Responding to bullying in Arc UNSW sports

Australia has the unfortunate distinction, that the rate of bullying is one of the highest in the developed world. It’s a recognised problem, in 2013 the federal government introduced a number of reforms to try and address the ongoing problems with bullying in the workplace. Bullying is destructive, injuring a person’s health, well-being, ability to work, and life outside of the environment where it is taking place. It is universally recognised as unnecessary and wasteful, as echoed by the federal government study “workplace bullying, we just want it to stop”. Although this sentiment is reflected in codes of practise and HR documents, in workplaces and other organisations, in practise bullying continues widely and is very often poorly addressed, and it is very common for targets of bullying to be made worse off after seeking assistance from a body that is supposed to handle it (link). Addressing bullying is entirely feasible, and can be as simple as recognising effectively that it is taking place, and creating a safe environment so that it does not continue in future.

In my own experience, I had ended up as a target, which had made a toxic and stressful environment in a sports club. When it had continued for some time and wasn’t able to be resolved, I brought the matter up with the parent body to address it. Unfortunately this was counter-productive and made the situation worse, and the way it was handled was concerning.

The situation I was involved in was with a sports club at UNSW, and when it had escalated to a point where it seemed very clearly out of line I brought it up with Arc as a grievance, in order to address it and create a more appropriate environment. The sorts of things going on were related to what is known as “covert bullying”, including social isolation, degrading behaviour and intentionally undermining relations with others. Many of these things can be difficult to recognise and address, however in a club situation there was a much more direct element where structures of the club were being misused, such as a chair of a meeting preventing a person speaking, someone using a position to ridicule someone without a practical purpose, and restricting contact in the club, which involved removing someone in a defined role and including others in an arbitrary way.

The way the review was handled did not seem appropriate, it dragged on for many months with very little contact, the questions that were raised about bullying behaviour were not answered, and instead it seemed to end up on unrelated tangents. After some time there was only an unclear response with no intention to do anything, and this was taken up by the other people involved as carte-blanche support by an authority for everything they were doing. This was concerning as there was no attempt by Arc to respond to the situations that were raised or show engagement with the topics, and whatever was said by the other parties was never made known or open to any kind of response. There were situations raised that have very clear connections with bullying, such as a club president using a situation he has no business in to degrade someone without any practical purpose, and an ongoing situation where private and arbitrary contact lists were created, which was used as a way of restricting involvement, marginalising and targeting people. On its own this is clearly connected with bullying, and there was also a written paper-trail indicating that it was improper. There was no attempt of an explanation of any kind about why these were disregarded, even when asked.

There were indications that the people involved were making inaccurate claims, for example some time after the review was ended one person publicly claimed about the matter that “..he was NOT a member of the executive, as he self appointed to a role and was not elected to it”, trying to ridicule the matter, and making a claim that is simply false. I had taken on the role in a fairly uncommon way, filling a casual vacancy, however this was done according to the rules of the club and was documented in club records.  I was also conducting the role for quite some time. This is trying to gloss over a very serious matter, of removing a member by creating a separate contact list for conducting club business (when one already existed), which removed some members and added others in an entirely arbitrary way.  Intentionally isolating a person from contact is strongly connected with bullying.  Regardless of any claims of technicalities about whether a position was official or not, when a person is doing a job in an organisation, and there is a contact list for organising and it is relevant for the person to be in contact, they are removed without any explanation, it is a matter that should be taken seriously.  If the same claim to trivialise the matter was brought up during the review into bullying, there was no way to respond and clarify it.

As the response from Arc did not seem appropriate, I brought the matter up with an expert in the area. Evelyn Field was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2014 for contributions to the community on addressing bullying, and was involved with the federal government reforms to address workplace bullying. In brief, she indicated concerns about the way it had been handled, and responded that bullying was happening to an extent that she recommended leaving the sport.  I was also encouraged to track down and contact former players that had left the sport, to check if they were doing ok.

She described the behaviour taking place in substantial terms. In her own words she described the behaviour using a term that is one of the dark triad traits (although i’ve chosen not to repeat it here).  This is a term with strong connotations, but it is an important term in organisational psychology referring to a pattern of behaviour that has received a lot of study, and is known to be harmful. My understanding of aspects that appeared to be relevant in this situation are as follows.

