No deep sighing allowed here: council bans bad body language

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Having a bad day or maybe feeling a bit stressed? Well, if you work at the Perth council of the City of Melville you would be best not to express it with eye rolls, a deep sigh or a shrug of the shoulders – these behaviours are to be banned.

Under the council’s draft new code of conduct, negative body language such as the above are prohibited. Local media reported that, along with raising one's voice, taunting or trying to undermine others' arguments, negative body language "which may include but is not limited to shrugging of shoulders, rolling of eyes . . . throwing documents, slamming of fists or slamming of the door" is also in breach of the code.

Melville mayor Russell Aubrey told The West Australian that under current State and Federal law, no regulations existed that protected people in local government from bullying and therefore the council had to step up.

"Our draft policy doesn't differ greatly to what is currently in place, but we've gone the extra yard to make certain elected members act in a responsible and reasonable manner," he told the paper.

Will it work?
Could outlawing bad body language truly have an impact on employees conduct? Elizabeth Howells, Director of PeopleCentric and Organisational Psychology specialist, told HRM Online that while the ban may build clarity around the expectations the organisation would like to see around behaviour and employee interaction, it is “unlikely to filter down to have meaningful change in behaviours or the culture of the organisation”.

Passive aggressive responses, or the negativity expressed through body language is more likely to be symptomatic of a deeper underlying cause she added.

“Banning body language is like putting a band aid over a boil which continues to fester beneath the skin,” Howells said. “Measuring and identifying the underlying cause however is not enough. If the organisation does not act on the information, it may actually exacerbate the problem.”

“Rather than focus on banning and policing, it may be beneficial to start introducing opportunities for positivity, role modelling appropriate behaviours, how about a few minutes of laughing yoga in the mornings? Take a look at the ever-expanding literature surrounding positive psychology to help people flourish.”

Is it legal?
As for whether an organisation can legally introduce a similar policy in New Zealand, employment law specialist, Jennifer Mills, MinterEllisonRuddWatts partner, there is nothing preventing them from doing so. The issues would, however, arise when it came to taking action for any breach of the policy.

“An employer would need to be careful in how it classifies the conduct. Body language such as shrugging, eye rolling and deep sighing is often inadvertent, and people do not realise that they are doing it. In some cases, a shrug or sigh may also be an appropriate reaction to a particular set of circumstances. If an employer were to treat such conduct as being misconduct or even serious misconduct, that classification would be unlikely to be justified, unless the conduct were accompanied by other circumstances, which gave rise to a real bullying or harassment concern,” Mills said. 

 A better way of dealing with negative body language which is causing a workplace problem would be to treat it as a performance issue according to Mills. A first step, according to Mills, would be to make it clear to employees inappropriate use of body language is unacceptable in the workplace and if employees continued to consistently display such body language the employer could begin an informal performance management process around the staff member’s attitude and communication style.

 “The initial process may involve providing the employee with training regarding appropriate body language within the workplace and setting objectives for them moving forward,” Mills said. “If such conduct persists and continues to cause performance problems, then employer may then commence a formal performance management process, potentially leading to dismissal if there is a continued failure to improve. Prior to making any decision to dismiss (and in respect of any warnings issued), the employer would need to consider the severity and frequency of the conduct and the impact that it is having on other employees.”   

Employers also need to keep in mind how the implementation of such policies would be received by employees, Mills added. Employees could regard the imposition of controls on body language as being dictatorial and harsh and have a negative effect on workplace culture. 

“The same message could be imparted by means of positive reinforcement as opposed to a ban.  For example, an employer could conduct workshops on body language, to increase employees’ awareness of how their body language is perceived and then offer incentives to ’good workplace communicators‘.”  

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