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Standing Committee on Education and Employment
Workplace bullying

MELLINGTON, Ms Toni, Director, DC Workplace Consulting


CHAIR: I would now like to welcome representatives from DC Workplace Consulting to today's hearing.

Ms Mellington : Thank you very much for the invitation, first off. I would like to give you a very brief overview, which can be elaborated on at any given point that you would like.

CHAIR: No worries. Before you do that, I just have to do some formalities. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We will ask you to do your opening statement and then proceed to questions.

Ms Mellington : Thank you. I would like to introduce myself, first off, as a psychologist who has 15 years of experience in dealing with workplace bullying. That extends from prevention right through to treatment for people who have been affected by workplace bullying. From my perspective, I have seen from go to whoa what can occur in the workplace bullying environment, as have my colleagues at DC Workplace Consulting. I have published internationally and locally and am regularly contacted by universities around the globe to speak and to share ideas about workplace bullying and how it is we are going to forge ahead to address this endemic issue.

I would like to say first and foremost that I have been absolutely privileged to have worked with the most amazing occupational health and safety consultants in tackling workplace bullying. When we first got started in Victoria, putting in place prevention techniques, policies, procedures and the like, the OHS community and management were absolutely fabulous and took on board a great deal of what consultants and researchers such as me had to offer. We were really heading in the right direction, I felt.

What I would like to offer to you today is an opinion that, whilst there have been employers who have really taken this on board and have sought to prevent and remediate workplace bullying in a fair and proper way, we are also seeing employers not doing so. On the whole, I believe that, whilst there has been some fabulous work, we are also now starting to see some behaviours that are dreadful becoming endemic, and the manner in which we deal with workplace bullying has changed. I have seen a shift from focus in occupational health and safety, and I have seen it move throughout these 15 years to becoming more of an HR issue, an IR issue, an ER issue or anything other than focusing on the safety and health of the people who are involved in these circumstances.

So I would like to put to you a suggested action that I have formulated as I have been dealing with these issues throughout the years. I would like to propose that there be an external, independent group that can be involved in workplace bullying reports. So instead of workplace bullying reports being dealt with within the workplace in which the bullying has occurred, you can access an external independent group who have authority. They may be overseen by government, they may be an extension of Fair Work Australia or they may be not dissimilar to the conciliation service that occurs in workers compensation. I believe that this really is the next step that we need to take.

Of great concern lately in the people who seek me out is that they are advising me and providing demonstrable experience to evidence the fact that some workplaces are avoiding the workplace bullying avenue by instituting other policies and procedures, calling this performance management and performance improvement, and stepping in and making it a grievance. So when the person wants to step forward and they have built up the courage to speak to somebody—and that takes a lot of courage—they are sent off on a different pathway and not given the full support that they really require to resolve the workplace bullying before it develops further and further.

If you have observed workplace bullying occur with your friends, family or colleagues, or whomever, you will certainly have noted that what starts off as possibly a small issue ends up growing legs, and before you know it whole teams are involved. The issue which led to the bullying and the bullying that just keeps growing takes on a life of its own, until you have many people in the workplace with a vested interest in what is occurring. That is where, from a psychologist's point of view, it is quite intractable and very difficult to resolve. That is where we see considerable health impact on not only the people who are bullied but the witnesses.

The research I did in 2003 for my master's thesis looked at the health implications of workplace bullying. I looked across a sample of staff at a hospital. We saw that workplace bullying does not just impact upon the person being bullied; it impacts on all of the witnesses, all of the people who are around that person. The bullying stops but the health impact does not. Here we have endemic, intractable behaviour. We know that from not only the Australian research but the European research as well the impact will linger for quite a long time after the behaviour has actually occurred.

One of the most frightening findings in my research for me was that what was deemed to be the most successful action people could take was to leave or to do nothing. What was deemed to be the most unsuccessful action to take was to report it—to go to your OHS person, to go to your HR person, to go to your CEO, to go to your manager. They were the things that led to greater harm for the people whom I studied in my masters research. I think this is very enlightening. Over 15 years, I have not seen a change at all. They are still the sentiments that I hear from clients and still the sentiments I hear when I go into workplaces to do training.