– a tendency to act with little regard for standards and norms

– a very high sensitivity to feedback or criticism, and very high resistance to accept any kind of responsibility or change, to the extent of using half-truths, misrepresenting situations or outright lying to avoid responsibility, even about very minor matters

– a tendency to divide people into those to be favoured, who they can be very friendly with, supportive and flattering, and people to be criticised and attacked, who can be treated callously and targeted. This is relentless and ongoing, is uncompromising, and involves intentionally undermining relations with others.

– isolating people and preventing contact or involvement

– when being asked to stop doing something, avoiding any responsibility or change, and responding instead by trivialising it and ridiculing or degrading the person raising it

These characteristic patterns are important to understand in order to properly interpret a situation and respond accordingly. As an example, when this kind of behaviour is taking place it is important for a reviewer to be alert to steps to discredit or dehumanise the person raising the issue, and to be cautious of misinformation and sentiment that was created by this behaviour.  The unexplained outcomes and lack of substance in responding are cause for concern about how the review was handled. The description of the situation by an expert indicated significant patterns of behaviour that can be very harmful, and should have been handled accordingly. (At the same time, I discourage it being seen as a personal criticism of character, but rather that people have control of their actions, and acting in such a way is known to be harmful)

The targeted behaviour started after I had asked some questions from people in the club, which was intended to support good practises, and from raising some difficult matters. These involved some fairly minor matters such as handling of club funds and how activities are organised. Other matters concerned some more sensitive topics. I had heard from three different people, who independently described behaviour from someone in the club, which they described in a concerned way. One player described being grabbed on the ass, while being propositioned to sleep with the person that evening, during a sports (not social) event in an Arc sports club. After hearing a different situation from another person, I mentioned concerns about it in an informal channel, and had a one to one chat about it over a coffee with the person. In another minor matter a (different) person had made some off-hand gay comments in a forum, I asked them not to, as it had seemed out of place in the same place where a player had given a very personal and open description about the topic with the club some time before. These matters involved a few different people, and had caused discomfort or offense from raising them, and gone against the grain with the group. These sorts of things happen in sports clubs, is it up to the people who are offended to respond themselves? In the vast majority of cases, people who are made uncomfortable will just try and put up with it, or will leave. One of the most constructive ways to reduce anti-social behaviour, is for people to recognise when it is happening, and speak up or try and encourage standards, as turning a blind eye encourages it to continue. In this case, targeted behaviour followed soon after, and the cause and justifications given for continuing it, were from being labelled as a trouble-maker and wasting people’s time or things along those lines. It was driven by two people, but similar behaviours were picked up by others as well, known as mobbing.

After the process with Arc had gone nowhere, and rather made the situation worse, a person from the club proactively organised a meeting to try and cover some of the issues. I asked a question about one of the situations that had happened- “After a training session, I left my bag on a table in front of the gym, to get some food from a shop nearby before it closed. I had left it on purpose so a person I was meeting, who hadn’t come out yet, would see that I hadn’t left. I saw some chatter about it as I was leaving, and a person had been instructed to collect the bag for me. As I was walking back and walked past a group of people, the president of the club yelled ‘you need to stop doing that’. There hadn’t been any previous attempt to indicate that something was believed to be being done wrong. This is just one example of a number of instances of being made an example of. My question is this, does the president believe it is his responsibility to intervene with other people’s personal belongings, and do you have any intention to change?” The response was: “I’ve got to go.” This was a situation of someone using a position of responsibility, to target and degrade, without any practical purpose, without any context or provocation, and encouraging others to take part.

The response from Arc was taken as support by the people involved, one person publicly claiming that “Arc found that we had acted in good faith at all times”, and to “grow up” for raising it. Raising it with a parent body could have been a way of quietly recognising something was out of place and making it stop, but instead was used as justification for continuing. The response from Arc was starkly different from that of an expert, who described it as bullying in substantial terms. How could this be the case?

