Workplace bullying claims at Dunedin City Council

A considerable amount of media space in the Otago Daily Times has been dedicated to this topic over recent weeks. The trouble is that media appear mainly concerned with the amount of money being spent on consultants than with the real issue – that being the workplace environment, especially in the library. Both the library executive manager, Bernie Hawke and the Human Resources Manager, Bruce Miller appear dismissive of claims of a ‘toxic workplace’ – despite a 2011 staff satisfaction survey where 20 from 80 respondents indicated incidents of low morale and bullying in the library workplace.

I don’t believe it is appropriate for executive managers to appear dismissive of staff concerns about workplace safety – regardless of their personal perceptions. Reports by staff about workplace bullying rarely, if ever emerge suddenly, they emerge over time due to increasing perception that little or nothing is being done to effectively change cultural and management behaviours. Workplace bullying exists in almost every workplace, in one form or another. Many instances of workplace bullying are either ignored or simply endured. For workplace bullying to rise to public conciousness, even if through a media report, suggests the level of workplace bullying being experienced in the DCC library is far beyond that able to be ignored or endured.

Workplace bullying is a symptom of the culture in an organisation. If senior managers are perceived to endorse bullying through the way in which they address the issue, then those that bully others are encouraged to continue their behaviour. There is no excuse for workplace bullying, any more than bullying in schools, in sports or in the family would be excused. In Melbourne in 2010, a cafe worker took her life after a year of persistent workplace bullying by her manager and colleagues. Fines of more than $300,000 were imposed upon those involved in the bullying. The reality is that workplace bullying has a significant impact upon the wellbeing of the individual being bullied and those colleagues who work with them. When people direct their attention and energies to combating the impact of workplace bullying they are not focused on working in an effective or productive manner.

While workplace bullying may not be specifically legislated for in New Zealand, there is a requirement under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 for the Dunedin City Council, and any other employee to take appropriate steps to ensure safety in the workplace. This legislation can be applied, not only to physical dangers but also to dangers posed through management behaviour.

Managers in particular need to be provided with help to identify the signs of workplace bullying. There is little point in providing assistance to non-management staff if their managers do not have an appropriate level of awareness. Similarly, when bullying is identified there must be processes in place that are designed to reward changes in behaviour – or penalise those that simply refuse to change their behaviours. This should apply to managers as much as to other staff.

There is some evidence to suggest bullys can be encouraged to change how they behave. though without an incentive to do so, it is unlikely change will take place. It takes time to effect change and requires considerable investment in developing and reinforcing new behaviours. It requires managers with well developed workplace coaching competencies and in many instances, it requires an investment in external facilitators. While the cost of putting in place effective interventions may be high; it is likely the cost of ignoring workplace bullying can be much, much higher. This is something the executive management team at Dunedin City Council should bear in mind.

Those are my thoughts for the day
John Coxon


About John Coxon

Principal consultant for John Coxon & Associates, a management consultancy working with boards and management teams in healthcare, aged care and not for profit organisations to develop effective strategic planning processes and social enterprise business plans
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