2 min read

History repeating: Have the systemic failures that once led to bullying struck again?

A report published 6 years ago regarding bullying in the nation’s hospitals is eerily prescient of the cultural failings that led to recent allegations of sexual assault in the Federal Parliament.

A report prepared for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (College) in 2015, in relation to bullying among senior surgeons and others, found that:

  • there was a lack of support for victims and responsible action – responses to complaints were generally ineffectual;
  • the complaints processes lacked effective application of procedural fairness and principles of natural justice, and management was afraid to upset senior individuals;
  • people in positions of power and influence dominated the workplace culture and drive fear, and most perpetrators of unreasonable behaviours were in positions of power and influence;
  • there was a power imbalance between senior individuals and trainees, and between males and females – a lack of independent reporting mechanisms and complaints processes supported this power imbalance;
  • powerful networks of senior individuals could control career destiny in a competitive environment; and
  • fear was common – the greatest fears being loss of career and reputation.

It is not difficult to see how the same failings could be said to exist in the parliamentary environment, a fact that is bound to be made more plain as a result of the AFP investigation that has been commenced.

Of course, the police investigation will likely focus on the guilt or otherwise of a particular individual, but what about the overall cultural problems that created an environment in which the alleged assault could take place?

How to reduce the risks of a cultural problem in the workplace

The College report sheds light on some practical steps that could be implemented to reduce the risks of a poor culture. They included:

  1. Developing an independent complaints process.
  2. Providing appropriate and widely recognised avenues of support, including mentoring trainees, graduates and females, and appointing appropriate contact officers.
  3. Providing for greater measures of accountability, including implementing training programs, reviewing performance management systems to ensure personnel’s performance is assessed by taking into account the capacity to work with others in a respectful and professional manner.
  4. Developing ways to lead and influence by developing and training awareness programs to promote workplaces free from discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.

Lessons for all employers

Importantly, the lesson for all organisations is to ensure that robust and proactive programs are in place to build a healthy, tolerant and bully-free work environment. All individuals must be trained in these programs so that they lead to the creation of a culture that is supportive rather than destructive. And if a complaint is raised, to ensure that it is promptly and comprehensively investigated.

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