Bullying at work

10 December 2018

4. Kirk HopeWe’re seeing media reports and allegations about bullying in a number of workplaces - a matter of some concern.

Bullying in any workplace is hurtful and harmful.  It causes stress, anger, anxiety and depression, and it takes away confidence.

Bullying behaviour raises the need for workplaces to take action, and I’m pleased to report that many New Zealand businesses are taking it seriously.

Sometimes it’s hard to say what is and isn’t bullying.

Strong leadership or clear statements of expectation in the workplace could be experienced by some as bullying.

Younger employees or those from different cultures might find some workplace interactions personally threatening, and our rather direct Kiwi style of ‘robust conversations’ could seem intimidating.

But bullying is something else.

Experts say bullying is intimidating or persecuting someone weaker, deliberately and repeatedly.  There must be a power imbalance, intention to cause harm, and it must be a repeated behaviour.

Confirming whether there is an intention to cause harm may not be obvious, but if bullying has occurred or been alleged, then there’s a responsibility to investigate and deal with it.

The Health and Safety at Work Act says workplaces must act to prevent and deal with any hazard that can cause harm (bullying would certainly qualify as a hazard that can cause harm).

Business is taking heed.

The BusinessNZ and Southern Cross Health Society survey Wellness in the Workplace shows New Zealand companies increasingly focused on preventing and dealing with harm.

The latest survey in 2017 showed more businesses reporting that they have stress identification systems and assistance programmes for employees who need them.

Large companies (more than 50 staff) that have systems in place to identify and manage stress have increased from about a third of those surveyed to more than half of those surveyed since the 2015 survey.

Smaller companies are now also more likely to have systems in place, rising from about 15 per cent to 32 percent of those surveyed.

Such systems are designed with the intention of helping employees affected by actions such as bullying, and making bullying less likely to occur.

Workplaces must also take action regarding any perpetrator.

If an allegation of bullying is made, a good process is required so that no-one involved is subject to unfairness - both parties must be heard, evidence must be gathered, and the use of a mediator or independent reviewer can be helpful.

For employers, allegations of workplace bullying can be fraught.  An allegation will often be made by a staff member about another staff member, and if the allegation isn’t true or doesn’t meet the threshold for bullying, it’s likely that a personal grievance will follow from either party.

So, bullying allegations need to be treated correctly.

Another reason for active bullying policies is to ensure the integrity of performance management. Performance goals are important for workplace success but can be undermined if performance discussions are viewed as ‘bullying’.  A workplace where bullying is clearly not tolerated is much less likely to have performance discussions misinterpreted as bullying.

Among all the actions that can be taken to prevent bullying, it is probably most important to ensure a positive culture at work.

Culture is set at the top, and leaders and managers should do their best to model the kind of behaviour they would like to see practised by everyone in the workplace.

Respectful communication and clear messages about performance expectations help to build the kind of workplace culture where bullying is much less likely to happen.


Kirk Hope | Chief Executive | BusinessNZ | www.businessnz.org.nz

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