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Waking up to harassment at work

11:09 27/5/2024
Asian Family Services, Pink Shirt Day 2024

Kelly Feng (third from right), chief executive of Asian Family Services, and her colleagues on Pink Shirt Day on Friday. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand workplaces have been urged to speak out against harassment on the back of a new study that shows its financial impact on businesses.

Harassment in the workplace costs New Zealand employers around $1.5 billion a year, according to a report published by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and KPMG on Friday.

The report called the estimate conservative, as not all potential costs were included.

"Ending bullying and harassment in the workplace is vital because it harms us as people and stands in the way of all of us living healthy lives and contributing to our workplaces in the ways we aspire to," said Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo, equal employment opportunities commissioner at HRC.

The commission's 2023 report showed that Asian employees were disproportionately affected by bullying and harassment in the workplace.

The 2023 report showed that more than half of all Asian, Māori, Pasifika and recent migrant workers had been racially bullied at work.

Of the Asian people surveyed, 66 percent of Chinese respondents reported racial harassment at work, followed by Filipino employees (63 percent) and Indian workers (56 percent).

Due to small sample sizes, the 2024 report did not reliably estimate the cost of bullying on ethnic groups that HRC identified as experiencing higher rates of harassment.

"There is more work to be done in understanding the economic costs of that harm to workers experiencing bullying and harassment, the wider work environment, the strain it puts on loved ones and relationships, and the wider costs to society," Sumeo said.

Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission , encourages Asians to speak up and fight for pay equity.

Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo, equal employment opportunities commissioner at the Human Rights Commission Photo: Supplied / Human Rights Commission

What is bullying?

Workplace bullying can be defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that can cause physical or mental harm, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social, and may include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person, the ministry said.

Bullying can occur not only between managers and workers, but also among co-workers, contractors, and towards workers by customers, clients or visitors, according to MBIE.

Based on information provided by the Mental Health Foundation, 91.3 percent of workers have experienced at least one form of bullying in the past 12 months.

If bullying was serious or repeated, it could have a negative effect on the person's employment, job performance or job satisfaction, said Pele Walker, MBIE's director for dispute resolution. It could also have a negative impact on the business.

"It is illegal for an employer to allow employees to be bullied, harassed or subjected to abuse or any form of violence," Walker said. "Bullying at work is a serious health and safety breach. It is a form of misconduct and must be dealt with properly."

The Employment Relations Authority said 70 determinations had been issued by the authority in 2023 that included the word "bullying".

WorkSafe said they responded to 199 bullying and harassment complaints in 2023, with the industries most affected being healthcare and social assistance, followed by accommodation and food services, then manufacturing.

In the first three months of 2024, WorkSafe received 48 bullying and harassment complaints, with most coming from the education, health, social assistance and construction sectors.

The Citizens Advice Bureau had received around 12,500 enquiries about conditions of work in 2023, around 10 percent of which were people seeking help in relation to workplace bullying, according to Louise May, national policy advisor at the organisation.

A Citizens Advice Bureau survey of young people under the age of 25 showed that forms of bullying and harassment they typically experienced included verbal abuse, threats, being singled out in front of co-workers, psychological harassment and sexual harassment.

Boss threatening with finger his employee, isolated

Photo: 123RF

Workplace bullying

May said Asian clients were overrepresented in enquiries about workplace bullying, making up more than 18 percent of these enquiries. About 15 percent of the country's population noted an Asian heritage in the 2018 census.

"Of our Asian clients enquiring about workplace bullying, the majority are Chinese (34.5 percent), Indian (28.4 percent) and Filipino (10 percent)," May said. "Chinese make up 6.3 percent of total enquiries in 2023 to the CAB regarding workplace bullying, meaning they are overrepresented in these cases, based on the overall population of Chinese people in Aotearoa (4.9 percent in the 2018 census)."

May said temporary migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to mistreatment in the workplace due to their visa conditions.

Kelly Feng, chief executive at Asian Family Services, urged Asian workers to speak up when encountering harassment.

Feng called on companies to create a diverse and supportive work culture, making sure that culturally appropriate support services for employees were available.

Using overtime as an example, Feng said many Chinese believed in working hard and were reluctant to turn down overtime.

"Here is a message to people - you have to speak up," she said. "If you don't speak out, you will continue to suffer, and others might suffer from the same situation."

Feng said workers should make better use of their company's Employment Assistance Programme (EAP) as well as seeking help from professionals.

She urged companies to do more to help employees.

"I call on companies to introduce culturally appropriate EAP services, rather than mainstream ones," Feng said. "Companies need to consider if the service they provide is in accordance with cultural diversity ... and create a safe and supportive environment to prevent things from happening."

How to deal with harassment

Those who encounter bullying could experience lower levels of wellbeing, said Shaun Robinson, chief executive of Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.

As well as harming the person being bullied, it can harm the person doing the bullying and those who witness it, he said.

"If you are experiencing bullying in the workplace, you may feel powerless and unheard," he said. "It can also affect your mental and physical health. There are steps you can take to resolve any bullying behaviour you may be experiencing and keep yourself safe in the workplace."

May of the Citizens Advice Bureau said it was a good idea to seek some moral support when experiencing bullying and share what's going on with a trusted person such as a colleague, friend or family member.

May advised workers to keep a record of each incident of bullying in case people needed this evidence to file a complaint.

She also recommended workers to check their workplace policy and processes regarding harassment as well as seek advice from an organisation such as the CAB, Community Law Centres or unions.

She said people could prefer to speak with the person bullying them directly or ask their workplace to address the issue through the company's formal process.

"If a workplace process is not an option or you're not happy with the outcome, there are services you can use, such as [the] Employment NZ's Early Resolution Service, WorkSafe and the Human Rights Commission," May said.

Sumeo said HRC offered complainants free and confidential advice, as well as access to translation services.

She also called on companies to take responsibility for resolving issues before they escalate.

"Bullying, harassment and discrimination must be investigated, and the person affected must be supported by the employer," she said.

"As well as policies and training to prevent and respond to bullying and harassment, they need to foster a respectful culture and encourage reporting," she said.

"If they are not sure how to respond, they should seek advice."

Where to get help

  • Asian Family Services - 0800 862 342
  • 1737 - Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time.
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or free text "4357" (HELP).
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • For more help, check the Pink Shirt Day's website here.

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