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Standing Committee on Education and Employment
11/07/2012
Workplace bullying

CRAIG, Ms Sandra, Manager, National Centre Against Bullying, Alannah and Madeline Foundation

McINTOSH, Dr Fiona, General Manager, Programs, Alannah and Madeline Foundation

[13:28]

CHAIR: Welcome. I had better do the 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. I now invite you to make an opening statement and then we can proceed to questions.

Ms Craig : We welcome the opportunity to respond to the issues and questions raised by the Australian government's inquiry into workplace bullying. While the Alannah and Madeline Foundation is a children's charity, we are concerned that many young people are in workplaces across Australia with little protection from bullying and its effects. Our responses to the government's issues and questions raised in the public discussion paper will therefore focus principally on how they relate to children and young people, particularly as they relate to reducing their online risks. We will include some degree of generalisation as to the broader workforce and we do not distinguish between bullying and cyberbullying as we view both forms as pernicious and responsive to similar sets of solutions. Both are relationship problems needing relationship solutions.

For many years bullying in schools was not addressed or was addressed ineffectively because of the silence that surrounded it. Not until school based bullying was discussed, defined and researched was a range of effective solutions and responses developed. We suggest that the same effect will apply to workplace bullying and applaud the federal government for its decision to institute this inquiry.

The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, in partnership with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, has developed a comprehensive and integrated plan for a national bullying and cyberbullying prevention strategy. While the major focus of this strategy is to reduce bullying amongst children and young people, it is important that bullying be understood and dealt with in a consistent way across the whole Australian community.

The main objectives of our national bullying and cyberbullying prevention strategy are to create a shared vision for reducing bullying, including workplace bullying, and agree a common approach to solving bullying that is understood and accepted across the country. The specific goals of this prevention strategy are to develop a common approach to measuring bullying and cyberbullying and its impact through the establishment of a national bullying and cyberbullying prevention strategy research council.

Part of the work of this council would be to develop a national survey on bullying and cyberbullying. Others would be to agree a common approach to solving bullying and cyberbullying through agreed upon actions developed by the national bullying and cyberbullying prevention strategy implementation advisory group, to coordinate and maintain mutually reinforcing activities amongst stakeholders through consistent and continuous communication managed through the national centre against bullying, to create a cultural change in the workplace and other settings through social and behavioural change campaigns and interventions delivered by Alannah and Madeline's eSmart system and, finally, to develop and adopt a national legislative and policy framework that is age and context specific and which includes workplace bullying.

We recognise that workplace bullying is important because it is a serious OH&S issue in the workplace. Bullying and cyberbullying has a major impact on workplace productivity, and as young people enter the workforce it must be a safe and supportive environment for them. The foundation therefore recommends that the federal government develop a national workplace bullying and cyberbullying prevention strategy, with the goals outlined above as a key component to the overarching national bullying and cyberbullying prevention strategy.

CHAIR: You indicated that you believe a national strategy is the best approach and you mentioned definitions. Do you think that there needs to be one definition across the country of what constitutes workplace bullying and cyberbullying?

Ms Craig : We do. We really think that that is a key foundational issue. It is impossible to discuss an event if you do not have a definition against which to measure it. Consequently, we believe that definitions of school and workplace bullying need to be consistent across the country and need to be applied in all schools and workplaces so that we are not talking about apples and pears when we should be talking about apples and apples.

CHAIR: Some of the evidence we have heard said that if there is workplace bullying in schools then that is not a very good model for the children in the schools. Do you have any comments about that?

Ms Craig : It is much more apt that there is going to be student bullying if there is teacher bullying, but we believe that improving cultures means improving things for all workers in schools. Consequently, we have a range of approaches to improving school cultures and, of course, those same sorts of approaches would be used to improve workplace cultures in the same sorts of ways.

Mr RAMSEY: Sandra, you mentioned school bullying and you said that it was not addressed until we took the issue on fully so we have to get into this space. It begs the question: are we actually making a real impact in schools? I know what it was like when I went there and I know what the culture was like. There was bullying. It seems to me though that, while the tone of the bullying may have changed, you only have to pick up the newspaper and see that we are very worried about cyberbullying. But, in thinking about whether we have actually fixed the problem by addressing it head on, I wonder whether it has just morphed or changed. We were talking this morning about how bullies adapt to whatever environment they are presented with. So where are we with school case bullying?

