Nothing warm and fuzzy about workplace conflict
Although often considered the “soft” side of safety, workplace conflict can be very tough to manage and will come under greater scrutiny when the new model workplace health and safety laws are rolled out in 12 months’ time.
Workplace conflict specialist, Stuart King of Kings Workplace Solutions (KWS) says his consultancy will work hard to correct some commonly held misconceptions at Melbourne trade show Safety In Action next April.
“People have the idea that specialist HR and risk control services such as ours are warm and fuzzy and a cost driver to business,” Mr King says.
“On the contrary, our work is highly skilled and can make or break organisations and their reputations as well as the careers of individuals involved in workplace behaviour complaint investigations.
“It’s all about leadership and inappropriate or unlawful workplace behaviours must be treated no differently than we treat a trip hazard or a missing machine guard.”
The role of a workplace conflict consultancy is to help protect the workplace culture and people working within it from employees who choose to behave inappropriately. The consultancy supports clients in identifying, reducing and responding to the business and personal risk associated with inappropriate workplace behaviours. Mr King says most clients approach KWS for:
- prevention (education, policy development, behavioural risk surveys, risk identification and complaint response systems design)
- response (access to a telephone intervention and help line, mediations, investigations and reviews)
- management (support services that control complaint and manage outcomes that support workable solutions)
Mr King, who established KWS after a 30-year policing career, says the case that has most affected him personally involved an apprentice and his supervisor.
“We were conducting an investigation into a workplace bullying complaint lodged by an apprentice who was bullied during remote field work and physically assaulted by his mentor tradesman.”
“The bullying was long suffered and the apprentice committed suicide after the investigation had concluded and remedial action taken against his bullies. I was involved with the family and my client organisation, who were blind-sided by the complaint and resultant suicide.
“Jobs were lost, the family lost a loved one and colleagues wondered how could this happen. There were no winners. It was so preventable. People knew it was going on but did not do enough to stop it.”
Mr King says good workplace conflict management systems are a wise investment for even the most hard-nosed risk managers.
“Organisations and their executive teams are naive if they think they are immune to employees and managers behaving inappropriately or unlawfully.”
“Make sure you have systems in place that make inappropriate workplace behaviours visible, and measure the near misses too, as a signpost to risk.
“If people get treated badly or unlawfully, they get sick and injured. Mental illness is an injury that is lasting and amounts to significant costs associated with WorkCover and lost time through injury.”
A VicHealth report released in October found excessive pressure at work is costing Australia’s economy $730 million a year.
The $730 million cost includes lost productive time, employee replacement costs, government-subsidised mental health services and medications for depression. It equates to $11.8 billion over the average working lifetime, with the biggest loss accruing to employers.
The report also revealed an $85 million cost of absences for depressed workers who do not have access to paid sick leave, which also represents a significant cost to employees.
However, co-author of the report Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne said the figures underestimated the true costs of depression in the workplace, as other factors that increase the risk of depression such as bullying, sexual harassment and job insecurity were not included in the study. In addition, the study did not include the costs of mental health related WorkCover claims.
Kings Workplace Solutions will be on hand to provide expert advice on workplace conflict at Safety In Action from April 5 to 7, 2011, at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. For more information, visit www.safetyinaction.net.au, email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Australian Exhibitions & Conferences Pty Ltd on 03 9654 7773.
Case study: a “smart-arse” apprentice
A young man started work as an apprentice, mentored by a more mature man who took a dim view of having to train a young guy who asked too many questions and was “wet behind the ears”.
Their relationship deteriorated over time. The mentor started not talking to his apprentice, sometimes for hours on end, whether in the car or on the job. The apprentice felt he wasn’t getting the instruction he needed and became frustrated while the mentor felt the young apprentice was a “smart-arse”.
Team members started to become affected and the apprentice began to experience exclusion and bullying behaviours by the group. On one field trip, his mentor physically assaulted the young apprentice three times in a company car on the way home from a job. The apprentice was dropped off at his home with bruises, minor cuts and torn clothing.
Although he went to the police and reported the assault, the apprentice was fearful of reprisals at work so told the police not to investigate. At work, the team covered up the assault and bullying, hiding the incident and bullying from management. The dynamics in the team changed over time and people felt pressured to either join the deception or leave the team, which became more and more dysfunctional.
The experience at work was arguably affecting the apprentice’s home life and personal relationships, which began to break down. The apprentice was found dead by his father at home. He had hung himself. Kings Workplace Solutions’ client needed significant support to deal with this experience.