Workplace bullying – interview with Philip Carroll – part 1

Philip Carroll is the Founder and Principal of Philip Carroll and Associates. He has over 19 years’ senior executive experience in large and complex government businesses. He is also an experienced Non-Executive Director and Chair within international, commercial and not for profit organisations. Philip has extensive experience in People and Culture, Workplace Reform and Industrial Relations. We asked him to talk to us about an important current issue – workplace bullying.

Philip Carroll
Philip Carroll

To begin, we asked Philip to talk to us about what workplace bullying is. He told us that it is repeated, unreasonable and unwanted behaviour and that the concepts of its being both repeated and unreasonable are particularly important to the definition. Philip referred us to Safe Work Australia, which defines bullying in the following way:

“Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety…because it may affect the mental and physical health of workers. … Bullying can take different forms including psychological, physical or even indirect — for example deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities.”

Philip said that while workplace bullying most commonly occurs when a more senior person bullies a less senior one, this is not always the case. Bullying can also occur between peers or when a less senior person bullies a more senior one, although he said the latter is much less common on account of the power imbalance which generally exists in this relationship. In Philip’s experience, freezing people out most commonly occurs between peers, while bullying by subordinates may take the form of vexatious complaints or aggressive attention-seeking behaviours. It’s important to remember these behaviours must be repeated and unreasonable to be bullying.

Philip does not believe that intention is critical to a definition of bullying, because the impact of abusive behaviour is the same, whether it is purposeful or not: “In my opinion, intent is a distraction,” he said.

We then asked him what bullying is not. He gave several examples of interactions between managers and their staff which may involve difficult conversations but which are not bullying. These include:

  • Setting someone’s KPIs and planning their work with them;
  • Discussing someone’s performance based on their established KPIs;
  • Discussing someone’s failure to meet their agreed KPIs or other targets; and
  • Raising an issue with someone.

Philip told us that all these activities are appropriate management activities, as long as they are undertaken in accordance with proper procedures.

He also said that while sexual harassment and discrimination may accompany or form part of bullying behaviours, they are not necessarily bullying. Rather, they are serious issues in their own right and are so serious that, unlike bullying, they do not need to be repeated behaviours. (We have added some links to sites where you can find out more about these important topics.)

We asked Philip to talk about the cost of bullying, from an organisational perspective. He mentioned:

  • Loss of productivity;
  • Loss of workers and the resulting cost of recruitment;
  • Legal costs;
  • Fines and other legal penalties; and
  • Payments to staff whose claims are accepted.

For example, Safe Work Australia reports a “…$22,600 median cost for accepted bullying and/or harassment claims in 2013-14”; while the Australian Human Rights Commission states, “A recent impact and cost assessment calculated that workplace bullying costs Australian employers between $6–$36 billion dollars every year when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered.”

He then spoke about the impact on individuals, linking it back to Safe Work Australia, which says:

“Workplace bullying can seriously harm worker mental health with depression, psychological distress and emotional exhaustion common outcomes for bullied workers.”

Philip believes that workplace bullying can have a significant negative impact on an individual, the people around them and the whole organisation. He has himself been asked to investigate allegations of bullying and has noted the cost on everyone involved. He said, “If you get to the point of a formal investigation, everybody loses. That’s why I believe that prevention really is the key to addressing bullying.”

Philip spoke to Catherine Burrows. Next week, Philip talks to us about preventing bullying and what to do if occurs.

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