AOC accusation shows workplaces must catch up to evolving expectations

Media release
05 May 2017

A Deakin organisational psychologist has warned the recent bullying complaint levelled against the Australian Olympic Commission (AOC) shows the evolving expectations of acceptable treatment in a modern workplace.

Professor Michael Leiter, from Deakin University's School of Psychology, said changes in expectations over recent decades meant employers were increasingly responsible for assuring a "psychologically healthy workplace" for their employees.

"Negative social encounters are one of the more distressing events in a workday, so maintaining a positive workplace social culture has become a central task for organisational leadership," he said.

"During the 20th century there was a move towards workplaces having responsibility for employees' physical safety, a lot of government regulation was introduced to prevent injury at work.

"But moving into the 21st century that responsibility has expanded into protecting an employee’s psychological and mental wellbeing as well.

"So workers' rights have expanded, and people are becoming more expectant in receiving the respect they deserve, but often this isn't matched with an increased willingness to give it to others."

Professor Leiter said this mismatch of expectation and behaviour could then be exacerbated if the workplace culture meant issues were not dealt with quickly.

"The accusation of the AOC case seems to be that the leadership is either being neglectful of its responsibilities for responding to complaints or is deliberately encouraging intimidation as a compliance strategy," Professor Leiter said.

But he said designing and implementing procedures to deal with complaints was very difficult.

"Those charged with running the procedures are still employees of the organisation with some challenges in bringing top management to account. And even when procedures are in place, employees may not trust that they can use them with impunity," he said.

"It's interesting that in the recent Fox News harassment cases in the US that Fox HR claimed no one used their formal procedures and those who claimed harassment said they did not know the procedures existed."

Professor Leiter said the larger issue was that with the shift in values, organisations could not simply take it for granted that things would seamlessly move towards a more respectful workplace.

"It takes active, positive efforts, and that means focussing on a number of small actions, not simply a grand ideal," he said.

Professor Leiter said in most workplaces issues came down to one thing – a lack of basic civility.

"The most distressing thing most people have to deal with at work is being treated unpleasantly. This can have a huge impact on people's mental health, and my research has found that absences go down when civility improves," he said.

Professor Leiter has developed the SCORE - Strengthening a Culture Of Respect and Engagement - process to help workgroups integrate respect into their day-to-day encounters.

"We can always get better at showing respect in our everyday interactions, and this also comes down to the fact that we don't express enough appreciation to each other.

"But how do we actually do that? It's clearly an awkward thing to do because we aren't doing it enough.

"I usually get team members to start by making a deliberate effort to compliment three of their colleagues per week and then reflect on how that positive behaviour made them feel.

"The right organisational process begins with a shared commitment to having a respectful workplace and then moves to translating that lofty intention into specific actions that make that value an actual part of employees' workday."

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