So my big point would be that I would dearly love to see an independent group that would enable not just the person being affected by bullying to make a report to an external body. The equal opportunity legislation five or six years ago was modified so that the person being targeted did not have to be the one who made the complaint—a representative body, a witness or an independent third party could step forward and report on what was occurring. I think having an independent group would enable such action to occur. One thing that has been reported to me consistently in the last year or two is that employers are subverting workplace bullying complaints. I think I mentioned earlier that we are seeing them refer to 'grievances', 'grievance procedures', 'performance management' and 'performance improvement'. That diverts the entire process into something rather ugly. That is the direction I believe we could take that could enhance the regulation. Doing this would ensure that the independent workplace bullying expert, who would be a member of this team, would have no connections with the workplace, so the influence of workplace politics—which we see having a huge influence over the outcome of these reports—would disappear.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I very much appreciate the evidence that you have given. I have a question about your work involving prevention and where prevention did work. What would you say are the key elements in preventative programs at workplaces?

Ms Mellington : The key element of a successful prevention program is management commitment. Commitment from the top and an enthusiastic occupational health and safety team or consultant are the first two things that I always look for. Those are where you get the greatest traction. I think that is the best answer to give.

CHAIR: If you have that commitment, is it then about a clear definition in the workplace or about awareness? Once you have management buy-in, what else needs to come in?

Ms Mellington : I see awareness and education as being the largest contributors to making a cultural change. When I have done training in workplaces, I have always teamed up workplace bullying with psychosocial hazards to help people understand that this is not some arbitrary introduced terminology but a hazard that impacts significantly in the health and safety environment. Can you tell me the rest of the question again?

CHAIR: That effectively covers it; that is great. You were talking about your master's thesis, where you found that people felt that reporting it got the worst outcome. Did you drill down to any elements that provided the biggest barriers to those people? Was it the fact that it was put to a grievance procedure, not taken seriously and ignored, and they then became ostracised? What were some of the reasons that it was such a bad experience for people?

Ms Mellington : Many of the reasons you have just given are certainly correct. To take a step back and look at it across the board, providing a report to your human resources section, management or whoever it might be enables the bullying to become systemic. What started as one-on-one or two-on-one bullying, for whatever reason it might have started, then gets buy-in from everyone. Everyone is deciding, 'Who is doing the right thing here?' Managers are thinking: 'What is going to make this go away more quickly? Would it be quicker and easier to shove this person out because they are a troublemaker?' So you get a lot of these arbitrary thoughts about why the bullying is occurring, how it is happening and what is going to make it stop. I think employers want it to stop. I think taking the path of least resistance is what they seem to elect to do, which is not preferable. I think it causes a huge amount of damage within the workplace.

If I can just squeeze another little bit in, some research just came out in this last month from British Columbia that indicated that the person being targeted is least likely to pick up and move on. The people who are witnessing the bullying and seeing the injustice are the ones who are likely to pick up and move on. If I may add further add to that, there is the fabulous work of Dr Cathy Crock, one of the medical professionals at Royal Children's Hospital. She did some research into patient-centred and family-centred care under a Winston Churchill Fellowship. Whilst researching this across a number of continents, she found that bullying was a critical component of what was impacting most negatively on the health of patients. So not only are we looking at the person being bullied and the witnesses being damaged, as I found in my research and as the Europeans have found, but now we are looking further afield and we are seeing that this is having real and dangerous effects on patients in hospitals—on people's lives. Not only do we have suicides, workers comp claims, ill health et cetera but we have patient safety at risk.

CHAIR: I have just one more question and then I will hand over to the committee. When it comes to the path of least resistance, were there things that improved it such as having clear bullying and harassment procedures, policies and steps so that everyone was clear about what steps would be followed and adhered to? Did that improve the experience for people? What is it that improves the experience? Sometimes you do not want to go to a third party; you do want to try to resolve it at the workplace. If you go to your individual manager, assuming it is kept confidential and there is not huge buy-in from the rest of the workforce, what made that experience better for people?

