Workplace Bullying

It is estimated that workplace bullying affects one in four people at work. This may be a conservative figure. In some industries such as the health sector, education and other areas of the public service, workplace bullying appears to be quite prevalent. The most common forms of workplace bullying are verbal abuse and intimidation, however there are many other subtle ways that people bully others at work. The definition we use is;

“Workplace bullying is unwanted and unwarranted behaviour, that a person finds offensive, intimidating or humiliating and is repeated so as to have a detrimental effect upon a person’s dignity, safety and well-being”

Overt Behaviours can include

  • Open hostility and threatening behaviour
  • Demeaning language, gestures, belittling, ridicule, teasing
  • Constant criticism or unfair monitoring
  • Public humiliation
  • Yelling, invading space
  • Unwanted touching, pushing, throwing things at someone

Covert Behaviours

  • Undermining a person’s work or reputation
  • Setting impossible deadlines – over pressuringInflicting menial tasks, under-work, unwarranted removal of responsibility
  • Constantly changing targets and expectations
  • Spreading malicious gossip and rumours
  • Ignoring and isolating a person from needed support, communication or resourcesUnreasonable administrative sanctions, interference, setting people up to fail.
  • Taking credit for others ideas, refusing to give credit where due

For a more comprehensive description of bullying behaviours click here (17KB pdf).

In Australia workplace bullying has been estimated to cost the economy $12 - 36 billion a year including the costs of high staff turnover, absenteeism, performance decline, poor morale etc.

Sexual and Racial Harassment

Both sexual and racial harassment are unlawful under the Employment Relations Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1993. In NZ one in three women, and one in six men experience sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment includes;

  • Language either written or spoken (includes making a direct or implied request for sexual activity which contains a promise of preferential treatment or detrimental treatment)
  • Visual material (written, posters, screen savers, emails, VDU’s)
  • Physical behaviour (touching, leering, gestures)
It is behaviour of a sexual nature that is unwelcome or offensive to a person and is repeated or of such a significant nature to be detrimental.

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful when sexual harassment occurs in employment, education, access to public places, provision of goods and services, provision of land, housing and accommodation, qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies.

Sexual harassment does not need to take place in the workplace itself. It may happen outside of the workplace such as training functions, Christmas parties, or any other situation that would not have occurred but for the complainant’s employment with the employer.

Sexual harassment may occur from employers, managers, supervisors, co-workers or by a client or customer of the employer.

Racial Harassment

Section 63(1) of the Human Rights Act states:

It shall be unlawful for any person to use language (whether written or spoken), or visual material, or physical behaviour that –

(a) Expresses hostility against, or brings into contempt or ridicule, any other person on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that person; and

(b) Is hurtful or offensive to that other person (whether or not that is conveyed to the first-mentioned person); and

(c) Is either repeated, or of such a significant nature, that it has a detrimental effect on that other person in respect of any of the areas to which this subsection is applied by subsection (2) of this section.

Unlawful Discrimination

It is unlawful to discriminate and treat someone either favourably or unfavourably in the workplace, on the following grounds;

  • Sex
  • Marital status
  • Religious belief
  • Ethical belief
  • Colour
  • Race
  • Ethnic or national origins
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Political opinion
  • Employment status
  • Family status
  • Sexual orientation

See the Human Rights Commission website for further information from the Human Rights Commission regarding unlawful discrimination.

Physical Violence

15% of all violent crimes in the US are committed in the workplace.

Physical violence (assault) is unlawful under the Crimes Act 1961 and the Summary Offences Act 1981 and define assault as actions of intentionally applying or attempting to apply force to the person of another, directly or indirectly, or threatening by any act or gesture to apply such force to the person of another. It also includes threats of violence by any act or gesture where the other person believes reasonably that the person is capable of carrying out the threat.

