COVID and bullying: is it a thing in today’s workplace?

There’s been a lot of commentary of late regarding the COVID vaccine and the implications on the workplace and its culture. It’s fair to say that issues related to the jab – whether forcing employees to have it or not is legal or “reasonable management action” – are largely unresolved and certainly a new and emerging challenge is ahead for organisations.

So called “anti-vaxxers” and “pro-vaxxers” may have strong opinions that they wish to push onto others.

But is the work environment the place to push your own agenda?

The simple answer, is no. Much like political opinion, sexual preference, cultural views or whether the best boy band was N-Sync or Backstreet Boys, personal preferences, opinions, views and values should remain outside the work environment. And it’s now commonplace to have these issues absent from the workplace, although they still regularly occur and need to be investigated and dealt with.

But the pandemic has raised a new (and apparent health) concern. Will we see bullying and harassment against those who choose not to vaccinate against the disease?

Most likely.

Does discriminating against someone who hasn’t had “the jab” constitute a breach against code of conduct, or bullying definitions? Another consideration is the impact non-vaccination has on occupational health and safety. It could be argued that not being vaccinated puts others at risk (or even the community as a whole). A lot of employers support sick leave for those with the flu – better not to spread it to everyone else – but don’t act adversely because they don’t have the flu vaccine annually.

That’s not to say that in some circumstances reasonable management action may involving directing employees to be vaccinated. A nurse or career in an aged care facility may be a good example.

As an organisational leader, there are a few things you can do now in preparation for the vaccine rollout and the impact it may have on your workplace:

  • Create a culture of open communication about issues in a controlled environment, like a toolbox talk or weekly team meeting
  • Reinforce what bullying is and the impact it has on both individuals and the culture of the workplace
  • Consider reasonable adjustments, ergonomic changes, operational changes (like shift times, working days, etc)
  • Skill staff on empathy, appreciative enquiry and workplace civility
  • Encourage communication around issues that don’t impact on a someone’s personal choices, values or beliefs

The modern workplace should not be a platform where individual beliefs are shared, discussed and debated. Like a continuum along a straight line, all workplaces have people at either end of the spectrum. The goal of any good work environment is to have personnel bunched in the middle and working toward organisational goals and values, not individual one’s. Like any allegation of bullying, objectively examine the facts and deal with matters quickly, sensitively and procedurally fair, while also considering that the “new” type of bullying will require some level of discretion and patience moving forward.

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