Organisational Change and Workplace Bullying Complaints

In hindsight, a workplace bullying situation can seem both regrettable and avoidable. Yet time and again, we find that the circumstances leading to the making of a bullying complaint were predictable, or at least displayed a reasonable risk of complaints of bullying occurring.

What we can all agree on is by the time a complaint has been made, much of the damage has already been done. Prevention is the best medicine. 
We examine three of the key structural precursors to workplace bullying complaints, which business owners and managers should keep an eye out for. Through the prism of real-world cases, three common structural precursors to bullying complaints are highlighted: 
  • Long-term borderline poor performance issues. 
  • Replacement of someone in an acting position. 
  • Placement of a new manager into an established team. 
What all these have in common is organisational change.
Cases to consider
1. Long-term borderline poor performance issues 
In a recent hospital-based matter, the complainant, enrolled nurse (C), raised allegations of inappropriate action by management. This included being telephoned at home while on sick leave, being refused weekend shifts, and not having her university commitments accommodated in the roster. C had been on and off performance management programs for 24 months when supervisors received a complaint regarding her performance from a doctor and took more decisive action.
C claimed unfairness in the investigation; doctors at the hospital had allegedly been invited to complain about C, and the complainant had been given no right of reply. As a result of the complaints, C was required to undergo further nursing assessment and restricted work hours that meant loss of shift penalties. Much of the management action was found to be reasonable in this case, but given the long-term nature of the performance management and ongoing dissatisfaction of the complainant, despite the outcome of an investigation into the allegations of bullying, C was unlikely to be satisfied unless the finding was in her favour.
2. Replacement of someone in an acting position 
In another matter, an existing employee R alleged that she had been the subject of workplace bullying by the new manager W. Hostilities commenced only weeks after W arrived in the new position, usurping R in her established communications with the Director. Early complaints were made but dismissed as teething problems. The conduct didn’t subside, with the investigation establishing that while some of the behaviour towards R was reasonable management action, much of it, including the withholding of leave application approvals and the allocation of tasks outside of R’s capabilities, was bullying.
3. Placement of a new manager into an established team
This is often done following a restructure or to bring about cultural change, but when new managers are asked to lead established teams it can be a catalyst for a very unhappy workplace. If not managed correctly, the subculture of the team will seek to test the manager and resistance for change can lead to feelings of isolation and bullying in the manager. A change of direction and new demands on employees can also create feelings of injustice in the team, leading to cross complaints.
Organisational change
These three very typical cases demonstrate the types of situations where, through the process of organisational change, feelings of bullying can arise. But how do we prevent such complaints and circumstances without the benefit of hindsight?
  • Awareness 
  • Risk assessment 
  • Rapid response to early signs 
  • Focus on fairness in outcomes 
The first step is being aware of situations where complaints could arise. Being aware automatically makes us sensitive to avoiding difficult situations and conflict. 
Risk assessment 
With organisational changes, the implications of certain decisions on teams should be subject to risk assessments that include consideration of moral impacts on individuals and the likelihood of complaints of bullying. Once assessed as a risk, preventative measures can be adopted to reduce the likelihood of such events occurring. 
Rapid response to early signs 
It is very tempting to dismiss early signs of disharmony and adopt the head in the sand approach to interpersonal conflict. In some cases, this strategy works and the problem appears to go away. When it doesn’t, however, the problems are multiplied and positions become entrenched – making mediation and resolution much more difficult. 
Focus on fairness in outcomes 
Finally, when conflict is addressed, early stages of intervention should focus on the end game rather than remaining in the past. If parties can be brought to a position where they want their working relationship to be now, rather than focusing on the rights and wrongs of yesterday, it may be possible to turn the situation around, avoiding continued conflict and complaints.


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Location: Brisbane
Date: 16-17 September
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Date: 1-3 December
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