24 Oct 2017

Remediating workplace bullying next to impossible

From Checkpoint, 5:45 pm on 24 October 2017

Workplace bullying victims are facing a legal merry-go-round and have limited come-back, an advocate says.

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Photo: 123RF

Director of Culture Safe New Zealand Allan Halse said he felt like he was banging his head against a brick wall when he represented clients who had been bullied at work.

According to research led by a Massey University professor of work and organisation, Tim Bentley, and conducted on behalf of the Health Research Council and Department of Labour, nearly one in five New Zealanders are bullied in the workplace.

RNZ News spoke to a woman who wished to remain anonymous, and who we have called Amanda, who has taken up a personal grievance with her employer. 

She moved to New Zealand with her partner for a better life to buy a house and start a family, she said.

But after a year of being bullied by her boss, she has been on stress leave for five months and on medication for anxiety and depression.

"It's destroyed me... I was a mess, I was such a mess. [My manager] just had this thing on me... it was literally driving me nuts," she said.

At work her manager ignored, undermined and intimidated her, Amanda said.

She went through all the internal processes with no success and has taken up a personal grievance that is now with the Employment Relations Authority (ERA).

Mr Halse said he had taken clients to the ERA for workplace bullying but there were always issues with inadmissible evidence.

"Through their unwillingness to allow our clients to present the evidence, they're actually effectively condoning the bullying themselves by not enabling our clients to tell their stories and to have their cases judged on the facts."

In a statement the ERA said generally, only instances of unfair treatment that occured within 90 days of the complaint being made would be considered. It referred RNZ News to WorkSafe New Zealand for claims of bullying.

When RNZ News approached WorkSafe, which is in charge of regulating health and safety, we were referred to the ERA. 

The same thing happened when Amanda phoned WorkSafe, she said.

And it was the exact issue Mr Halse was trying to raise.

"We're in a conundrum in New Zealand where neither of the agencies that employees are expected to go to when they're bullied... will deal with the issue in the way that the legislation intends."

WorkSafe said it would only investigate the most serious workplace bullying where there was a medical diagnosis linked to a bullying claim, such as depression.

But since WorkSafe's inception in 2013, it had never prosecuted any person or organisation for bullying.

Mr Bentley, said there were issues with WorkSafe's ability to respond to cases.

"I think they would either need a lot of cases occuring or very serious cases before their mechanism for intervening is triggered."

There was room for WorkSafe to do more but the ideal situation would be for matters to be settled at work using WorkSafe's guidelines, he said.

"I don't mean letting the victim move on to another job with a settlement and a gag clause, that's no good for anyone either. We need to have a good pscyho-social environment and be learning organisations."

Mr Halse said he had taken more than 20 cases to WorkSafe, none of which had been properly investigated. 

He said he would be asking the incoming Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety for a more streamlined process for workplace bullying claims.

Meanwhile Amanda is awaiting the outcome to her ERA claim and wants this all behind her so she can continue her pursuit of the Kiwi dream.