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Workplace Bullying

Is It The Employee Personal Grievance Of The New Millennium?

Once the domain of the school yard, bullying has now been recognised as having moved into the workplace. However, given the lack of comprehensive research into workplace bullying in New Zealand, it is difficult to assess the prevalence of this phenomenon locally.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

There are numerous definitions of workplace bullying, yet all contain several salient features.

In summary, workplace bullying can be described as:

  • Repetitive, health-endangering behaviour that amounts to mistreatment and that has a detrimental effect on an employee's dignity, safety and well being;
  • Behaviour that is about the bully's need for control; and
  • Focused and systematic selection of targets.

Typical workplace bullying can involve physical behaviour, hostile communication (both verbal and non-verbal), interfering actions, withholding of resources, threats, abuses of power, isolating and degrading behaviours.

What To Look For

Symptoms affecting performance for employers to be wary of include lower concentration, low morale, exhaustion, apathy, burnout, anxiety, and depression.

The Relevant Law

Statutory recognition and protection from workplace bullying is limited to amendments to the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (HSEA). These amendments place robust general duties on both employers and employees. Importantly, the HSEA now places specific duties on employers in relation to "hazard management".

The amendments specifically relating to workplace bullying extend the definition of "harm" and "hazard" to include "stress" and "fatigue". As noted above, anxiety (stress) and exhaustion (fatigue) are primary symptoms of an employee who is the target of a workplace bully.

How Does This Affect Me As An Employer?

A common response to the concept of workplace bullying is that competent management of employees requires "tough", "straight talking", "strong people". Further, complainants of workplace bullying need to “harden up” – they are "trouble makers", "weak" or "undesirable" employees. However, employers must realise the effect that bullying can have on the morale of the staff and, at the bottom line, the effectiveness or productiveness of employees.

The risk and in particular the costs associated with workplace bullying must be carefully considered before such attitudes prejudice employers against taking all practical steps to protect employees against workplace hazards, such as stress caused by workplace bullying.

End Result

The risks and costs for employers associated with workplace bullying are:

  • decreased productivity;
  • increased absenteeism;
  • high staff turnover;
  • costs related to temporary staff, recruitment and training.

Additional costs include exit packages or settlement agreements for complainants of workplace bullying, costs of litigation and associated legal fees.

Employers face potential liability for personal grievance claims under the Employment Relations Act 2000 and/or claims for breach of their statutory duty to provide a safe and secure workplace. A person convicted of an offence against the HSEA is now potentially liable for custodial sentences (maximum 2 years) and/or fines (maximum $500,000.00).

In Conclusion

Workplace bullying with its increasing recognition and awareness appears set on a path that will raise questions both for employers and employees. Its implications have the potential to be far reaching and costly for all parties involved. However, a proactive employer will take steps to minimise the chances of workplace bullying by maintaining good communication with employees. This will lessen risk to the employer and will go a long way to ensuring a good working environment for his

Employment Law In General

Do you have a situation developing in your workplace that may require action? If so, you should know that many courses of action are regulated and law and appropriate procedures should at all times be followed. It may only take a five minute phone call to Turner Hopkins to ensure that your proposed course of action as an employer or employee complies with relevant laws. If you have any questions relating to employment, either as an employer or an employee, Michael Robinson or Helen Wendelborn of this office welcomes your calls.

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