It was not clear what the process that was followed for reviewing the matter was, and when I asked for information or insight into the response, none was given. The person who conducted the review was uncomfortable to refer to topics about behaviour, and had to be asked several times before answering questions on the topic. The reviewer was a fairly junior staff member with no indication of any relevant training.  I asked Arc CEO Brad Hannagan about any relevant training or qualifications the person had, but on this point he chose not to respond. It was also concerning that the person doing the review was also involved with conducting other club business with the people being reviewed.

In workplace environments, handling bullying is taken very seriously, partly as a result of the 2013 federal government reforms, and there are pathways to address it such as through Safe Work Australia (SWA) or the Human Rights Commission. There are clear guidelines about the processes for addressing bullying, which emphasise points such as: “If being led internally, it is important to ensure all parties have confidence in the neutrality of the investigator and they are suitably qualified to lead the investigation”. These standards are just as important when a review of bullying is being done in volunteer settings.

As no information had been given about the review, I asked Arc for some very basic details about their response, whether there was doubt about whether the events took place, or if there was doubt about the severity of the events. Their response did not answer even such basic questions. I asked Arc CEO Brad Hannagan about if some more information about their response could be given, he did not give any information, but rather responded that “no new information has been presented to warrant a change in that opinion”.  This situation would not be out of place in a Franz Kafka novel- they have not given any information at all, so it is impossible to provide a response to it, and without responding with new information nothing can be done.  Brad Hannagan responded that “there was no evidence of bullying or targeted behaviour”.  The facts of the matter that I had raised have been detailed and have not been disputed in any way.  A highly experienced and qualified professional has covered the matter in detail, and described it as bullying in substantial terms, and recommended leaving the sport.  Brad Hannagan and a junior staff member have instead stated that bullying and targeted behaviour were not happening, without any further explanation, and have not provided any clarification, reasoning or substance of any kind, even when asked.

This response was used to silence the matter in the sport and any means to address it, and facilitated it continuing.  Brad Hannagan and other staff have acted as authority figures to state that bullying and targeted behaviour was not taking place.  This statement does not change the events that occurred.  Instead it has the effect of legitimising the behaviour going on.  And it is a statement that the person asking for the targeting to stop, was misguided to ask.  When I indicated to Brad Hannagan the response that an expert had given on the topic, and asked about whether they would change how these matters are handled in future, he did not respond.

I indicated concerns with Arc that the way it was handled was not following proper standards, out of concern that the practises needed to be changed when handling future matters. The response from the chair of the Arc board, Tom Morrison, was that “due process has been followed”. I asked what the process is, or why it was different from the SWA standards, but he did not respond.

It is unfortunately common pattern, that raising a matter of bullying led to a drawn out and unconstructive response, that ultimately made the situation much worse. Constructive responses are fairly simple and achievable, a detailed and insightful description of the topic, and how it can be addressed, was given in this response to the parliamentary enquiry into workplace bullying. Recognising when events that occurred were inappropriate is constructive, but the most important response is to support a safe environment so that it doesn’t continue in future, and that if such actions were continued something would be done about it. There are often reprisals from raising matters such as bullying, so it is important that if someone becomes involved in addressing it, that it is handled in an appropriate way.

Anti-social behaviour, that interferes with involvement in sports, volunteer settings and other walks of life, is unfortunately common. One of the best ways to address it is from recognising it and responding when it happens, although this can lead to being targeted in return. External bodies play an important role in handling more serious cases where things get out of hand, and have the capacity to stop harmful situations early, reinforce better standards, and support a safe working or volunteering environment. Bullying is a substantial problem, it may seem out of reach to address such a wide-ranging social problem, however addressing it on a local level when it occurs is important. Handling cases improperly has the effect of encouraging the people involved to repeat such behaviour, to respond by targeting people if questioned about improper behaviour.  The response from the expert I raised the matter with indicated that the behaviour was highly likely to be repeated, either within the sport, or in other situations like the workplace. This is also shared with others in the community, that others learn they can get ahead by acting this way, that challenging the behaviour of others comes with substantial risks, and that support structures for addressing bullying are not just non-existent, they make the situation worse.  This is the wrong message. Handling cases of bullying is manageable, but it is important to make use of the knowledge of people who have the appropriate skills and understanding to address it, either by training, consultation, or following recommendations or best practises they have found.


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