Workplace bullying

Bullying is a persistent misuse of power, whether formal or informal. It is ongoing offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour.

It may make the recipient or target feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable and undermine self-confidence. It may have a detrimental effect upon a person’s dignity, safety and wellbeing and may cause them to suffer stress.

Bullying can be overt or covert, and can be perpetrated by anyone in any position in an organisation.

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Overt bullying can include:

  • threats, intimidation, stand over tactics and coercion
  • verbally abusive or degrading language or gestures
  • shouting, yelling or screaming
  • unexplained rages
  • unjustified criticism and insults, nit-picking and fault-finding without justification
  • constant humiliation, ridicule and belittling remarks
  • unjustified threats of dismissal or other disciplinary procedures.

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Covert bullying can include:

  • deliberately overloading an employee with work and imposing impossible deadlines
  • sabotaging someone’s work by withholding required information
  • hiding documents or equipment
  • constantly changing targets or work guidelines
  • not providing appropriate resources and training
  • isolating or ignoring someone on a consistent basis
  • malicious teasing, practical jokes, gossiping
  • excessive criticism on a regular and systematic basis
  • malicious freezing out, excluding and/or not speaking to someone.

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What is not workplace bullying?

The following behaviours are not considered to be harassment or bullying:

  • friendly banter, light-hearted exchanges, mutually acceptable jokes and compliments
  • friendships and relationships where both people consent to the relationship
  • issuing reasonable instructions and expecting them to be carried out
  • warning or disciplining someone in line with organisational policy and procedures
  • insisting on high standards of performance in terms of quality, safety and team cooperation
  • legitimate criticisms about work performance (not expressed in a hostile, harassing manner)
  • giving critical feedback, including in a performance appraisal, and requiring justified performance improvement
  • assertively expressing opinions that are different from others
  • free and frank discussion about issues or concerns in the workplace, without personal insults
  • targeted EEO policies, parental leave provisions, or reasonable accommodation and provision of work aids for staff with disabilities.

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What can you do about it?

Deal with issues early

Sometimes communication issues and personality clashes may exist rather than a bullying situation. If this is the case, talk to your manager about a facilitated meeting, communication training or team building. If the issues relate to your direct manager you can go to the person they report to.

Raise it with your employer

Bullying in the workplace is a health and safety issue. Your employer has an obligation to provide a safe working environment.

If bullying arises in the workplace your employer needs to deal with it and ensure that it stops occurring. They can only deal with the problem if they are aware of it.

Follow the policies and procedures in your workplace on how to raise a claim of bullying. If there are no policies, send a letter setting out the allegations to the relevant manager. 

Suggest to your employer ways you can be made to feel safer in the workplace.

You may want to talk to your employer about accessing Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or other counselling.  If you are stressed you may need time off on sick leave.

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The complaints process

Formal complaint procedures

  • In most circumstances, complainants are encouraged to work through their institution/organisation’s informal complaint system before lodging a formal complaint.
  • A formal complaint would normally be given to any manager (or their manager), or directly to human resources. Complainants should check their collective agreement as well as their organisation’s procedures.
  • A formal complaint should be made by the person who has allegedly been bullied (the complainant).  It should be written and signed by the complainant giving details of the alleged incident(s).

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A formal complaint should outline:

  • the identity of the person(s) against whom the complaint is made (the complainee)
  • what happened (including the time(s), date(s), place(s), what was said and done)
  • how the complainant responded and what impact the alleged behaviour had on them
  • what actions (if any) the complainant may have taken to stop the alleged bullying behaviour
  • whether anyone else witnessed the alleged behaviour
  • an indication of the outcome the complainant is seeking.

Once a formal complaint has been made, subject to the employer's complaints process, the complainant may be advised of the formal complaint procedure and told that they may bring a support person with them to any interview. A support person could be a friend, family member or a colleague. The complainant may be informed about what type of actions the employer might take if the complaint is upheld, or if it is not.

The employer may meet with the complainant to arrange for interim measures to ensure things don’t get worse, such as changing shifts, managers or work areas. They may ask the complainant not to speak to the complainee or other staff about the allegations. They may suggest EAP or taking some time off work. How this time is paid would depend on employer policy and the individual circumstances.

An investigation would typically involve interviews with the complainant, the respondent, and any other relevant people. A copy of the written complaint, including the complainant’s name, will generally be provided to the complainee.

The complainant and complainee would each be provided with a copy of the investigation report and may be entitled to provide a written response within a reasonable given time period, prior to a decision being made.

Based on the investigation the employer may decide what, if any, action to take. This action could be disciplinary or educational. If any further matters arise advice may be sought from NZNO.

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Guidelines for a fair process include:

  • principles of natural justice
  • transparency and fairness of the procedure
  • taking a complaint seriously and acting on it quickly
  • maintaining confidentiality
  • prioritising the problem resolution procedure and responding quickly
  • informing a complainee of the allegations against them
  • giving a complainee the opportunity to respond to the allegations
  • keeping both parties informed about the progress of an investigation
  • ensuring the safety of the complaints process for both parties
  • giving both parties a full opportunity to read/see and respond to all evidence collected in an investigation before a decision is made
  • considering all the evidence carefully before deciding whether there is substance to the complaint
  • providing both parties with a copy of the decision and the reasons for the decision
  • ensuring any disciplinary action is proportionate to the level of behaviour complained of and in line with the organisation’s policy.

Care should be taken during the investigation of any complaint of alleged harassment and afterwards to prevent disadvantage to the complainant or complainee. 

Retaliation against people who have been involved in a harassment complaint in any way is unacceptable.  Any work difficulties experienced by people involved in the complaint process should be reported to a manager or to the appropriate human resources staff.

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Where can I find out more?         

Download printable versions of the following NZNO factsheets (with references):

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