Mediation is not the way to deal with cases of Workplace Bullying

Hadyn Olsen, Employment Relations Advisor/Facilitator

Workplace Bullying is not a new phenomena, it has been around for a long time. Yet, what is new, is that we are now recognising it as something we don’t want or need, and we are now calling to business leaders, politicians and legislators for it to stop.

The support, acceptance and collusion surrounding Workplace Bullying is as much a crime against the dignity of working people as the abuse itself. What is needed is that people

  • Stop turning a blind eye to it
  • Stop colluding with it by confusing it with the leadership function and calling it a management style
  • Stop blaming the Targets (victims of the Workplace Bullies) for it’s occurrence

In many ways we are at the same stage the battlers against domestic violence were in the 60’s and 70’s.

Domestic violence and Workplace Bullying actually share many of the same dynamics. They both involve an addiction to power and they are both centred on controlling others in a detrimental way. Many Workplace Bullies are bullies in the home as well.

The history of the fight against domestic violence is interesting. A century ago domestic violence was acceptable. The ‘rule of thumb’ allowed a man to hit his wife with a stick, providing the stick was no thicker than his thumb. We stand aghast now, but then it was deemed a right, - even a necessity because of the beliefs surrounding the rights of the dominant male and the ‘weakness’ of the subservient female.

Change started occurring from the beginning of last century. The all-dominant male view of the world was challenged and over the next eighty years our views on domestic violence changed from acceptance toward increasing intolerance.

The period around the 1960’s and 70’s saw a change from what has been called the non-interventionist approach to the interventionist approach to domestic violence. At this time, the dominant paradigm was that domestic violence was a problem involving two people. "It takes two to tango" was the cry in defence of what happened behind closed doors. The courts supported this view by their promotion of counselling as the remedy to domestic problems. The problem was their belief was faulty. They assumed that domestic violence was caused by two people. They therefore assumed the answer lay in two people taking responsibility for it. Hence counselling was seen as the most appropriate tool.

The result of this faulty assumption was that victims of domestic violence often became further victimised by the court-initiated process to prevent it. The battered woman, whose dignity and self-esteem was in tatters now had to face the skilled perpetrator who generally used the occasion to turn the screws even more. Most battered women ended up further damaged by the counselling process. Something needed to change. The change that was needed was a change in the beliefs and attitudes regarding domestic violence.

Domestic violence is now seen as a perpetrator problem; not a victim problem. It is something only the perpetrator can fix. It is not the victim’s responsibility at all. Regardless of the failings and weaknesses of the victim, there is no excuse or reason that justifies the use of violence. The person who uses violence must take full responsibility for their actions. The perpetrator alone must change.

The law now supports this belief. This is why counselling has been removed as a standard way of dealing with the problem. The focus now is on the safety of the victims and the need for change on the part of the perpetrator.

This change in the way people view the causes of domestic violence has created a change in the legal frameworks for dealing with it. We no longer force people into counselling and we no longer blame victims for the violence they suffer in the home.

Yet in the employment arena this is not so. We continue to perpetuate the belief that if a business/organisation is successful then the employer must be all right. The complaining employee is often suspected – after all what is one individual up against many well-qualified and experienced managers? The employee is seen a troublemaker who is rocking the boat. Or even worse, senior management claim that it is not Workplace Bullying that is the problem, but only personality differences. The complaining employee is seen as expendable, is ignored and consequently moves on or out.

This collusion with those who perpetrate Workplace Bullying is a disgrace to our employment practices in New Zealand. Why do we ignore such a serious issue? Why do we allow Workplace Bullies to not only exist within organisations, but take strong positions of power and control? Why do we ensure practices that treat complainants as the problem rather than focusing on the perpetrators and demanding they change?

The Employment Relations Service and the Human Rights Commission currently are bully-friendly according to many victims. The practice of demanding mediation as the first response to any workplace grievance (including Workplace Bullying) places our society back in the same position it was in the 60’s and 70’s in regard to domestic violence. It is an entirely inappropriate response to this problem. Workplace Bullying and domestic violence are almost identical twins. Why then do have we have different ways of dealing with them?

