17 October 2011

Leading organisational behavior experts at The University of Queensland Business School have joined forces with law societies across Australia to confront unacceptable workplace behaviour and toxic organisational cultures.

Thousands of legal practitioners working in Australia and New Zealand are invited to have their say about working conditions via a confidential online survey.

The data will be used to assess common issues experienced by employees in the legal industry and to identify practical solutions to help overcome toxic workplace cultures.

Low employee retention and potential exposure to legal action arising from workplace mistreatment, such as harassment and bullying, are just some of the signs of a toxic working environment - estimated to cost the Australian industry billions of dollars every year.

UQ Business School PhD candidate Rebecca Michalak leads the project, having previously held a director level position in human resources at one of Queensland’s largest law firms.

Ms Michalak said that the time critical and fast pace nature of the legal profession can open the door for bad interpersonal behaviour to occur.

“Cut-throat cultures such as those common to the legal profession can either encourage or simply allow employees to overwork, exposing them to well above average stress levels and a critically poor work-life balance.”

“In these sorts of cultures, employees can often be exposed to bullying, sexual harassment, the abuse of managerial power, and the like.”

Ms Michalak said it is surprising that lawyers and law firms which play such an essential role in maintaining the law, have been somewhat nonchalant about their legislated requirement to ensure their workplace is psychologically safe.

“With a number of workplace mistreatment, intimidation, harassment and bullying cases recently coming to light in the media and elsewhere, the legal industry, and employers in general, can consider themselves on notice.”

UQ Associate Professor Graeme Orr, a labour law expert at the TC Beirne School of Law agrees that the legal industry needs to take stock and reform work practices.

“As recent high profile bullying, victimisation and psychological distress cases demonstrate, the personal and financial costs can be high,” Dr Orr said.

Dr Orr said High Court judges and some firms are openly questioning the long-hours and time-sheet culture contributing to high burn-out and depression rates in the profession.

“Common law judges have developed duties of reasonable care and an obligation to maintain trust and confidence.”

“Law firms most of all should be aware of their responsibilities under health and safety and discrimination law.”

Dr Orr said that although professional associations have responded, it is much harder to change the market dynamic and culture in such a high pressure industry.

“This research will help, but it needs lawyers to give their input and take heed of its ultimate findings,” Dr Orr said.

Members of the law societies in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and New Zealand can find out more and participate in the survey.

Media: Rebecca Michalak (0400 720 752 or r.michalak@business.uq.edu.au)