Getting to the bottom of New Zealand workplace bullying

Nick Stanley
By Nick Stanley

New Zealand has a pretty woeful record when it comes to bullying in the workplace.

In its recently-released Survey of Working Life, Stats NZ found around 11 percent of workers – that’s 300,000 people – said they had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace in the past 12 months.

This followed a 2013 survey by AUT that showed nearly one in five workers suffered workplace bullying, giving Aotearoa the second-highest rate in the developed world.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, workplace bullying is considered a risk to health and safety and all employers are legally obliged to take all reasonable steps to eliminate the risk to workers (if the risk can’t be eliminated, it must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable).

Bullying causes serious mental and physical harm; it disrupts the workplace, damages morale, and reduces productivity. It can lead to personal grievances and in some circumstances – for example, if physical harm is caused – bullying can be a crime (workplace bullying is an offence in Australia, with a penalty of up to 10 years in jail).

Every business needs to take bullying very seriously. Despite legislation, the statistics prove that it is still prevalent in too many of our workplaces and we all need to make efforts to turn it around.

Defining bullying

If someone comes to you and says they have been bullied or have witnessed others being bullied at work, you first need to be clear about what constitutes bullying.

WorkSafe NZ defines workplace bullying as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.”

The key words here are repeated and unreasonable. The behaviour isn’t a one-off incident; it is repeated behaviour that a reasonable person would see as unreasonable in the circumstances.

If that isn’t clear enough, rulings by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) add that there should be evidence those involved felt fear or distress or they deliberately intended to cause it, which includes implied action, such as verbal threats.

In the eyes of the ERA, bullying action or speech aims to assert dominance or gain power over another and there is generally an imbalance in power between the two parties. This doesn’t limit it to bosses or managers bullying their staff, however. An employee can bully a manager, or it could happen between co-workers, customers, or visitors.

Repeated acts of exclusion or omission can also be considered bullying, e.g. deliberately withholding resources needed to complete tasks or do the job properly.

Targets of bullying

  • Women are more likely to experience bullying than men, especially being undermined with unwarranted criticism, unachievable goals, or being excluded from important decisions.
  • Men are more likely to experience personal attacks such as being yelled at, publicly humiliated or threatened with violence.
  • In the Survey of Working Life, workers between 45 and 54 reported the highest rates of bullying, harassment or discrimination (14%).
  • Māori and Asian ethnic groups reported higher rates than European and Pacific ethnic groups (13% vs 11%).
  • Some research indicates that people who experience more negative emotions (e.g. anxiety, sadness, anger, insecurity) are at a greater risk of being bullied.

Why bullying is so harmful to people and the business

The repeated nature of bullying makes it extremely damaging. On a personal level, bullying has been proven to harm people’s well-being in many ways, from increased anxiety, stress, and burnout to causing serious physical or mental health issues, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicidal behaviour.

A Canadian study found bullying at work is more harmful to employees than sexual harassment.

It’s not just the victim; witnesses and bystanders can also be affected by the hostile work environment, and the cumulative impacts on the business can be significant, including lower staff motivation, commitment, and performance, increased absenteeism, and higher employee turnover.

US-based research and advocacy group, the Workplace Bullying Institute, says bullying can undermine legitimate business interests as the bully’s personal agenda can take precedence over work itself. The wasted effort is compounded when you add the time it takes to deal with complaints and any legal and compensation costs if there are personal grievances (these can run into the 10s of thousands of dollars).

A company with a culture that ignores or condones bullying also risks developing a bad reputation and public image, further hampering its ability to attract and retain talented workers and its overall profitability.

From the workplace, the effects spread further, into people’s lives and wider society, causing increased strain on welfare, medical, and rehabilitation services.

No one has put an exact figure on the cost of workplace bullying in NZ, but research in Australia estimated it cost businesses there between $7.5-16 billion a year. A British study showed bullying and other forms of workplace conflict cost taxpayers $1900 per year for every working adult.

It’s easy to see why the International Labor Organization says workplace bullying represents one of the greatest threats to business success.


Every New Zealand employer has a legal obligation to take all reasonable steps to keep employees safe and free from bullying, harassment, and discrimination at work (failure to provide a safe workplace and manage bullying breaches this obligation, and could lead to personal grievance claims).

While bullying may be difficult to totally eliminate, you should minimise the likelihood of it occurring at your workplace. This starts with a positive company culture that promotes respect and understanding among employees and actively involves all team members.

Work together to create clear guidelines around what represents acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at work, so all staff and managers understand what bullying looks like.

Every company should have a bullying and harassment policy (either stand-alone or as part of your health and safety policy). The policy should define the rights and obligations of employees and managers and document how your business will work to prevent bullying and how you will respond to any issues.

There should be a clear escalation process so everyone knows what to do if they want to raise an issue. If there is no clear internal process or people don’t feel comfortable making a complaint (quite possible in a company with only a few employees), then they have a right to seek external help, e.g. from a union, lawyer, Citizens Advice Bureau etc.

Having a zero-tolerance policy always needs to be matched with practice. Bullying in any form shouldn’t be accepted as a normal part of the job. It shouldn’t be swept under the rug or forgiven in the belief it’s a hard-nosed style of management that’s good for performance and productivity.

Bullying isn't effective performance management and effective performance and issues management doesn't ever involve bullying.

If you need help with strategies to identify and prevent bullying at your workplace, the WorkSafe NZ website is a good place to start. Professional help is out there if you need further assistance.

Handling complaints

Under employment law, employers must immediately investigate complaints or allegations of bullying while supporting the person making the complaint. Bullying is more than just an employment issue, it should be treated as a serious health and safety risk.

Address all reports of misconduct or undesirable behaviour – even one-off incidents that appear insignificant – regardless of whether they constitute bullying or not. All problems start off small and are easier to resolve before they escalate.

When investigating, put aside preconceptions and stay as objective and open-minded as possible. Keep in mind that witnesses and the person who has been complained about may also need support. You are not running a criminal investigation and both parties need to be given the opportunity to present their version of events (if physical harm has been caused, however, call the police).

Accusations of bullying can be hard to prove. Sometimes, there’s a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable management and personal interaction, especially in a busy workplace. Perceptions and context are important too. Bullying is about repetition and the deliberate targeting of another person or people, to intimidate them, belittle them, or make them look incompetent.

Whatever you do, don’t try to brush complaints off as something insignificant. Employers who don’t take bullying allegations seriously and don’t follow proper, transparent process can find themselves in the Employment Court.

If the complaints are proven, you need to take remedial action, either by helping the bully to rehabilitate or giving a formal warning (or other disciplinary action). In very serious cases, dismissal may be the best course of action.

Even if the person is well-liked, successful, or holds a senior position, the ongoing harm they can cause to your employees and business is far greater than any benefit they may bring to the organisation.

Once you have addressed an issue, make sure you continue to follow up and check that the resolution has been effective and everyone feels supported.

Find out more about how to handle employee complaints against a co-worker.


MyHR Live 17: Workplace bullying



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