Ms Mellington : Definitely the commitment of the occupational health and safety people—the management. If they are committed to enacting the policies and procedures and putting people in touch with what is available to them for support, that is where you get a good outcome. Part of the training that I do and have done for 15 years, and that DC Workplace Consulting do now, is alerting people to the different levels of intervention that you can access in the workplace, from primary to secondary to tertiary. If things are just starting to ramp up, what are the primary interventions you can put in place? If they really start to get a little bit ugly at the secondary level, what is there? There is an EAP. There is conciliation. There are all sorts of welfare supports. Then, if you get right to the bottom, to the tertiary level, where people have become sick and have lodged workers compensation claims, what on earth is available then? So making the workplaces cognisant of what is available and where the managers can direct their staff to get extra assistance has really been, in my experience, the best way, and I have witnessed workplaces do this and manage workplace bullying exceptionally well. You can probably tell from the way that I am addressing you that my greatest disappointment is that somewhere we went off the rails a little bit, I feel, and other politics and issues have found their way into workplace bullying.

Mr RAMSEY: Thanks, Toni. I have a series of questions but I probably will not get through them all. You said that you have been in this current role for 15 years and that is there is an epidemic, or a pandemic, of workplace bullying out there at the moment. Do you think that workplace bullying has got worse or is it just that, because its profile has been raised, it is being more often identified?

Ms Mellington : The answer is in two parts. I would say we are far more aware of it. Further to that, I would like to separate out workplace violence from workplace bullying; I am talking solely about bullying. We are also as a culture becoming far more clever in the way that we enact our workplace bullying. I have observed a number of different industries and watched carefully how people actually partake in workplace bullying—which can be little soul destroying—and I must say that the two industries in which I have seen the 'best' bullying, if you can call it that, are the Public Service and health. Does that answer your question?

Mr RAMSEY: What it is about our culture, to your mind, that has caused a refinement in our ability to bully people—to actually get better at it? Where are the rewards in the system that say that this is a good thing to be doing in the workplace?

Ms Mellington : It is a pathway to removing a barrier—a pathway to removing someone who is thought to be a troublemaker, a pathway to removing somebody who is threatening to you in some way. It is the pathway to removing somebody who perhaps has a better opportunity to reach greater success than you. There are many, many reasons why people choose to engage in bullying behaviour. We have been very successful in putting in place policies and procedures, all of the groundwork, which has made it very clear that this not something that will be tolerated. So, if people do engage in this sort of behaviour, they have to be quite clever about it.

Mr RAMSEY: You have mentioned the word 'troublemaker' a couple of times. If we were to regulate the workplace environment more stringently, do we run the risk of protecting people who actually are troublemakers? We all know that there are some people who just do not fit into a workforce no matter what you do and no matter how hard you try, and their ability to attract the same kinds of problems wherever they go is a good indicator of this. How do we make sure that we don't overstep the mark and put the onus on employers, who then cannot deal with these issues in the workplace? This morning, ACCI said that in some respects the unfair dismissal laws protect those who might by nature be bullies.

Ms Mellington : I certainly hear your question and I understand that. I would foresee that having an independent, external, antibullying group would facilitate appropriate attention to determine whether a particular situation can be resolved. They would make recommendations, and those recommendations could be enforced—and a recommendation could be, 'This person would be better suited to a different workplace and should move on,' or, 'This person might be best served by doing some remedial action, such as engaging in counselling or more training.'

Mr RAMSEY: Honestly, it is hard to imagine a group ever saying, 'This person should be moved on,' isn't it? They would almost always say, 'No, this person needs more counselling, more education,' or whatever.

