, and stated that 'bullying is the only way to deal with bullies'. 

Prior to his correspondence with the ABS, the employee had already emailed another colleague and accused her of being deliberately dishonest and suffering from mental health issues. 

Ultimately, Murdoch University stood down the employee on full pay while an investigation was conducted. It also took steps to change investigators on more than one occasion, after the employee complained about the staff investigating the matter, before ultimately dismissing the employee. 

This case is an important reminder for employers that taking appropriate and lawful steps to investigate and, if necessary, terminate employment will not constitute bullying.

Case Study 2: Lawful adversaries - bullying in law school

In another bullying case involving a university, a Deakin University law lecturer sought the imposition of anti-bullying orders on a co-worker.

Although the accused professor had previously been charged with misconduct while working at another university, the FWC refused to allow the provision of materials relating to those earlier allegations. It noted that previous management behaviours of the professor were not relevant to new claims of bullying. 

Those materials also reportedly contained commercially sensitive information regarding other employees. This reinforces the message that employers and senior staff should not feel as though they are prevented from taking steps to discipline staff without being accused of bullying, despite any previous allegations. 

Case Study 3: A failure to properly investigate

Employers must take care to properly investigate all allegations of bullying within the workplace, not only to protect the victim but also to afford due process to the accused. 

This was the case in a recent FWC decision, which determined that a mother and daughter had been unfairly terminated amidst allegations of bullying and fraud. 

The director of the abortion clinic in which the mother and daughter worked had terminated their employment after registered nurses made various complaints about the duo, including that they took excessive smoke breaks, failed to record information properly in time sheets, and had made inappropriate threats of dismissal to the nurses. 

The director failed to appropriately investigate the allegations and, crucially, did not give the terminated employees sufficient time to properly respond. The FWC found that this demonstrated favouritism and nepotism (in circumstances where the director had apparently wanted to install his own wife and daughter in the newly available roles). 

Case Study 4: Getting it both right and wrong

Even when an employer's disciplinary actions are ultimately deemed to be appropriate in all relevant circumstances, their response may still fall far short of best practice. 

That was the case when the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW (Paraquad) was held to have properly dismissed a carer whose major depressive disorder meant that she no longer had the capacity to properly fulfil her role. 

However, the employee complained before her dismissal that she had suffered years of bullying and harassment which had exacerbated her psychiatric condition. This was not properly taken into account by Paraquad's HR department - even when provided with medical evidence supporting the employee's allegations as to the source of her condition. 

The FWC was particularly critical of the HR department's decision not to properly investigate the bullying allegations, because the employee had not followed workplace protocol in making her complaints. 

Case Study 5: Lessons in discourse

 Another interesting development this year revolved around language. Fair Work Commissioner Peter Hampton explained at the annual Queensland IR Society Convention in October 2017 that he eschews the use of words such as 'bully', 'victim', or 'allegeable'. It is advisable to avoid unhelpful labels which might shoehorn parties into certain roles. 

A similar approach is being encouraged in the Queensland Public Service Commission, particularly when dealing with domestic violence, where labels such as 'perpetrator' are actively discouraged and a rehabilitative approach is desired. 

The take home message

So what lessons can employers take away from the way the FWC has dealt with bullying in 2017? In summary employers should:

1. Take all complaints of bullying seriously, and conduct unbiased, fair investigations

2. Ensure that those accused of offences are afforded due process and have the opportunity to respond to allegations against them

3. Take positive steps to devise and implement workplace policies which make it clear that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated and will be investigated as necessary

4. Ensure that any action taken to discipline or dismiss an employee is reasonable and appropriate. 

For expert assistance with these and any other matters related to workplace investigations and how to respond to workplace bullying complaints, contact WISE Workplace today.  

Workplace Party Pitfalls and Perils (A Christmas Story)

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 15, 2017

At a time when workers increasingly work remotely, communicate online or use hot desks, the annual staff Christmas party is a valuable opportunity to get everyone interacting face to face. 

A Christmas party is also a good way of getting staff who rarely see one another during the working week to meet, to reward staff for hard work, to celebrate the success of the past year, and to motivate employees for the year ahead. 

