‘Using a Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut’ – Managing Anti-bullying policies effectively in the workplace

I am currently getting calls from a number of organisations all wanting to update staff or management training around their ‘Dignity at Work’ policies. While an Anti-Bullying/Harassment Policy or more constructively titled ‘Dignity and Respect Policy’ is a necessary and important process in ensuring that people’s rights are upheld in the workplace, I am always prompted to question how useful it is in many of the cases in which it is invoked. In most of the situations where I mediate or coach people, either a verbal or written complaint under the policy has been made. Yet, a significant number of these are, in my view, situations where behaviours have deteriorated as a result of poorly managed conflict rather than the simplistic ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ paradigm of the anti-bullying policy.

Let’s just look at a case scenario I recently mediated. Staff were on a roster for on-call work and when one member returned from long-term sick leave, he was asked by his team mates to ‘make up’ the on-call days he had missed. He didn’t feel this was fair so he approached his boss and asked that this be clarified. The manager delayed acting on this and a situation arose where the other two on the team made repeated requests of Tom to ‘pay back’ his days. Tom’s response to what he viewed as these unfair requests was to simply ignore them and walk off. They continued to ‘hassle’ Tom about the time he owed and he would just ‘blank them’ and walk away. Soon, general relationships became more strained and soon Tom was no longer really having any kind of communication with his other two team members.

What should either Tom or his team members do about this situation? The only ‘tool’ to manage workplace conflict that exists in most organisations is the policy on bullying and harassment behaviours. While either Tom or his colleagues might want to have this matter sorted out in a constructive way, in many situations, it is channelled down the ‘bullying’ route – in other words Tom has to frame his case as a situation where his ‘dignity is being undermined’ or he is being ‘bullied’. Naturally, the next step has to be that Tom’s two colleagues are informed that Tom has alleged they are bullying him. Now, not only have we the original dispute over the on- call, but much worse than this, the fall-out that ensues when Tom’s colleagues are informed by a third party that they are ‘alleged perpetrators’ of bullying behaviours.

In most cases I have worked on, the original issues themselves are often easier to resolve than the hurt and upset caused by the polarisation that a complaint under the bullying policy causes. If I may be permitted to mix metaphors, it’s a case of “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” and using “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

In the absence of more comprehensive and all-embracing conflict management policies, here are just a few ideas on how organisations might mitigate against anti-bullying policy being applied unhelpfully:

  • Ensure that employees who might have a potential difficulty with a colleague or manager have access to supports such as Designated Contact Person/Harassment Advisors.
  • Make options such as Conflict Coaching and Mediation as accessible as possible at early stage complaints or rumblings.
  • Ensure Managers have both the mechanisms (e.g. appraisal or feedback sessions) and the training to communicate effectively and regularly with staff around potentially contentious issues. This communication needs to be two-way as I have seen many cases where employees use the anti-bullying policy to communicate dissatisfaction with how they are being managed.
  • The ideal would be training for all staff in constructive communication so that difficult issues can addressed at an early stage when they are so much easier to resolve.

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