The best and worst of workplaces

I have a question that I keep asking myself: Why are some workplaces committed to being great, while others are just plain awful – is it just a question of leadership?

Last week, BRW published its list of Best Places to Work. RedBalloon is very proud to have made it for the fourth time – one of only 13 companies to achieve this.

In my quest to find out why some are great and some are not – in fact, some are plain toxic – I travelled to the other side of the planet (Copenhagen, Denmark) to attend the 8th International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment and heard academics and practitioners speak about this important topic.

I find it fascinating that RedBalloon, through programs and services, builds great cultures in workplaces and yet bullying behaviour continues to occur. And it can occur anywhere, anytime.

Among the 200 people attending the conference were quite a few Australians, including the managing director of Risk to Business, Stuart King. He told me his career in policing demonstrated that some members of our community do not always conform nor support community values. He went on to say that, as organisations recruit from the community, we should not be surprised that some employees may not always conform nor support organisational values.

Professor Emeritus Tores Theorell of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute detailed research he had been involved with in Sweden since 1995. He and his colleagues have been researching the incidence of workplace bullying every two years. They observed no reduction in experiences of bullying by employees, and a baseline figure of people experiencing bullying at least once a year continues to be observed of between 7.9% and 9.3% for men and between 7.7% and 9.3% for women. Professor Theorell pointed to the importance of leadership in workplaces and observed that, in his view, autocratic and dictatorial leadership styles were reflected through the research.

Professor Theorell studied medicine and in 1995 was appointed Professor of Psychosocial Medicine at Karolinska. Interestingly, his studies have observed that employees who rate their leaders poorly have a higher incidence of myocardial infarction – heart attack! Men who report ‘covert coping’ mechanisms at work also experience a higher incidence of myocardial infarction.

In response to these findings, an alternative leadership development program was devised to test the impact of a broad “art” based leadership program where leaders are exposed to literature, poetry, and creative opportunities for expression along with other programs aimed at increasing the “empathy” of managers.

The study found that 18 months after managers had attended the leadership program, the health of employees and managers improved. As a painter and lover of art, I thought this was an interesting and positive development.

During the conference many thoughts and ideas, such as those of Professor Theorell, resonated with me, though none more than the brief but powerful commentary from John Collins of the University of South Australia.

Mr Collins posed the question: Do we treat bullying and harassment behaviour of children at school differently than we do adults in workplaces? At schools, for example, we encourage our children to speak loudly and openly about bullying or harassment and it is usual that a swift and effective response from our educators results from disclosure by targets of bullying.

Unfortunately, in many workplaces it appears that we actually discourage adults to speak openly about bullying or harassment at work. If this is true and it seems to be for some workplaces, what can we do to support our people in workplaces? Increased resilience and social skill development would assist at the personal level. Improved policy application and interventions would help, but at the systems level what needs to be done in workplaces?

Many large organisations have established Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that provide support for the emotional well-being of employees. Research conducted by Zapf & Gross in 2001 first raised concerns about the effectiveness of EAPs as an intervention and a recent study by Mawdsley, Lewis and Jarvis from the University of Glamorgan found support for that concern. They found that accessing EAPs failed to significantly improve outcomes for the targets of bullying and harassing behaviour. Though they do provide other perceived benefits to employees.

Professor Suzy Fox of Loyola University, Chicago, posed the question: “Does human resources have a unique mandate to create a bully-free culture?” Professor Fox said, among other things, that HR needs to get a seat at the management table where the issue of behavioural risk may be addressed. Stuart King from Risk to Business commented that if HR is not at the table, then they are likely to be on the menu.

At RedBalloon, we are tireless in our commitment to people, and we are authentic about the engagement of our team. I can confirm that in our world of 60 employees there is a correlation between high levels of employee engagement and no evidence of inappropriate workplace behaviour. (I believe this is a deep connection to a shared sense of values and community.)

What I learned in Copenhagen reaffirmed my view that leadership at organisation, management and employee levels is fundamental to ensuring a safe, productive and engaged place for people at work.

Naomi Simson is considered to be one of Australia’s Best Bosses. An employee engagement advocate, she practises what she preaches in her own business. RedBalloon was named as one of only six Hewitt Best Employers in Australia and New Zealand for 2009 and awarded an engagement scorecard of over 90% two years in a row – the average in Australian businesses is 55%. BRW also nominated RedBalloon in its list of top 10 Best Places to Work in Australia, behind the likes of Google.

One of Australia’s outstanding female entrepreneurs, Naomi regularly entertains as a passionate speaker inspiring people on employer branding, engagement and reward and recognition. A blogger and a published author, she has received many accolades and awards for the business she founded,


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