While most workplaces may have a policy outlining physical assault as an act of serious misconduct, they often do not include threats of physical violence as serious misconduct. We have experienced cases where workplaces have not responded to threats sufficiently and consider this to be unwise. Acts of threatening workplace sabotage, serious physical violence and/or murder may become more prevalent in the future and workplaces need to have policies and procedures in place to deal with these types of situations.

Domestic Violence Spill Over

It is estimated that one in three families in New Zealand experience domestic violence. Women are the most common victims – although more men are talking about being victims of domestic violence as well. Most battered women are also working women and there is a flow on effect into the workplace we call ‘spill-over’.

Spill-over includes performance decline, absenteeism, staff turnover and health costs. Victims of domestic violence are more often late to work, leave work early and have more absences. 74% of victims of domestic violence are also harassed at work by the perpetrator by telephone or in person.

In Australia this spill-over effect is said to costs the Australian businesses $1.5 billion a year. It is likely that these figures are a low estimate.

In the US, 75% of human resource professionals and 66% of executives believe domestic violence is a workplace issue and that their company’s performance would benefit from addressing it.

Victims of domestic violence go largely unnoticed in the workplace because workplaces generally are not aware of the problem and do not have information or supportive systems in place. This often leaves the victim in a vulnerable position.

We advise employers to have a domestic violence policy that will provide safety for victims and also provide avenues for support.

Legal Issues

Sexual/racial harassment and discrimination are unlawful under both the Employment Relations Act and the Human Rights Act. Currently there is no legislation outlawing workplace bullying although it constitutes a hazard under the Health and Safety in Employment Act because it is behaviour that has the potential to cause stress and mental harm.

People who are mistreated at work may seek redress by taking a personal grievance, by making a complaint to the Human Rights Commission or raising a hazard notice under Department of Labour. However these avenues may not be the most useful from of addressing bullying behaviour. They are difficult for complainants, costly and time consuming. Most complainants would sooner leave and try to get on with their lives.

We believe it is more appropriate for employers to address these issues internally and to have a strong prevention programme in place. This may serve to protect employers from litigation but also reduces the likelihood of these behaviours in the first place through a positive and constructive workplace culture that makes it difficult for bullying or harassment to be tolerated.

Handling a Complaint

The main problems employers have when handling complaints are;

1. Minimising or ignoring complaints

Many employers minimise complaints, treating them as a personality clash or a communication problem. Unfortunately this response does not resolve a complaint but often compounds it. If you ignore bullying it will go underground and you will have little chance to address it effectively.

2. Making false assumptions about complaints

Employers often judge situations without sufficiently investigating them. This leads to faulty conclusions and unsafe measures being taken to resolve situations. Bullying complaints are usually complex. Sometimes it may be the bully making the complaint. Often the person making the complaint is fearful and insecure. Remain impartial and empathetic (not sympathetic).

3. Taking inappropriate steps to deal with complaints

Employers sometimes take a ‘gung ho’ response to a complaint. This may include telling a complainant to deal with the problem themselves (which they may have already unsuccessfully tried to do), or calling a meeting between the parties to 'have a chat' or sort things out. Without the skills or understanding of the issues involved this kind of meeting may end up exacerbating the situation and creating a greater problem for the employer.

4. Blaming the complainant

It is easy to take the perpetrators side and see the complainant as the problem (especially when the perpetrator seems so reasonable, or gets results). This may happen especially when the perpetrator is a manager or supervisor. It is important to recognise that bullying and harassment often happens behind closed doors and you may not have a clear view of the situation. Tread carefully and focus on behaviours rather than trying to understand people's internal motivations or issues. It is too easy to become focused on justifications for inappropriate behaviour so don't be cajoled into justifying bullying behaviours on the grounds that the perpetrator had a right to do what they did. Victims do not deserve to be bullied because they have performance problems, or lack assertive skills. The perpetrator needs to change his/her behaviour
and find a more appropriate way of acting.

For an in-depth guide to dealing with workplace bullying and harassment constructively see details of purchasing "Workplace Bullying and Harassment: A Toolbox for Managers and Supervisors" by Hadyn Olsen. Published by CCH Ltd.

