No room for bullying in the workplace

3 April 2016

Workplace bullying – nobody seems to know what it is, how to prevent it or what to do when it happens. What is known is that bullying is common problem in New Zealand businesses that harms productivity and can lead to costly legal proceedings.

What is/not bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying can be perpetrated by customers, colleagues or management. Intimidating, belittling, or insulting a workmate is bullying, but it can also be more subtle. A manager might become a bully by giving staff unmanageable workloads or unrealistic deadlines, or by making dark hints about job security.

On the other hand, giving legitimate direction is not bullying, nor is disciplining an employee for breaching a code of conduct. The essential question is whether the behaviour is reasonable.

When is workplace bullying an employer’s problem?

The short answer to this is always. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace to their employees, and this means preventing and responding appropriately to bullying incidents.

Employers who breach their duty to protect employees can find themselves responding to costly personal grievance claims, or being investigated by WorkSafe under Health and Safety legislation.

What steps can employers take to prevent bullying?

Fortunately, there are plenty of proactive steps employers can take.

First, have a bullying policy and make sure that the process for dealing with bullying is well known.

Secondly, build a workplace culture where employees feel respected and able to speak their minds. Educate staff about bullying and encourage them to report any incidents they observe.

Finally, ensure that managers are properly trained in dealing with bullying complaints and know the steps they should take.

How should employers respond to reports of bullying?

Employers need to balance their duties to complainants and alleged bullies. A starting point is that all reports of bullying should be taken seriously and not ignored, and if there is a bullying policy it should be followed.

The first step is to investigate the report or complaint. This should involve speaking with the parties involved (separately) as well as any witnesses. Try to make a neutral and objective assessment of what has happened. Make sure that this process is well documented and notes kept from interviews.

Consider different ways of dealing with the issue. For minor issues it may be enough just to talk the matter through with the people involved. In more serious cases you may need to consider taking disciplinary action against an employee, which could include termination for serious misconduct.

The guiding principle in dealing with bullying issues is to take it seriously and act as a fair and reasonable employer.


Carolyn Gardner is a Senior Solicitor in the Employment team at Norris Ward McKinnon. Contact Carolyn at [email protected]

Edwin Sheppard is a Solicitor in the Employment team at Norris Ward McKinnon. Contact Edwin at [email protected]