Time to try something less formal

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A workplace bullying expert is championing a greater focus on informal workplace procedures to deal with potential instances of bullying. “That’s the area that’s most lacking in organisations, and it’s actually the one that can potentially transform situations,” Hadyn Olsen, founder of Workplaces Against Violence in Employment, said.

But many organisations aren’t even aware of the difference: while a formal process involves a complaint, an informal one is a question of raising a concern. “There’s no such thing as an informal complaint,” Olsen added.

The problem with complaints is that they are adversarial by nature, since the accused party may be disciplined, or even dismissed, and must defend his or herself. “If I have a complaint made about me, then I turn up to for an interview, with my lawyer, and I’m not going to say anything that’s going to incriminate me,” Olsen said.

In an informal process, on the other hand, the focus is on resolution. “I need to be able to go through some kind of dialogue process that’s going to involve understanding how my behaviour has affected someone else and how we can both work together better,” Olsen explained. While the formal process looks back in time, the informal one looks forward – to creating better working relationships.

Examples of informal procedures:


  • First of all, you might try to resolve the issue with the other person alone. Ask yourself: “Am I able to go and have a conversation with the other person and create something better?” If not, don’t press forward or the situation could deteriorate.
  • At the next level, you might want to involve your manager. “So I might approach my manager or I might approach HR, and I might say, ‘Look, I’ve got a problem with my relationship with this person … I would like some help to sort this relationship out’,” Olsen said.
  • At its minimum, this might simply mean having a third party sit down with you while you have a conversation with the other person in order to keep the discussion on track.
  • Otherwise, your manager might engage in shuttle mediation: going between both parties to try to come to a resolution.
  • Or you could request a mediator from your manager.

“This is the area, that I believe, we’re on the cusp of developing in workplaces,” Olsen said. Although it’s now ‘embryonic’, Olsen predicted that in 20 years’ time workplaces will be much better equipped to resolve bullying allegations in an informal way.

  • Yvonne Treen on 26/04/2013 5:09:42 p.m.

    I work with abrasive leaders (and others) in the workplace and define bullying as abrasive behaviour that is causing emotional distress in others sufficient to disrupt organisational functioning. So this is more than a single exchange which an employee finds unpleasant or upsetting or a personality clash between two people.

    In these cases I do not recommend the receiver of this behaviour tries to resolve it with the abrasive person unless they have sufficient conflict competence to have the conversation - even with a third party present. It puts responsiblity for solving the problem with the recipient of the behaviour.

    There is another way - which is coaching the abrasive person to recognise and change the behaviours which cause distress. This means the abrasive person is both responsible for and in control of the process for change.

    HR and managers can both support and monitor progress along with making it clear what the consequences are for not making the needed changes.

    Generally, this type of behaviour is evident before an informal or formal complaint is made. I'd like to see managers and HR take proactive and constructive action early on to allow the abrasive person the opportunity to address their behaviours in a supportive environment.

    The success rate with coaching abrasive leaders using an evidence based cognitive behavioural approach is very high. And the good news is that my experience using targeted coaching processes is that most abrasive leaders are blind to the impact of their behaviours, are open to change and can change.

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