Is workplace bullying on the rise - or just no longer acceptable?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 2 October 2019
Exhausted tired businessman working on laptop at office, massaging temporal area, holding glasses, feeling fatigue discomfort, eye strain after long wearing spectacles, eyesight problem,

Photo: 123rf

The last couple of years have been punctuated by a series of high-profile bullying allegations – simultaneously appearing alongside an increased focus on wellbeing at work.

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One report declared a widespread, toxic culture within Parliament; another found harassment is rife through “all levels” of Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

Most recently, more than 80 current and former police staff have levelled similar accusations against their employer, detailed in reports by RNZ.

Then there are the allegations against individuals.

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri was investigated over reports she assaulted a staff member, and National’s Maggie Barry repeatedly had to reject claims she intimidated and undermined staff in her office.

The deputy police commissioner Wally Haumaha and the outgoing retirement commissioner Diane Maxwell have also been at the centre of bullying investigations – both cases resulting in a finding of not-perfect behaviour which didn’t reach the threshold of bullying.

“I’m definitely not surprised on a day to day basis to see bullying’s become a major headline New Zealand,” says Caroline Rieger, an employment law partner with Morrison Kent.

She believes bullying accusations have become somewhat of a “trend” in employment law.

“In the 90s we saw RSI, in the 2000s, stress was a big one – people were going off on stress leave.”

The introduction of new legislation, and the #MeToo movement, are also contributing to a growing number of bullying claims, she says.

“The WorkSafe guidelines are very clear about what is and isn’t bullying – reasonable expectations, and high expectations… aren’t bullying.”

While she’s turned people away who thought they were being bullied but weren’t, she’s also witnessed the opposite.

“I’ve seen things that would make your skin crawl in terms of what people have to deal with in their day to day working environment.

“People work on average 8:30 to 5:30 every day; they’re spending the majority of their lives at work, and some people are being put through what can only be described as the worst working environment from a psychological point of view that any human being should have to endure in a first world country.”

She cites tales of people screaming at employees, throwing things across rooms - “the things you would see on American television shows, as examples of bullying.”

Most of the time, someone ends up leaving following an investigation.

“I’ve seen [relationships] recover, but that’s the exception not the rule.

“I’ve seen a facilitation agreement where the employees have a particular protocol as to how they address each other in the lift in the morning.

“So it was, you don’t walk in and say ‘good morning’, you say, ‘morning’. It’s an acknowledgement the other person’s in the lift, but you’re not opening a conversation as to whether it’s a good or bad morning. It is that specific.”

While Rieger says the onus is on employers to provide a safe workplace, she does worry about what she sees as overuse of the term ‘bullying’.

"Management and high expectations are a very real thing that people need to do on a day to day basis."

“You need to be able to manage and train staff without at every turn worrying that you’re going to get a bullying complaint against you, but people also need to hone their skills at being able to have those hard conversations.”

Photo: RNZ