A high profile employee of Channel Seven published an article in 2014 stating that she had “never been discriminated against”.
Not surprisingly, a lot of web space and air time was devoted to discussing over the following days. Natalie Barr further proclaimed that she was “not angry at men” followed by the statement: “there, I’ve said it”; possibly implying that most of us know this to be true, but are too afraid to speak up.
Is the article attempting to say that the real victims are not the women who may have made claims of discrimination, but all the men who may have felt insulted by the claims – and the women who are too afraid to speak out in defence of those men?
Many years ago, I had an employee lodge a complaint against another employee for Bullying. The substance of her complaint was that every time she approached him for sexual favours he told her that her attention was unwelcome and he was going to report her, he was actually Bullying her – by threatening to lodge a complaint against her.
Our Prime Minister recently told a group of people with vested interest in logging forests that they were the “ultimate conservationists”.
These examples could lead us to conclude that all you have to do to refute an accusation of inappropriate, unpopular or illegal behaviour, is to change the definition of who is being victimised.
Could the end of these conflicts really be so simple? Was the employee who lodged her Bullying complaint against the person she was harassing just way ahead of the trend?
To be blunt, based on matters that have previously come to the attention of Fair Work, the Anti Discrimination Board and other bodies, the answer is “No”. Experience in these matters would indicate that, changing the definition of who the victim is, will not actually stack up as a defence (unless that is actually true).
There are some cases where the complaints have no merit, are misguided, or have been lodged with the specific intention of causing harm to the Accused. Then the complaint itself can actually be a form of Bullying – and this will be uncovered in any competent investigation. And this is why the person doing the Investigation has to really know what they are doing.
A rogue manager who imagines they can get rid of their least favoured employee by claiming they are a Bully – will definitely come undone when the complaint ends up in the Commission.
This part of the process is not something that most people understand. People do not win claims of Discrimination, or Bullying, or Harassment if there is no evidence; no merit. This does not mean that the person(s) accused intended the victim to feel discriminated, bullied or harassed.
In my many years of dealing with complaints of Bullying and Harassment, I have found that the majority of claims turn out to have merit. I have also found, that the majority of people accused of Bullying, Harassment or Discrimination, had no (or very little) understanding, that their behaviour could be experienced as Bullying, Harassment or Discrimination.
Analysing what is actually happening, understanding how serious or frivolous or even vexatious the claim is, requires a depth of knowledge, skill and experience, that the average manager or executive just does not possess.
Writing a new Policy and trotting out someone to “recite” it in training sessions, will not prevent or resolve these problems. Often these sessions actually cause a surge in complaints, as different people individually interpret what Discrimination, Bullying or Harassment actually means. Most people still think that whoever has the most power, or whoever lodges the complaint, wins the argument. That, quite simply, is what good policies and regulations are designed to uncover and stop.
Fair Work Australia created an avenue for employees to directly lodge Bullying Claims against their employers, from 1st January this year. Earlier this month, they ruled that an employee could be heard on a Bullying claim that pre-dated the change in legislation.
For any employer who thought they had time to relax, this decision is a warning bell that past behaviour is also on the table. It is tremendously important that every employee and employer becomes more educated on what Bullying is, and what it is Not. Taking your lead from the popular media, and our politicians will not assist you at all.
The example I gave above of the employee lodging the Bullying claim against the person she was in fact Sexually Harassing, is a startling example of how people, without good training and coaching, can interpret these issues. Her assumption was that because she was a woman, she could not possibly be accused of Harassment.
I have also seen very senior people “dismiss” claims of Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying, by simply standing up publicly and ridiculing the very thought that such behaviours could occur in their organisation. I am not implying that is what has happened at Channel Seven; just that I have seen such things happen.
This type of response from senior people may actually “bury” the problem for a while, but could ultimately give rise to a claim of further damaging behaviour. If public and/or senior figures start dismissing what are genuine complaints, the impact on the victim can be seen as even greater.
We are all flawed human beings; we all make mistakes. I think most of us have experienced at least one moment where we wish we could take our words, or our actions, back. It is what we do next, that determines whether we dig a much bigger hole, or we genuinely build a bridge.
At the heart of these complaints is unresolved conflict. Some people were lucky enough to grow up in households with care givers who demonstrated perfect conflict resolution skills; most of us did not.
Some people grew up in households led by caregivers who demonstrated no bias in any of their words or actions; most of us did not.
Add to that the myths that the media does seem to spin around this topic, coupled with the general lack of knowledge in this area, you can see how any individual, or any organisation could find themselves at the end of a Bullying, Harassment or Discrimination claim.
Most of us can benefit from gaining new skills to resolve conflict; and understand bias – and potentially how that may lead to claims of Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination.
Just this week an on line publication for Human Resources (HR) Professionals published an article which rallied managers to “man up” in response to difficult actions. The article itself, and the responses from a variety of HR professionals in the forum demonstrated that HR professionals themselves can also have limited skills and understanding in this area.
This is not something that is covered in Business School; this is a very specialised area, and employers – need to provide the training, coaching and resources to ensure the HR team can really help you when the inevitable occurs. And every employee, every manager, executive and director, needs to better understand behaviours that will reduce conflict, and behaviours that cause conflict in the workplace.
Be careful not to fall into the Natalie Barr Defence – that because you have not personally experienced or witnessed it, it cannot possibly exist. Every complaint must be properly investigated. Any lessons learned must also be put into action. There is also a time imperative now.
So, you may say “tomayto” and I may say “tomarto” – and whether or not that may cause conflict, is something it would be wise to understand before a complaint is made.
Catherine Cahill from Worksense can provide expert coaching, training and advice which will minimize opportunities for conflict in your workplace. We also provide professional training and coaching to HR Specialists.