Complaints need to be handled in the following ways;

a) Take it seriously

The complainant has most likely been experiencing this for some time and it is serious to them. Rather than seeing the complainant as the problem consider that the complainant may be providing you with some significant information about a serious problem that needs to be resolved.

b) Listen non-judgmentally

Don’t judge the complaint based on your perspective alone – most bullying goes on behind closed doors and managers are likely to only see the ‘good side’ of the perpetrator. Chronic bullies are adept at creating a ‘good side’ for the boss to see.

c) Hold your judgment

Don’t judge a complaint until you have heard from both parties. This may save a lot of embarrassment of time and expense later on.

d) Focus on the issues

This will require separating the issues from the personalities. What is the complainant wanting to have this problem resolved? What is the perpetrator wanting? What are the real issues? This information can be gathered without having the parties together in one room. You may need to work with them separately until you are confident a meeting between them will be constructive. In cases of bullying we suggest not using direct mediation because this often inflicts further damage on the victim.

e) Work out solutions

Get the parties to work on solutions and include agreements about behaviour and dealing with problems in the future.

f) Ensure fairness, safety and non-victimisation

Complainants should not be punished for having brought a complaint forward. Neither should alleged perpetrators be judged or treated unfairly. Ensure everyone is treated fairly.

g) Get assistance if you are unsure

These situations are usually complex and difficult to resolve. Get advice. If necessary call in expert assistance. WAVE operates a nationwide consultancy service that includes email, phone, web-live calling. Email info for more information.

Chronic Bullies

Chronic bullies are the worst kind of bullies. They consistently bully others and are usually adept at doing this in complex and hidden ways. If you have a chronic bully in your organisation you will have a lot of complaints, high absenteeism, high staff turnover and poor staff morale and performance. They are also very clever at keeping others off their trail.

How can you know if you have a chronic bully? Here are some characteristics;

1. They have an inordinate need to have power and control over people and situations. It is something like an addiction. When they get power they will use it destructively.

2. They may be highly skilled in one or two areas e.g. they may have a lot of charm, be able to talk well, may be great organisers, promoters etc.

3. They may get results – KPI results that is. But they often destroy people along the way.

4. They are autocratic rather than collaborative. Chronic bullies are loners who may be good at getting others to do what they want – but they operate as "one-man or one-woman bands" due to their need to be dominant.

5. They are manipulative and deceitful. It can be quite difficult to get them to own up or face facts. They can do all kinds of things behind your back and blatantly lie in order to cover their tracks. Deceit in within their character. It creates a Jekyll and Hyde trait and a real lack of honesty and accountability.

6. They lack empathy for others and do not see how their behaviour impacts upon them. They disregard the impact their behaviour has on others. They can be cruel. They tend to target people until they submit or leave.

7. They can be impulsive, cocky and self-assured. Some can be quite narcissistic and have a hugely exaggerated opinion about themselves and their abilities. Impulsivity is their Achilles heel. They may hide it under a veil of process orientation however under pressure they will completely disregard it.

8. They become very threatened when you start challenging them. This is mainly due to their inability to resolve conflicts and deal with their problems. They may make all kinds of threats when you begin to challenge them. The idea is to get you off their trail.

You are far better not to hire a chronic bully in the first place, however most employers would not recognize a chronic bully and instead hire him/her after being impressed with them during the recruitment stage. We advise on screening for chronic bullies.

See WAVE Recruitment Screening Tool (19 KB pdf).

Prevention Policy

Prevention is better than cure. We suggest developing a prevention strategy that focuses on enhancing the culture of your workplace in key areas. Unfortunately token training gestures or just developing a policy may do more harm than good.

A strategic programme for aimed at upgrading the employment culture is crucial. A programme should have a positive focus on constructive employment relations rather than simply focusing on violence, bullying, harassment.

Email to receive more information on creating a bully-free workplace culture.

Providing a Bully-free workplace culture will safeguard an employer if complaints arise and will lift the tone of workplace conduct.