Does ethical infrastructure help prevent workplace bullying?

Ethical infrastructure defines or guides our workplace behaviours. Often, we hear the message that bullying related ethical infrastructure is important in preventing workplace bullying, but do we actually believe it?

According to a study of Human Resource (HR) employees and Health and Safety Representatives (HSR) across 429 municipal organisations, it appears that we do believe ethical infrastructure is important in preventing workplace bullying.

However, it also found that the way in which different components of ethical infrastructure interact with each other is key to contribute to our belief in building a bullying free work environment. Understanding this provides a vital key to workplace bullying management and prevention.

What is ethical infrastructure?

Ethical infrastructure exists to guide and set standards for the behaviour of our employees and to help us handle ethical problems in the workplace. It is a framework through which all employees can be held accountable.

In this study, two categories of ethical infrastructure were identified, these being formal and informal.

Formal ethical infrastructure can be seen both from within and without an organisation. This includes:

  • policies and procedures (eg. codes of conduct, bullying and harassment or grievance procedures)
  • training programs
  • sanctions against unethical behaviour
  • recurrent communication (eg. well-being and attitude campaigns, anti-bullying culture building)
  • the monitoring and surveillance of the work social environment.

Informal ethical infrastructure is the culture and behavioural expectations that develop within an organisation that are gained from simply being part of an organisation. This includes:

  • implicit messages and directions about how to behave in situations in which unethical behaviour could occur
  • informal signposts about the organisations values, beliefs and traditions that are transferred through conversation, observation, socialisation and other forms of social learning.

The interplay between formal and informal ethical infrastructure

This research found that where a range of formal ethical infrastructure had been developed, a strong positive culture (or informal ethical infrastructure) was perceived to exist.

Of the five formal elements mentioned above, sanctions and training was perceived to have the greatest influence on the development of the informal ethical infrastructure. Sanctions may have a particular impact because they make employees more sensitive and alert to ethical situations. This, in turn, becomes a motivating factor for employees in a workplace.

Recurrent communication and monitoring and surveillance of the work environment were perceived to be equally likely to have an impact. However, policies were less likely to influence the development of the informal ethical infrastructure, which is perhaps a reflection of how often we use our policies and procedures.

The influence of ethical infrastructure on workplace bullying

The results of the study indicated that all the elements of the ethical infrastructure, both formal and informal, are related to the perception of successful management of workplace bullying. HR and HSRs responded where they believed a strong and varied ethical infrastructure existed, it was perceived that there was a more satisfactory handling of, and outcomes, related to workplace bullying.

What are the implications for our workplaces?

This study is about perceptions, which often become our reality.

The interrelationship between informal and informal ethical structures and workplace bullying provides us with some guidance around our approach to workplace bullying prevention and management.  This includes:

  • Our approach to workplace bullying prevention and management needs to incorporate more than one element of ethical infrastructure. In our judgement, we can perceive that multiple elements will have better outcomes. This is likely to contribute to a more positive and safer culture perception.
  • Consequences are an important part of creating the culture. They need to be included in the ethical infrastructure.
  • While policies were identified as a lower influence on informal ethical infrastructure, they do form part of the overall picture and have a level of impact. In Australia, our legislative compliance expectations mean that we must have them; and they are important tool as they guide how we deal with workplace bullying if, or when, it occurs.

Source: Einarsen, K et al, Ethical Infrastructure and Successful Handling of Workplace Bullying, Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, 2017

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