I have not met one Target of Workplace Bullying in the last three years who feels mediation was an option that was fair or favourable to them. In almost every case the Target is further abused and damaged by the process of mediation. They see mediation as a complete waste of time. Many of them become ill prior to the process and are traumatised within the process as well. In many cases the Workplace Bullies use the mediation process to simply polish their act.

Mediation is an appropriate tool for many disputes. I am a mediator and endorse mediation practice – but not for cases of Workplace Bullying. Where Workplace Bullying is an issue, mediation should not be used as a first response or possibly at all.

When receiving a complaint of Workplace Bullying the organisation must first act to protect the complainant. A standard non-victimisation clause should be part of any complaints process. Instead of mediation, the organisation needs to follow an investigation process so that allegations of Workplace Bullying can be investigated – if the allegation is against a senior manager, an external investigation resource is better. Even when internal resources are fair, objective and seen as qualified, the Target will most likely feel that the organisation cannot investigate and reach objective conclusions against one of their own fairly.

If the allegation is found to have substance, the perpetrator should be given directives to change or leave. This process should then be managed as with any other kind of hazard. Workplace Bullying should be treated as serious misconduct. It is serious misconduct if it seriously harms individuals.

Senior management and directors who provide weak and unsure attempts to deal with Workplace Bullies in fact collude with the bullying. They actually reinforce the Workplace Bullying and make life worse for the Targets. There is no value in the "mamby-pamby" approach or indecision.

Any employee who actively abuses and mistreats another employee is a health and safety hazard. They should be risk assessed and hazard managed. Workplaces need to identify the allegations of Workplace Bullying and then take steps to eliminate those hazards from the workplace. If there are complaints of Workplace Bullying, the bully should be isolated and the targeted persons should be safeguarded and supported.

The Workplace Bully should be given an opportunity to change. If they will not stop their behaviour they should be removed. There should be no collusion with their behaviour. There should be no tolerance for the practice of abusing others.

Over one hundred years ago, New Zealand led the way in standing up for the rights of women. In 1995 New Zealand led the way again with interventionist legislation designed at stopping domestic violence. We are a nation of leaders. We stand for the principles of fairness and human dignity. We can also lead the way in removing Workplace Bullying and demanding dignity for people at work.

The Human Rights Commission and the Employment Relations Authority need to recognise Workplace Bullying as a serious threat to employee rights. They need to stand for the safety and protection of people at work, and they need to remove the policy of mediation in the first instance.

Workplace Bullying will never be addressed effectively until they do.

 Old Views on Domestic Violence

Current Views on Workplace Bullying

It’s a private affair. What goes on behind closed doors is no-one else’s business  "I don’t care how you manage them – just get the results"
Police turn a ‘blind eye’ to reports HR and senior management turn a ‘blind eye" to management practises
Courts adopt a conciliation role based upon the understanding that domestic violence was somehow a problem between two people that could be resolved by counselling Employment Relations Authority adopt a mediation first policy. This is again based upon the understanding that all employment relations problems are somehow problems between two people
Victims often partly blamed for the abuse based on the assumption that they somehow ‘provoked’ it Targets often partly blamed for the abuse based on the assumption that they somehow ‘provoked’ it
Victims accept they are responsible for the violence because (in the eyes of their partner) they have not been supportive enough, efficient enough etc. Targets believe they are responsible for the bullying because (in the eyes of their supervisor) they have not performed well enough or because they have ‘stressed out’ their supervisors
Victims afraid to report it because nothing effective will be done Targets afraid to report it so they leave without compensation
Results in further victim trauma and support for the perpetrator Results in Workplace Bully remaining in the organisation and more good people targeted and leaving
Violence becomes part of the family culture and is spread from generation to generation as the parents role model the patterns of violence and acceptance of violence to the children Workplace Bullying becomes part of the workplace culture, even institutionalised in some cases. It remains unchallenged and is maintained through management acceptance and refusal to challenge it