Saturday, October 26, 2013

NSW Flames and Blame Games

Our thoughts and prayers are still with the families and fire fighters in the New South Wales Blue Mountains and the uncertainty and fear that hovers along with the acrid black smoke. The Australian Army did what I believe it had to do this week and came out and expressed profound regret about the explosives drill that caused one of the fires, destroying houses and property. No one is saying there was any intent to cause harm. Indeed it wasn’t a total fire ban day so nobody can say they were in contravention of those regulations. Yet when terrible things happen, it’s often human nature to point the finger. The Army, of course, is investigating. The fact that someone ‘didn’t mean something to happen’ can be very cold comfort.
Do we feel any differently about those fires that appear to have been deliberately lit? People are debating whether or not youths should have been charged and incarcerated. As a psychologist I want to know if they exhibited other forms of antisocial behaviour. If so, why didn’t others pick up on this earlier? Do we feel comforted in the knowledge some firebugs get caught and punished? Does this provide any succour to those who lose homes, property and even loved ones? For some, this is not just about getting perpetrators off the streets so they don’t reoffend. It is about our fundamental need for justice.

And so we confront some of the same themes in the workplace. Some of us bully, harass, even mismanage and it seems to be of paramount importance to the targets or victims that the behaviour is ‘owned’. Some managers model dastardly behaviour or condone it; turning a blind eye or caught asleep at the wheel.
One of the fatal mistakes I see in managers wanting the easy life is to refuse to make the perpetrator accountable. Inevitably the target of the unwelcome attention says to me in those situations: “Why didn’t someone admit it was wrong?” Why wasn’t someone prepared to take me seriously until I submitted a formal complaint or threatened legal action?” Indeed the refusal to acknowledge and validate feelings is often the catalyst for grievance behaviour and stress claims as people seek to test their perception of wrongdoing against a definition at law, a company policy or a WorkCover guideline. Another tricky and increasingly common occurrence is the request by a manager for the two parties to mediate as an alternative to an adversarial and often expensive solution; namely a formal investigation. Aggrieved parties have persistently argued to me that being asked, no, coerced into mediation is tantamount to the manager saying that “what happened between us was no more than a misunderstanding or even more insultingly, a personality clash”.

For people to heal, it often seems to be important for some acknowledgment of wrongdoing to occur. This is highlighted when we experience the reactions of those where investigations return an inconclusive finding. I agree that employment and anti-discrimination law must judge our behaviour by its impact and not its intent. Can we reliably assess intent? I’ll leave that to criminal lawyers and judges. We can try to measure impact. In employee relations, it is called “the reasonable person test.”
The Lithgow bushfire was an unfortunate side effect of a routine yet important activity. Bullying, unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment cannot be seen in the same light nor should we explain away the inaction of those managers who allow such damaging conduct to occur on their watch. Putting aside the issue of intent and any human natural impulse to blame, what other choice do we have but to pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild?