Following numerous complaints of workplace bullying, the CSIRO commissioned an independent investigation to examine the claims. Following a comprehensive investigation, a report into Phase 1 of this process was recently released. Reports such as these are rarely made public in their entirety, and the recommendations included provide valuable lessons for employers with respect to the prevention of workplace bullying and other unreasonable behaviour.
Such insights are particularly useful and timely given the preparations that employers should be currently undertaking in order to ensure compliance with new bullying laws commencing at the start of 2014.
The investigation was originally instigated by numerous allegations by former CSIRO employees that they had been subject to bullying and other misconduct during their prior employment. In addition, the organisation had been issued with an Improvement Notice by Comcare, the body that administers workplace health and safety obligations for Australian government entities.
The scope of the investigation was unusually wide, in that both current and future staff members were invited to make submissions about any workplace bullying or unreasonable behaviour which they had experienced or witnessed at CSIRO at any time. Whilst the investigator was not able to accept submissions made on an anonymous basis, submissions could be accepted confidentially, meaning that the complainant’s details would not be passed on to the CSIRO.
The investigation took place over nearly 7 months, and involved 100 submissions which collectively related to 130 discrete allegations of bullying. The submissions were evenly split between current and former CSIRO employees and affiliates.
The report details the findings of the first phase of the investigation process which, importantly, did not entail any testing of the evidence by putting the allegations to the alleged perpetrators. Whilst Phase 2 will involve further investigation into some of the allegations, the investigator has not at this stage been able to make conclusive findings as to whether or not the alleged bullying occurred. For now, the most that can be commented on is whether the conduct, if it in fact occurred, would constitute workplace bullying or unreasonable behaviour.
Summary of outcomes
The outcome of this phase of the investigation can be summarised as follows:
- There is no major problem of workplace bullying or other unreasonable behaviour at the CSIRO. Whilst there are ‘pockets of concern’ which need to be dealt with, the work culture cannot be described as ‘toxic’.
- A number of aspects of the workplace involve ‘stressors’ which lead to poor behaviour, including funding pressures, performance management and redundancy processes.
- There are shortcomings in CSIRO’s policies and procedures for responding to complaints about bullying and other unreasonable behaviour.
- The application of the procedures for dealing with workplace bullying and other unreasonable behaviour has not been satisfactory and requires prompt attention by CSIRO.
The report also set out a total of 34 recommendations as a consequence of the submissions received. Whilst this article does not contain a full summary of all recommendations, certain highlights are set out below.
The importance of policies and procedures
A number of the submissions concerned complaints of inadequate administration of policy and procedure by CSIRO management and HR in responding to complaints of bullying. On this the Report states:
Workplace bullying is substantially affected by processes for handling and addressing complaints. The victim often speaks out as a last resort. Early intervention when poor behaviour is observed and a timely, serious response by those to whom the report of inappropriate behaviour is conveyed, principally human resource personnel, is critical to the effective resolution of workplace bullying. When the organisation does not have sound processes in place for the effective management and resolution of workplace bullying grievances, or when those processes are not appropriate for the circumstances presented (for example where the victim is experiencing a mental health crisis) the victim can experience profound feelings of isolation and the workplace response can exacerbate the harm. It is not uncommon for victims to consider the organisational response to allegations of bullying, as part of the bullying behaviours directed at them.
In many respects, the investigator found that CSIRO’s policies were overly complex and difficult to navigate, with certain gaps and inconsistencies.
The investigator also found that CSIRO tends to deal with complaints of bullying as ‘the victim’s problem’ rather than that of the organisation and recommended that various amendments to policies be made in order to address this. However, it was also stated that it is not sufficient to have good policies in place, and that the organisation needs to make a genuine commitment to take responsibility for bullying.
Utilisation of external investigators
The investigator was also critical of the CSIRO’s use of internal investigators in respect of formal grievances. The report states:
This is an issue that requires immediate attention and elimination. Internal investigations, which are not independent and are more informal than an external investigation, are not suitable for the resolution of formal (or informal) grievance complaints.
The investigator ultimately recommended that a clear directive be given to managers and HR that external investigations of formal grievances must be used instead of internal ones.
The investigator also recommended that managers and staff undergo various forms of training to ensure that policies and procedures are adhered to, and that complaints are treated appropriately. Specifically, it was recommended that training occur in relation to misconduct and grievance procedures, dealing with staff who are suffering from a psychological illness and record keeping obligations.
Various recommendations were also made in relation to CSIRO’s practices with respect to record keeping. In particular, it was recommended that CSIRO establish a centralised database for recording both informal and formal complaints of bullying and other unreasonable workplace behaviour.
Whilst the outcomes of this investigation are clearly specific to CSIRO, employers can take general guidance from the recommendations that have been made. In particular, this type of commentary and critique is likely to be comparable to that which will be provided by the Fair Work Commission once the new bullying law take effect as of 1 January 2014.
In order to avoid the reputational issues that are associated with publicity of this kind, employers would be prudent to take stock of their policies, training modules and record keeping procedures insofar as they relate to bullying, misconduct and grievance handling. Employees should also ensure that all complaints of bullying are taken seriously and dealt with appropriately, including, where necessary, engaging external investigators to examine and test the allegations.
Workdynamic Australia offers a range of packages to help businesses prepare in advance for the new bullying jurisdiction.
This article was written by Lauren Barel, Director and Principal of Workdynamic Australia. The information in this article is for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. You should obtain specific advice relevant to your circumstances.