Bullying at Work

Read this online earlier this morning – somewhat interesting. If you have a bullying issue, then you have a values issue and, as I stated a couple of posts earlier, they do not go away by themselves.

Banish Bullies from Work

Last updated 10:30 02/08/2010


Bullying is a major problem in New Zealand workplaces and it’s time employers woke up to it, says one employment law specialist.

Barbara Buckett, of Wellington firm Barbara Buckett and Associates, says bullying can sometimes be considered part of the culture of an organisation and deemed to be acceptable behaviour.

But Ms Buckett says a recent case in Australia where a cafe owner was fined A$220,000 (NZ$270,470) for failing to provide a safe working environment is also a warning to New Zealand employers.

“While the level of fines may not be as high here, it is a wake-up call for employers,” she says.

Many employers may not be aware they can be fined up to $250,000 under New Zealand health and safety in employment legislation for unsafe workplaces and hazards in the workplace. Bullying can also be considered as harassment under the Human Rights Act, and could cost an employer a maximum $200,000 fine.

And it could also be considered as a breach of contract where the contract specifies the right to a safe working environment. An employee has the right to refuse to work where there is a health and safety issue, Ms Buckett says.

“Apart from the potential fines and penalties, there is no doubt bullying is costly – it affects health, demoralises, negatively affects productivity, staff morale, staff turnover and employee satisfaction, causes absenteeism and generally has a negative impact on the organisation and its business. It is insidious and unacceptable.”

Recent figures from a university survey, commissioned by the Department of Labour, show nearly one in five New Zealand workers are bullied at work, one of the worst rates in the world.

A joint research team from Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London polled more than 1700 workers from the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors asking how often they were exposed to “negative acts” at work.

Overall, 17.5 per cent of respondents were identified as victims of bullying. The range was five to 20 per cent.

In the Australian case, persistent bullying at work led to the suicide of a waitress and resulted in a successful prosecution of not only the cafe owner, but the company and its three employees.

The bullying consisted of both mental and physical abuse of the waitress by co- workers. They called her fat, ugly, stupid and a whore. They spat on her, gossiped about her, taunted her about a failed earlier suicide attempt and poured fish oil on her bag and clothes.

The owner was aware but did nothing to prevent it happening. Under the Australian Health and Safety legislation the cafe owner was fined A$220,000 while the three employees were each fined between $10,000 and $45,000.


Though the Australian case is extreme, Ms Buckett says a similar situation could present itself here if employers don’t stamp it out.

“Recent tragic consequences from schoolyard bullying are a testimony to how fatal and severe the consequences can be.” Whether employers realise it or not, Ms Buckett says they, as an organisation, bear the responsibility for the systematic destruction of another.

She encourages employers to use the helpline 0800 0 BULLY, specifically set up to offer advice to organisations seeking to provide a bully-free workplace.

Under New Zealand law employers must provide a safe and healthy workplace and all complaints about bullying should be taken seriously and investigated, she says.

All workplaces should also have policies identifying unacceptable behaviours and should specifically target bullying.

What constitutes bullying is not defined and is a matter of fact and degree – what is acceptable in one case may not be in another and workplace banter or strident management normally won’t come within the definition, Ms Buckett says.

A one-off situation won’t usually constitute bullying – what is generally accepted as bullying is repeated unwanted and unwarranted behaviour which has the effect of humiliating, intimidating and degrading a person, she says.

Bullying can be verbal or physical abuse, such as name calling, offensive language, unflattering names, blaming, unjust treatment, shouting, cursing, slamming, throwing, rudeness, dishonesty, threats of violence, unfair and different treatment, unfair and constant criticism, alienation, unreasonable, refusing leave, work overload, publicly humiliating and belittling remarks, teasing, cruel and intentionally hurtful remarks and hostility.

McWilliams Consulting