A clear staff behavioural policy is essential for creating a happy practice team and positive workplace. By John Burfitt
Ineffective management of abrasive or difficult personalities as well as bullying among the team—not to mention when patients are on the receiving end of such behaviour—is when a range of serious problems in a practice can occur. “We do sometimes hear of bullying within the practice from some of our clients,” Bethan Flood, general manager of human resources at dental consultancy Prime Practice, says.
“Some dentists seem to struggle with it as they are so focused on dealing with patients and the technical aspect of the job. When it comes to issues among the team, they either struggle to find time to deal with it or are not sure how to approach it.”
It’s a point echoed by career development consultant Greg Smith, author of the new book Career Conversations. “Often I’ve seen people in medical fields dealing with complex technical matters with ease, but it’s problems with staff members’ behaviour that will keep them awake at night. That’s understandable as it can be tricky, but it’s crucial it’s dealt with head on.”
According to Safe Work Australia, examples of workplace bullying include abusive or offensive language, aggressive and intimidating behaviour, humiliating comments and unjustified criticism. In a Safe Work study, 37 per cent of Australian workers reported being sworn or yelled at in their workplace.
The Head’s Up mental health advocacy group claim a toxic workplace and bullying can result in lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale and a high turnover of staff. Estimates claim it costs Australian organisations as much as $36 billion a year.
Define your terms
Which is why adopting and promoting a clear staff behavioural policy is essential, Bethan Flood says. “In your policy, make sure you have a definition of bullying, which you can easily get from the Fair Work Commission website, so that everyone is clear on what standard is expected within your practice,” she says. Fair Work also offers the Workplace Advice Service, offering free legal assistance on the best ways to address such issues.
“I hear people say, ‘We are a small practice and we all get along’, but without a clear policy, you are not setting expectations and you are also not protecting yourself in case something happens.”
A policy on staff behaviour should also offer a comprehensive definition of what bullying actually is. “Some people confuse being managed with being bullied,” Flood adds. “A manager correcting someone about their role is not bullying. The staff member may assume they are being picked on as they might struggle with being corrected, but that is not bullying. Clear definitions and procedures makes it far clearer for everyone to understand.”
Likewise, Greg Smith says there must be a distinction between someone who’s occasionally rude or offhand and doesn’t realise their impact on others, and those who actively bully.
“It can be a fine line, but there is a big difference,” Smith says. “For the former, sometimes a simple chat making them aware of how the way they occasionally speak to others can impact, or some basic behavioural training in customer service might be all that’s needed to correct it. It’s when it is more complicated that a stronger approach must be taken.”
Lead by example
As with all aspects of creating a workplace culture, the way senior management behave sets a standard of what is acceptable among all levels of the team. “Before looking at others, the boss might first need to consider how they are leading by example in the way they speak to the team and conduct themselves,” psychologist Sharon Draper says. Draper runs Return to Wellness workshops that teach resilience to overcome workplace bullying.
“If the boss or senior managers yell, swear and are abusive, it should be no great surprise if that behaviour is repeated among the team. Management need to understand if they see something they don’t like, it could be a trickle-down effect from the standard they’ve set.”
Don’t bury your head
When it comes to following procedures to address the issue, this is when time is of the essence, Draper adds. “It’s not helpful to see someone yelling at another staff member or even a patient, and for the boss to only bring that up in their performance review six months down the track,” she says.
“When poor behaviour is witnessed or you receive a complaint, then act on it as soon as possible, and in a private space where an open conversation can be had. It should never be about blaming or accusations, but rather find out what is going on for that person. It might be something in their personal life or possibly a bigger situation within the team you have no idea about.
This is why communication and addressing it thoroughly is vital. If you ignore it in the hope it will go away, it most probably won’t.”
Many reports also claim that when it comes to workplace issues, many bullies adopt a practice of ‘managing up’, so senior management has little idea of problems within the ranks.
“I hear this often, when a bully manages to make themselves a good friend of the boss, and then the boss dismisses any complaints as they insist their friend would never behave like that,” Draper says.
Greg Smith adds this is when management might need to shift their focus from what’s going on inside patients’ mouths to the reality of the dynamics happening around them.
“Pay attention to inconsistences in what you are being told, as bullies can be experts at masking what’s really going on,” he says. “And keep lots of notes, of what you’ve been told and what you’ve seen. If things escalate later on, those notes can make the world of difference to how you sort it all out.”