The nasty business of workplace bullying should end

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Advance Reading: From our Leader of August 1, 2022, Digital Edition

More than two years ago, top Employment Lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk called for the creation of a new government agency solely to deal with bullying and harassment at work.

In an Opinion piece that she wrote for Stuff, she said that workplace bullying is endemic in New Zealand, with as many as one in five workers affected every year.

“New Zealand has the highest rates of bullying and harassment than other comparative countries,” she said.

There could be several reasons for this phenomenon. As Ms Hornsby-Geluk, who is Managing Partner at Dundas Street Employment Lawyers, pointed out, New Zealanders are generally practical and honest people, we do not have an overt class system, and we have a Prime Minister leading from the front with a culture of kindness.

“What we do know is that despite the significant amount of information and education that has been provided over the past five years by organisations such as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), workplace bullying and harassment continue to be a serious problem,” she said.

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can cause physical or mental harm. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social. This may include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person. A single or occasional incident of insensitive or rude behaviour towards another person isn’t considered workplace bullying, but it could become more serious and shouldn’t be ignored.

Bullying can happen not just between managers and staff, but also among co-workers, contractors, customers, clients or visitors.

Employers have legal obligations to make sure that their workers are healthy and safe at work. This includes managing the risks of bullying at work.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is undertaking a review as to the nature and extent of bullying and harassment at work. Public consultation closed on March 31 and its pending report will consider what, if any, changes are required to existing employment institutions, such as the mediation service and the way the Employment Relations Authority and WorkSafe operate.

“It is clear that culture change should continue to occur to reduce the prevalence of workplace bullying and increase the likelihood that it will be “called out.” What is needed is a new government agency solely to deal with bullying and harassment at work,” Hornsby-Geluk said.

FrankAdvice Survey

A Survey undertaken by FrankAdvice last year has shown that the problem growing. There were 1314 responses to the Survey, of which more than 80% were workers while 8% responded on behalf of a business or organisation (employers), and 11% were classed as “Other” (e.g., unemployed, or self-employed people).

The most well-represented industries in the survey were education and training, health care and social assistance, public administration and safety, and professional services. A majority of the respondents (75%, n=837) identified as female. 87% of workers (or 1031 persons) were involved (as a victim or support persons) in bullying or harassment. Of these, 87% experienced ongoing or repeated bullying or harassment and 10% experienced racial harassment. Respondents who did not identify as New Zealand Europeans were more likely to experience racial harassment. About 9% of the respondents said that they had experienced sexual harassment.

Defining moments

The Economist said in an editorial that for most people, the workplace is not a stage for high drama. “Careers are punctuated by only a few defining moments, from the interview for the top job to the mergers and acquisition deal that upends an industry. Although some companies and departments are marked by bullying and burnout, more fortunate employees experience suspense through a series of micro-dramas. Some small moments of great tension happen often enough that they are almost tropes.”

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