Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

A Perfect Storm: The Rise in Claims of Bullying in the Context of Change

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

A Perfect Storm: The Rise in Claims of Bullying in the Context of Change

Article excerpt


Conversations about workplace behaviour and bullying invariably give rise to strong emotions. People often reflect passionately upon a personal experience of being bullied, of witnessing bullying, or on the increasing incidence of claims against managers of workplace bullying. The topic of bullying evokes such great passion because it gets us in touch with a range of primitive experiences about conflict, vulnerability, loss, dependency, and betrayal. The authors have a keen interest in this area, and have consulted to an increasing number of professionals caught up in the "bullying" phenomenon; either through claims being made against them or by those wishing to bring claims. In this paper we explore some of the complexity surrounding this issue by taking a systems psychodynamically informed approach.

In Australia, claims of bullying (and psychological injury) in the workplace appear to be on the rise, with high profile cases being regularly reported in the media and a number of government inquiries looking into this area (Commonwealth Government, Department of Employment, 2013; Commonwealth Government, Productivity Commission, 2010; Commonwealth Government Inquiry, 2012; Hunter, 2011; Kontominas, 2010; Pearce, 2013). Recently, a case involving an allegation of bullying in the workplace came before the Fair Work Commission (FWC), which is Australia's national workplace relations tribunal. New workplace laws have recently been enacted that enable workers who believe that they have been bullied at work to apply to the FWC for an order to stop the bullying (FWC, 2014).

This case was the first contested bullying case determined by the FWC and was unusual in that it involved a manager who claimed that she was bullied both by her subordinates and her superiors in the wake of unsuccessful bullying claims brought against her. Ms SB had recently been appointed as a team leader in an organisation that was undergoing significant organisational change. One of SB's team members initially a made an internal bullying complaint about SB's behaviour, which was subsequently investigated by the employer and dismissed. Shortly thereafter, another of SB's team members also made a complaint about bullying by SB and again this was investigated by the employer, with the result that it was partly upheld and partly dismissed (SB (2014) FWC 2104 (12 May 2014)).

It was following the outcome of the second internal investigation that SB made a bullying complaint to the FWC, alleging bullying by her subordinates, and bullying by management. She claimed that, among a range of behaviours, her subordinates had bullied her by making complaints against her and that her managers had bullied her by failing to adequately support her in the face of these bullying complaints against her.

While the Commission ultimately found that the bullying case was not proven, the circumstances detailed in this case are strikingly similar to a growing number of matters that both authors have consulted to. These included supervisors/managers new to their role and tasked with bringing about significant structural changes within the organisation. The affected staff often felt "bullied" by the new manager, while the manager felt isolated and unsupported by the organisation.

The authors were initially interested in considering the question of what it is about the role of manager in contemporary organisations that sees them taking up their new roles in ways that may leave them vulnerable to allegations of bullying or, which indeed could be construed by their staff as bullying behaviour. We were also interested in the interactions between role, system, and context and how these may be contributing to the dynamics. However, during the course of our exploration, we came to appreciate the significant breadth and complexity surrounding this issue. It seems that multiple factors coincide to create what might be considered "ideal conditions" for incubating the experience of being bullied or harassed, or of acting in a way that could be experienced as being bullied or harassed-in short, a "perfect storm" for promoting the phenomena associated with claims of bullying. …

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