Ms Craig : There are a number of issues but it is interesting that you should ask that question. Professors Ken Rigby and Peter Smith from Goldsmiths University in the UK have completed a meta-analysis of bullying interventions and they have shown in that piece of work a slight but appreciable decline in face-to-face bullying in school settings. That is across Australian and European settings. However, what they do not have is ongoing studies about cyber bullying. It may be, as you suggest, that cyber bullying is a morphing of face-to-face bullying into online situations, and that is why we need to institute longitudinal studies to investigate these things. Donna Cross in her study that was published in 2009 indicates that something like 27 per cent of young people are bullied face-to-face in school environments as opposed to about 10 in cyber bullying. But there are some indications that those cyber bullying figures are increasing.

Mr RAMSEY: It is quite significant, though, isn't it, that, despite significant resources going into trying to combat bullying in schools, in fact it has not flicked the switch and fixed it up, we have still got a problem.

Ms Craig : We do have a problem. I am not in any way underestimating the fact that there is a problem and that some schools are dealing with that problem better than others. But Rigby himself maintains that bullying occurs in every school—I cannot speak for every workplace but every school—and, as Evelyn was pointing out, there are some really irreducible personalities who just do not respond to interventions of any kind. But generally speaking what we have found is that young people do not like to witness bullying, they do not like to be in their environment. As if it is allowed to continue unaddressed in their environment it will create a toxic environment in which there is a high degree of fear.

Dr McIntosh : I should add that part of the reason we are not seeing a decline is due to the lack of a common definition of bullying in the school place. It is particularly about whether it is an event that needs to be repeated or is a single event. Since there is no common definition, there are lots of studies that are measuring bullying but they are not longitudinal and they are also not able to be compared to other studies of bullying either in Australia or overseas. So in actual fact we do not know because of that definitional problem. That is why we need to come back and say, 'What do we mean by bullying? Let us get a common measure of it and let us measure it in a consistent way, in the right way, over time to get a sense of what the trend really is.'

CHAIR: Following up on Mr Ramsey's question, is there any evidence that with the increased awareness of bullying in schools more people are speaking up, whether they be bystanders or the target? If so, it is hard to know but are children and parents satisfied with the response from the school when they speak up?

Ms Craig : Sadly, they are often not satisfied with the way that their complaint has been addressed. A lot of children do not complain, for a variety of reasons but one of those reasons is that they fear that the bullying will either not be addressed effectively or will get worse.

Dr McIntosh : Parents also do not know beyond their school where to go for help. There are lots of individual small campaigns out there but they do not have a sense of one body they can go to beyond the school, who can they talk to about this, is there a helpline? There is no real integrated set of services that can help parents deal with these issues. There are services like Parents Helpline and things like that but often they want to talk about specific issues around bullying and at this stage there is not that sort of level of service provided.

Mr SYMON: I have certainly heard about some of the great work the Alannah and Madeline Foundation has done at schools. How much of that learning that students pick up at school in relation to bullying, cyberbullying and the other issues that have been described is transferred across to the workplace? Do you think any of that goes with the student when they leave the school and go to a workplace now or a few years down the track? Or is it all reset at that time?

Ms Craig : We do not really know. We can only make assumptions based on what we think and what we know about settings. When you have people in a particular setting where bullying is being addressed in a comprehensive, holistic way, then everybody is apt to behave better. But if those people go to a setting—perhaps a workplace—where bullying flourishes, they may get acculturated in quite a different way. We do not know.

Dr McIntosh : Taking a slightly different slant on your question: when we work with schools to address bullying, we are actually working with the school as the organisation—not the school and the children directly. We take a cultural change approach within schools, so we work with the leadership team within schools, the teachers, to say, 'How do we need to think about bullying and cyberbullying in the school? What cultural change do we need?' We have a framework, which is in the submission, that sets out six dimensions that schools need to think about when they are tackling bullying in school. First of all, what is the role of leadership in terms of walking the talk? How do they promote a safe culture at school? What are the policies and procedures that the school needs? How do they embed into the curriculum principles around treating students and each other well? How do you partner with parents and the community to deal with bullying? If you think about all those dimensions—and I know I have missed one—they are the classic dimensions of culture change within any organisation.

When we talk to schools about bullying and cyberbullying, we are talking about implementing culture change in the workplace to have a holistic approach. Those dimensions broadly would apply to the workplace. My background is organisational change, and you also really need to focus on the role of leadership and performance management. You would build those things into the framework to deal with workplace bullying in the workplace, but a lot of the other principles and components of, for example, the eSmart system that we use in schools are already there. Probably the language would need to change and maybe some understanding of some of the IR issues, potentially, but broadly it could apply.

Mr SYMON: This is a question you may not know the answer to, but I am going to try anyway. Would you see a need for an organisation similar to the Alannah and Madeline Foundation in a workplace space rather than in a school space?

