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By Kate Southam, editor, CareerOne.com.au

March 19, 2009 12:00am

THE targets of workplace bullies are being let down by employers who mount internal investigations that often make the problem worse.

That’s the view of Dr Anne Wyatt and Dr Carlo Caponecchia, from the School of Risk and Safety Sciences at the University of NSW.

“In our experience, bullying issues are poorly understood by managers and so internal investigations are often badly handled, confidentiality is not always maintained and they drag on for too long,” Dr Caponecchia said.

They said allegations of bullying were usually investigated by human resources staff who soon became the “meat in the sandwich” with responsibilities to both the employer and employees. In many cases, the focus is on minimising legal risk to the organisation rather than changing the workplace culture to stamp out bullying.

“Human resources have a clear conflict of interest,” said Dr Caponecchia.

“HR has dual responsibilities to the employer and employee, and at best could be seen as the meat in the sandwich – particularly in cases where the perpetrator of the bullying behaviour is a senior member of staff.

“It is not the fault of HR staff but a consequence of the position that they are in.”

It was vital employers appoint third party specialists to investigate bullying allegations.

Dr Wyatt said employers also needed to view the safety risk posed by bullying as seriously as they do the dangers of faulty equipment. Health issues associated with bullying include anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

“We ask workers to report a sharp edge on a door or a missing grate or a broken step, but we haven’t endorsed reporting on things that might impact on mental health,” Dr Wyatt said.

“It is okay to say there is a rung missing from a ladder but it is not okay to say ‘I can’t handle my boss’.”

The academics are impatient with populist views that bullying incidents are nothing more than personality clashes or the work of a rogue “office psycho” and say organisations, not individuals, are responsible.

“People say, ‘if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen’. No one is yet saying that the kitchen shouldn’t be so hot,” Dr Wyatt said.

Dr Wyatt and Dr Caponecchia are also co-founders of the founders the website http://www.beyondbullying.com.au that provides resources to stop bullying.

The academics say part of the problem is that bullying is poorly defined and inadequately covered by existing legislation. At the moment bullying is covered by anti discrimination legislation and some occupational health and safety laws.

But Dr Caponecchia said bullying and discrimination were not the same thing, and under OH&S only South Australia specifically used the word “bullying” and explained what it was.

The Council of Australian Governments is currently working on “harmonising” occupational health and safety laws by 2011 to create national standards. Dr Wyatt and Dr Caponecchia want bullying to be given more comprehensive coverage under the revised national laws.

The President of the Australian Human Resources Institute, Peter Wilson, agreed bullying needed to be covered in the new national laws and that employers should use external investigators.

“I don’t think there is a conflict of interest (for HR staff) but you do need very well trained (HR) people in the job and they may need help from an external group,” Mr Wilson said. “Certainly (HR) are in a stronger position if you have a report in your hands.”

According to Beyond Bullying, workplace bullying is defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour where some power imbalance exists. This can include colleagues on the same level but where one has longer tenure or some other perceived power.

Bullying includes name calling, public humiliation, isolating or excluding a co-worker, a manager assigning meaningless or menial tasks, ideas and credit stealing and spreading rumours.

http://www.news.com.au/business/story/0,27753,25205355-462,00.html

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