At the same time, it is essential that reasonable steps are taken to manage the risk to the organisation's reputation, to provide an environment free from discrimination and to protect the health and safety of all involved in the Christmas party. 

Small wonder then that there is a fine line between potentially permitting a situation to get out of hand, and being so risk averse that you kill the fun of the party altogether. 

Here's a quick guide for employees and employers on how to avoid the potential perils of the work Christmas party.

when is a party classed as a workplace event?

First, in order for a business to be legally liable for events that occur at a Christmas party, it must be considered a 'workplace event'. However, this can extend beyond something which is specifically labelled an 'end of year function' or 'Christmas party', and can include something as informal as a picnic or a sporting activity - or even an unplanned and spontaneous event like an after party. 

The factors that determine whether something is defined as a workplace event include:

  • Whether the employer sponsored or funded the event.
  • If the employer was involved in organising the event or issued invitations.
  • Whether attendance was voluntary or whether the employer expected attendance - for example, by requiring employees who did not attend to take annual leave or work instead. 
  • If employees consider it a 'perk' of employment to attend the event.
  • Whether the employer benefitted from the event, for example by having the opportunity to present awards or network with clients.  

SO HOW CAN THINGS GO WRONG?

Some notable mishaps from past Christmas parties include: 

  • The dismissal of an employee for haranguing and then pushing a fully clothed co-worker into a swimming pool. That decision was upheld by the Fair Work Commission, despite noting that the employer should not have provided virtually unlimited alcohol. Another factor was that the employee was asked to leave by the general manager, but refused to do so, engaging in a physical altercation with him. 
  • An employee urinating off a balcony on Darling Harbour onto dining patrons below was sacked for misconduct. 
  • A formal warning was given to a police officer who used a genital piercing to open beer bottles during a party. 
  • Another employee lost his job after faking his wife's illness to miss his own Christmas party - only to attend that of a competitor.   

how employees can have fun and stay out of trouble

There are a few important things employees should be aware of: 

  • What happens at the party will almost certainly not stay at the party. Quite apart from water-cooler gossip and the potential repercussions of people remembering what you said or did after that fifth glass of wine, there's also potential for humiliating photographs or embarrassing posts to be shared on social media. 
  • Employees should set and stick to limits. Good working relationships can be quickly destroyed, and respect lost, through foolish or careless behaviour by those who have over-imbibed. 
  • Once your reputation has been damaged, it can be incredibly difficult to repair it. Remember that you will need to see your colleagues and any other guests again - if not on Monday, certainly after the Christmas break. 

Instead of overdoing the alcohol, use the party as an opportunity to network with other people in your organisation whom you may not know as well. The Christmas party should be an opportunity to have fun and form more personal connections, with a view to improving your overall work life.

WHAT EMPLOYERS MUST DO

In order to minimise any potential pitfalls from the Christmas party, employers need to know a few key things:

  • If a function is deemed to be a workplace event, then the employer owes a duty of care to employees. This includes being held vicariously responsible for any injuries, discrimination, harassment, or potentially for anything the employees do wrong, such as breakages. 
  • Service of alcohol is the responsibility of the employer. Although employees should feel free to have a good time without undue restrictions, it is up to the employer to ensure that nobody is excessively intoxicated. Some employers may also wish to provide alternative transport home, such as Cabcharge vouchers. 
  • Employers should make it clear exactly when the function starts and finishes. Setting a specific end time for the festivities assists with limiting the employer's duty of care to a finite window, after which point anything that happens at a different venue could be considered to be 'off the clock'. 
  • Employees should be reminded that, even though the event may not be held at the workplace, the usual rules of conduct apply. This includes reminding employees of the company's sexual harassment, bullying and anti-discrimination policies. 
  • Remind employees to be culturally sensitive, especially noting that not all people celebrate Christmas, and ensure that any gifts sanctioned at the workplace event, such as Secret Santa, are not inappropriate or offensive. 

How to deal with any misconduct 

If something does go wrong at the Christmas party, it is important for employers to deal with potential misconduct swiftly and fairly in order to minimise any fallout. WISE Workplace can assist with a professional and unbiased workplace investigation.