Workplace bullying: a first-hand account

Uncompromising attitudes in the workplace can be distressing. Credit: 123rf
Industry Database

Port Strategy follows up on the issue of bullying in ports with a first hand account of a former employee of an Australian port that claims to have suffered in its hands. Iain MacIntyre reports.

Bullying in global ports may not be widespread (Port Strategy, June 2018, Pages 25-26), but when it is uncovered, the ramifications can be far-reaching.

A former employee of Australia’s Southern Ports Authority (SPA) has provided a personal account of the workplace harassment and bullying described in last month’s Port Strategy feature. Alleging a “toxic” culture within the organisation, the former employee — who Port Strategy has agreed not to identify — ultimately chose to resign from a job he described as previously being “among the best I’ve ever had”.

The resignation had been partially pre-empted by personally experiencing a bullying attitude from senior SPA management in a dispute over his own employment conditions. Then, becoming aware of being “bad-mouthed” by the organisation’s senior management, the former employee felt obliged to threaten legal action to protect his own reputation.

However, the former employee saw far worse treatment of other staff. “I am aware of a female member of staff made to cry and then forced to come back into the room and made to witness the sh*t being ripped out of someone else,” says the former employee. “It was unbelievable. When staff complained about bullying, the board just appeared to take no notice. The whole SPA executive team are either in the process of leaving or have left.”

SPA response

SPA acting chief executive Alan Byers takes exception to any suggestion his organisation has not taken such allegations seriously nor appropriately responded to them.

“Since the formation of Southern Ports in 2014, there have been 13 allegations of bullying and all have been subject to investigation,” he told Port Strategy.

“All investigations were undertaken in accordance with Southern Ports’ investigation procedure which was developed in consultation with the Western Australian Public Sector Commission.

“The procedure requires that everyone respects the privacy of both complainants and respondents to allow for a fair process.”

Of those 13 claims, Mr Byers says over half were conducted by an independent investigator, with the outcomes entailing:

· seven were unsubstantiated

· two resulted in appropriate training and coaching

· three were substantiated and dealt with

· one remains under investigation.

However, the former employee remains steadfast in his views. He describes a situation of senior SPA management taking a dislike to an incumbent senior manager at Bunbury. “So they ignored him for a whole year – they just circumvented him. I said: ‘Mate, you’ve got the best case I’ve ever seen for constructive dismissal’.”

In another alleged situation, the former employee believes junior staff were encouraged to lay allegations against one of their managers who senior SPA management apparently wanted to have removed. “In my opinion they concocted a story that he had done illegal things. An investigation found that the things he was accused of had never happened, but by that time, the damage had been done.”

At the core of the issue, from the former employee’s perspective, is a sub-standard recruitment process, that has, in his view, seen inexperienced senior management appointed.

As an example, the former employee was instructed – but refused – to implement recommendations his own lengthy experience confirmed were unsound. A request to review the report driving those particular recommendations was refused.

Staff expertise

However, Mr Byers counters that the Western Australian Government’s Post-Amalgamation Review into SPA determined the organisation had “been able to attract staff with expertise and of a calibre each individual port had been unable to achieve prior to amalgamation”.

“[The review] into Southern Ports found the organisation was 18 months into a five-year cultural change programme. The review found each port had benefited from the amalgamation with better practices, decision-making and governance, and it identified isolated – rather than systemic – cultural issues existed.

“In line with recommendations from the review, Southern Ports continues to implement its cultural change action plan to address those issues.”

Nonetheless, the former employee believes questions can be asked of the board. “Some members of the board were told of the problems – I sat down with them and said ‘you have got this wrong’. I gave them examples whereby, in my opinion, senior management had lied to them, to staff and to customers. I said 'this is not going to end well’.”

Mr Byers reiterates: “All bullying allegations raised with Southern Ports by staff, whether at board level or otherwise, have been investigated and dealt with. One matter remains under investigation.”

However, as interviewees alluded to in the previous Port Strategy feature on this issue, the former employee does not believe the culture personally witnessed within senior SPA management is endemic of attitudes in the wider port sector.

Australia’s WorkSafe is currently investigating if there have been any breaches of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at SPA.

“Southern Ports will continue to work with the regulator which has been tasked with looking at overall procedures at Southern Ports,” continues Mr Byers. “Southern Ports procedures, including investigation and grievance procedures, were included within the terms of reference of the Southern Ports Post-Amalgamation Review.”

The review found the amalgamation had resulted in improved practices, decision-making and governance. “Southern Ports continues to roll out its cultural change action plan.”

Inaugural SPA chief executive Nicolas Fertin announced his resignation on June 12 to “further his career and pursue new opportunities”.

Mr Fertin had previously stated that he was focused on building a culture for the about 200-person organisation based on accountability, integrity and teamwork, and that any reports of bullying were internally investigated.

“It has been a privilege to serve as CEO of Southern Ports and I am proud of the transformational changes that were achieved by all employees working together with the support of stakeholders, three communities and our port users,” he stated when announcing his resignation.

Within that same media release, SPA chairperson Robert Cole expressed appreciation for Mr Fertin’s service and noted he had “led the complex task of transforming Albany, Bunbury and Esperance ports into a single, amalgamated business”.

“It has been a complex and demanding task and his dedicated efforts resulted in Southern Ports achieving record results in FY17 in each of the three ports, as well as the business as a whole,” stated Mr Cole.

“All bullying allegations raised with Southern Ports by staff, whether at board level or otherwise, have been investigated and dealt with. One matter remains under investigation.”

Following the interview with the former employee of SPA quoted in this article, Port Strategy was approached by two additional former employees who relayed similar experiences and offered further sources for potential follow up. In the sense of fair reportage, we have opted to focus this article on the experiences of the first source alone, to which SPA has been afforded a direct right of response.

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