Employees at risk of boiling over

Rights at work

By Gary Collis*

As we educate more employees about their rights at work, specifically relating to bullying in the workplace, we are witnessing a significant increase in bullying complaints.

However, many of these complaints are not bullying at all but inappropriate workplace behaviour.

In addition we are also beginning to see more employees making complaints of being bullied as a weapon to deflect attempts by a manager/supervisor to address performance issues. This has resulted in many management representatives now being to afraid to address employee performance issues such as attendance, attitude and poor performance reviews because the supervisor/manager may have a bullying complaint lodged against him/her.

In my time as the South Australian Employee Ombudsman I received many thousands of complaints from both non management and management staff of being bullied at work. Upon investigation I found the majority were not in fact bullying but were matters of inappropriate work place behaviour.

Clearly there are many genuine complaints of workplace bullying and we should not be distracted from ensuring that organisations take all reasonable steps to address any such behaviour and indeed ensure, as best one can, that such behaviour does not take place.

Taking steps to address workplace tension reduces both genuine bullying behaviour and also the one off incidents that occur when an employee reaches boiling point.

Sadly many people are working within a toxic workplace. Why? Well, consider the external pressures on all of us and then add the continuous workplace change taking place in many organisations today. The constant change  often results in less people performing more work with less resources all to deliver to a customer base demanding higher quality, delivery ‘yesterday’ and all with a smile.

No wonder many employees operate in a state of what I call ‘one degree below boiling’. While many of us survive the day without going boiling over, there are some people who don’t and instead engage in some form of inappropriate behaviour. The tipping point usually involves a minor issue. For example, an employee could be in a calm mood one minute as they tackle the task of preparing next month’s budget figures and the next minute find themselves shouting at a fellow employee who interrupts them to ask for a packet of paper clips.

While such a one-off incident is not bullying but inappropriate behaviour, resolving the matter still requires the same level of energy as a bullying complaint. Bullying is defined as a consistent and systematic pattern of behaviour – not a one off incident.

A better approach would be to educate employees as to what is and what is not bullying and provide them with tools to be able to recognise when such incidents are more likely to occur.

In providing training to organisations we address such behaviours and look at what may turn an employee who may appear to be calm and collected into a shouting threatening person. Training helps enormously but employers should also think outside the box when looking for tools to assist their staff in maintaining their cool.

In our lives outside of work we use activities such as sport to burn off life’s frustrations. When we have finished training we may well be exhausted but we are very calm and much more capable of being able to confront any incidents without getting that degree above boiling. At work there are few to no tools that provide that opportunity to release the heat.

Perhaps we should consider a room that is sound proofed and full of cups and plates so when an employee feels that his/her temper is getting too close to boiling he/she can simply go in the room, close the door and smash a few plates. You can bet your life when the employee comes out of the room he/she will be calm and much more productive.

Or maybe part of old car can be kept in a little-used room so frustrated employers can take a hammer to it when their temperature starts to heat up.

Whatever method employers use, by reducing the number of boiling point incidents they can also reduce the number of bullying incidents and complaints.

Gary Collis is a director of employment consulting firm Gary Collis &Associates in Adelaide. He can be contacted via 0448488778 or email: [email protected]

Highly experienced, Mr Collis spent many years as the South Australian Employee Ombudsman.

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