Q: I am worried that I will be accused of bullying when I counsel or discipline a staff member.

Managers are allowed to counsel, critique an employee’s work and performance and discipline an employee if it reasonable to do so, and it is carried out in a respectful manner.  Managers sometimes make unpopular decisions, implement unpopular policies, or say no to requests that staff members make. However, if this behaviour is reasonable, the same standards are applied to all staff, and there are good reasons for the unpopular actions or decisions and their behaviour is respectful and consistent, it is not bullying.

The way you carry out your duties as a manager needs to be respectful. A manager that yells at a staff member in front of everyone each time they make a mistake may be exhibiting bullying behaviour. However, if you counsel an employee in a respectful manner it is not bullying. It is your job.

You need to be fair in your dealings with all staff members, and apply the same standards to all staff. If you need to  discipline a staff member, they need to know why they are being disciplined. They need to be able to tell you their side of the story and have support if required. Also, the ‘consequences’ need to fit their misdemeanour, and take into account all the relevant circumstances.

Research shows that bullying thrives in a work environment where management is inconsistent in their approach, and is slack. If you see inappropriate behaviour then you need to deal with it – before you receive a complaint. Bullying also thrives in environments where the manager is very authoritarian. This means that managers need to talk though issues with their staff, they need to explain changes (sometimes over and over again) and they need to be consistent in their approach to all staff. They need to show some flexibility, but be clear about the behaviours they will and will not tolerate in their team. They need to model respectful behaviour themselves. They are leaders and role models, whether they see themselves that way or not. Staff will follow the behaviour that their manager displays.

Q: A staff member complained to me about bullying and asked me to keep their complaint confidential. What do I do?

Workplace bullying is an occupational health and safety hazard. It cannot remain confidential. You have a duty of care to keep your staff safe, and if you see anything or are told about behaviours that suggests that a staff member may be at risk of psychological or physical harm, and you do nothing, you may be breaching your duty of care.

If someone comes to talk with you about being on the receiving end of potentially bullying behaviours, talk them through the issues and the complaint/intervention options they have. Document that you have talked to them. Follow up to see if the behaviour is still occurring (and keep an extra close eye out yourself). If the behaviour is still occurring or you see the behaviour yourself, then you must act. Documentation and follow up is very important.

You may not need to escalate a complaint into a formal investigation, but might want in the first instance, to have a quiet word to the other party, and keep your eye out for inappropriate behaviours that you witness. You also might like to address team behaviours by distributing your bullying and harassment policy, pamphlets obtained from the Australian Human Rights Commission, or discussing psychological safety and behavioural standards at your next staff meeting or toolbox meeting. The way you act, and what you do will depend on the seriousness of the complaint and the situation.

There have been a number of court cases where managers have not acted on complaints, and the bad behaviour has continued (with the knowledge of the manager), contributing to a psychological injury for the employee. You can’t keep a potential safety hazard confidential.