Dr McIntosh : I do not know that you would necessarily need an organisation. We would say that you actually need an integrated strategy, and having a single organisation focus on that is probably not the right way to go. You need to have the right people come together to understand what their role would be to implement interventions, which would need to happen at the policy and legislative level as well as within the workplaces in terms of management style. So you actually need different types of interventions.

You probably do need someone who can help coordinate those different agencies that are involved in delivering some of the interventions, but I do not think a single provider organisation could deliver it. I think they could play a coordination role, definitely, and maybe a monitoring and reporting role back to the appropriate bodies as well.

Mr SYMON: Is that a role that government should occupy? Would that be a good way of describing that—someone has to?

Dr McIntosh : Possibly yes, possibly no—is how I would answer that.

Ms O'NEILL: You just mentioned performance management, and we have had a little bit of evidence about the intersection between bullying report and performance management tools being used to silence bullying and divert is to a disciplinary action. How could the health, safety and wellbeing of people be more incorporated into the workplace? Is there capacity within performance management structures to allow that to be more central? How central or decentralised is it in what you know?

Dr McIntosh : That is a big question and quite a complex one. My approach to performance management—and I should say that I come out of the corporate sector—has always been that performance management is about the conversations that you have on an ongoing basis in addition to the framework you have around performance management. My view is that it is actually more about the relationships in the workplace between the manager of the potential perpetrator and the manager and the victim, and the relationships happening in the team that result in the bullying situations. Addressing those relationship issues is really where the focus needs to be. Partly, that does come through during a performance management cycle, where the manager is having the conversations on a regular basis with their staff about their style, the way they talk to people and how they build relationships, and supporting them to build those kinds of relationships in a positive way.

Most organisations have a performance management where you set objectives and you have some sort of behavioural measure. Ensuring those are aligned with the organisation's culture and focus around positive relationships is desperately important. But any performance management system depends on the capabilities of the managers to have the right conversations with their employees that are candid, honest and also supportive to help that person develop the right sets of skills they need to perform their role. I am not sure if I answered that properly.

Ms O'NEILL: I get the complexity of it. I think the key comment I picked up there is that it depends on the culture and the values of the place. If the values are seeking a safe, healthy and supportive workplace then in the key performance indicators that will be of the things that people strive for. Currently without any regulation and not making it a priority, cultures where a safe workplace is peripheral is also peripheral in performance indicators and the official tools that are used that have currency with a board to set further direction. We almost have a divergence of companies that see that it is worthwhile to invest in safe health.

Dr McIntosh : Yes. I think there could be a slight tweak to what you are saying. Most organisations have a performance management system that relies on people setting objectives for the year and meeting those objectives. Progressive organisations which have cultures that have high morale and people are enjoy working there also tend to have a better set of behavioural measures where individuals either self-assess or are assessed against each year. In terms of performance management, yes, keep the objectives, but you would also develop a set of behaviours that are in line with the culture of the organisation that people are self-assessed against or measured against each year. That generally happens in big corporations, certainly at management levels and above, but that is also cascaded down to lower levels in the organisation and in different types of workplaces where people are actually looking at their behaviours on a regular basis and saying: 'Am I behaving in line with what our company culture is? If not, what do I need to do about it?' Those things become part of your objectives. Do you understand what I am getting at?

Ms O'NEILL: Absolutely. A positive culture drives positive behaviours and a culture that denies it, actually drives it the opposite way.

Dr McIntosh : Yes. If an individual has identified that maybe some of their behaviours are not in line with the company's culture, that will become one of their performance objectives—through coaching or through training or other things to address some of those issues.

Ms Craig : You are talking about really significant investment of time and training to get these processes and structures up. I have seen through many, many years in education performance management being handled quite poorly by people who did not have the personal skills or the background training to handle difficult or underperforming staff. Consequently, again that cascade effect occurred where underperforming staff continued to underperform because they were not being pulled back when they needed to be. It is very complex and expensive.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for attending today. Have you provided a submission?

Dr McIntosh : Yes.

CHAIR: It must have been a recent one.

Dr McIntosh : It came in on Friday.

CHAIR: We do not have it in front of us unfortunately. If there is anything else you would like to provide us, please do not hesitate to forward it. We always say earlier the better so that the committee can consider it. If there is anything that comes to your attention that you feel would be of use to the committee then send it through to the secretariat. You will be sent a transcript of your evidence today and you can make corrections to grammar or fact.

Dr McIntosh : Once you read our submission, if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

CHAIR: Absolutely. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 13:50 to 13:58