Ms Mellington : I take your point, but I would hope we could arrange an independent group that could look at it from both perspectives. I personally would like to say, as for engaging in all of the different sorts of workplace consultancies and activities that I have done over the 15 years, that I have done that for the purpose of seeing it from everybody's different perspective. So I have worked for employers and I have put in place interventions on behalf of employers and I have been a treating psychologist for people who are affected by bullying and I have done medicolegal assessments for people who have been taking their employers to court. So I have tried to take this from all different angles and I would sincerely hope that we could put together an independent group who also could undertake that perspective.

Mr RAMSEY: Have you ever recommended to an employer to get rid of someone?

Ms Mellington : I would never say those words.

Mr RAMSEY: That was the point I was making. When we get to this regulation by committee they will not do it.

Ms Mellington : I have recommended to a person that they move on. I have explained to them what I have learnt through my research and through the findings out of the UK and out of Europe and the findings that have been reported here that clearly say moving on will produce the best outcome for their health. So I would say in response to you that, whilst I would never say to an employer to get rid of that person, I have suggested to individuals that perhaps now is a good time to rethink what it is that they are doing in their career and where they would like to go and how they would like to overcome this issue.

Ms O'NEILL: I was very interested in the comments that you made about the changing nature of the workforce with it being a bit more dog eat dog and 'I've got to protect my back' and with less trust in that sort of climate. We have heard evidence from the unions about the increasing nature of insecure work. If would be very interesting to see if there is any research about the overlap between those two things. My sense, from what we have heard so far, is that, while performance management and grievance procedures can be a very enabling and helpful tool if they are used as enabling and assisting tools, they do have another side to them that seems to be becoming a part of workplace management of people for whom somebody might not be willing to invest the time in helping them make a change of behaviour or where a person might be abusing their power. How are KPI performance issues embedded in here in the bullying culture?

Ms Mellington : That is a very good question. So how are KPIs invested? In the modern workplace I do not believe you can exclude yourself from being required to meet KPIs et cetera. However, what has given me cause for concern is when performance management actions—in looking at KPIs, in looking at performance and in looking at behaviour in the workplace and in looking at code of conduct and in looking at all of the matters that we are all held accountable for—are misreported or misrepresented and are presenting a worker as being somehow not measuring up to that which is required when in fact they are. But it is very difficult to argue when, as it would seem sometimes, the person is being attacked by the use of the performance management strategy and they start to feel that they have no support there and they do need to move on or they do need to 'go legal'. For me that is how it is panning out. Does that answer your question?

Ms O'NEILL: Perhaps, Ms Mellington, you could give us an example. That might fill it out a little bit.

Ms Mellington : I will have to be very careful so as not to be identifiable.

CHAIR: No names.

Ms Mellington : A most recent case has been that of an employee who noticed the behaviour of her manager changing. This is a very amiable employee, and I know about this case specifically because she used to be my colleague years ago. So she contacted me and said: 'I don't understand why this behaviour is occurring. I don't understand what has triggered this change.' Going from that comment to where we are today, she has gone through performance management, through fraud auditing and through all sorts of workplace action, and still to this day she does not understand what it is that she has done. So she feels that these workplace activities, investigations and allegations have been levelled against her without natural justice and without her input at all. Now she is trying to work out: 'Where do I go from here? Do I just pick up and leave? Do I argue? Do I stay?' Sadly, she is not the only contact who has stepped forward and asked me: 'What do I do? Give me some advice. Give me some examples.' I am not sure that this will end in any other way than her leaving.

CHAIR: Unfortunately we have run out of time. Thank you very much for your presentation today and the information. If there is anything further you would like to provide to the committee, please do not hesitate to do so. You can do so through the secretariat. Of course, the earlier we get it the more useful it is so that we are able to consider it. You will also be sent a transcript of your evidence today, and you can make corrections of grammar or fact to it. Thank you very much.

Ms Mellington : Thank you.

CHAIR: We are breaking for lunch. Just a reminder: could anyone that is making a personal impact statement please register with the secretariat so we are able to ensure that you get an opportunity to have your say.

Proceedings suspended from 11:52 to 12:43