Thinking outside the work conflict box

NZPA | Sat September 1st, 2018

How an organisation responds to allegations of damaging workplace behaviour can be the difference between a satisfactory resolution to conflict or the end of someone’s career.

Leeann Peden

Police Association senior industrial officer Leeann Peden. Photo: ELLEN BROOK

Police Association senior industrial officer Leeann Peden deals almost weekly with inquiries from Police staff who want advice on what to do when they believe they are being subjected to inappropriate and damaging behaviour at work.

“These inquiries often don’t result in active complaints; they just want to know what their options are,” Leeann says.

It’s an important area of employment relations and Police, among other public sector and private organisations, has its fair share of complaints, some of which were highlighted in recent letters to the editor in Police News.

Last month, Leeann was invited to take part in a workshop and panel discussion organised by Victoria University’s Centre for Labour, Employment and Work. The panel included Leeann, employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg, restorative justice practitioner John Everest and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment principal mediator Judy Dell.

About 25 people attended the half-day workshop on the role that mediation and restorative justice can play in responding to and resolving damaging workplace behaviour.

Leeann says that using the term “bullying” creates a barrier to addressing these issues. “It’s a very loaded word, with many workplaces denying that it occurs or even exists.”

When they do deal with complaints, she says, “they usually launch straight away into a formal investigation process that often takes a long time – sometimes a year or more – and often doesn’t achieve anything apart from destroying workgroups and careers. This process is often about blame, retribution and punishment.”

She says that research relating to the public sector shows that 72 per cent of such complaints are not upheld. She thinks the threshold of beyond reasonable doubt is too high, that people are not inclined to speak up and those on the fringes, or who might be able to support a case, often don’t out of fear for their own positions.

In the past couple of years, the Police Association has been encouraging Police to move towards the restorative justice (RJ) model to deal with damaging workplace behaviour and conflict.

Unfortunately, Leeann says, Police has not embraced that approach, with one notable exception.

In that case, the association represented people on both sides of a dispute where bullying-type behaviour was alleged and Police agreed to use the RJ model because the manager was open to trying it out.

An external person, trained in RJ, was brought in by Police. “That person was a facilitator, not an advocate. He met with each person individually to identify the key issues, what people wanted to see happen and then worked with them about what was possible. Everyone then met together, with each person speaking about their point of view, with the aim of understanding differing perspectives.

“The issues, which involved a lot of people, were successfully resolved and the supervisor who was the subject of the complaint has remained managing that workgroup and managing it confidently.”

Leeann says the RJ model is about identifying the harm that has been done, the impact of that harm and what needs to happen to put it right. “It is inclusive and collaborative, as opposed to divisive and adversarial. When employers approach these things, they generally focus only on the two individuals involved, but we sought wider input.”

It turned out that the supervisor had received no training in management and with resolution came changes in behaviour – better communication, better processes and ground rules and Police agreed to the association’s suggestion of an external mentor for the supervisor.

There was also a genuine desire by everyone involved to resolve the issues, Leeann says. “Sometimes, workplace issues are written off as ‘personality clashes’, which minimises management accountability or the problem.”

When poor behaviour does happen, Leeann says, it is often a reflection of the established culture in an organisation, where real bullying is known about and tolerated because it’s ingrained from the top down.

However, that can be changed through education, adjusting levels of tolerance and being vigilant for red flags such as absenteeism, recurring complaints and high turnover of staff.

There is, of course, a difference between genuine workplace bullying and being held accountable and being appropriately managed.

RJ is not appropriate in all cases, Leeann says; for example, when it’s obvious that the behaviour is at the extreme end and a person needs to be removed.

However, she says, she would like to cement in Police the idea that there is a better way of handling workplace behaviour issues than that used by most organisations, including Police.

“Apart from that one notable exception, there has not been one matter I have dealt with that has helped provide good outcomes for any of the participants. The process often makes matters worse, with people being moved out of their workgroups or leaving. Everyone ends up being damaged.” – ELLEN BROOK

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