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Tackling bullying

Is all unreasonable behaviour bullying? What’s the best advice to give someone being bullied? MARGO WHITE put these and other questions to Bevan Catley.

What exactly is workplace bullying?

There isn’t a universal definition but there are some characteristics that we’ve largely agreed on. It’s behaviour that is repeated, unreasonable, targeted, and can lead to physical or psychological harm.

These characteristics are reflected in the definition of bullying in WorkSafe New Zealand’s guidelines Preventing and Responding to Bullying at Work. We’d like to think we played a small role in helping to get the guidelines released by providing the first real evidence of the prevalence of workplace bullying in New Zealand. Our study used a comparable method and well validated scales so we were able to contextualise our findings with the international research.

How prevalent is bullying in the New Zealand workplace?

That first piece of work we did, published in 2011, involved about 1700 respondents from four industries. We focused on health, education, hospitality and travel industries because we knew, anecdotally, we’d be likely to find people exposed to workplace bullying.

We found 18% of the sample met the definition of having been bullied at work. In 2016 we did a similar survey, across a much broader representation of industries, and found 15% reported exposure to bullying behaviours. We also did a piece of research in between when we talked to people with H&S responsibilities – the people who are dealing with this – and found 70% of them were aware of bullying cases within their organisation.

We also did an analysis of 56 cases where workplace bullying was central to the applicant’s claim that were heard before the ERA and the Employment Court between 2007 and 2011. In sum, employees are reporting being bullied at work, those dealing it with it are also seeing it as a problem, and it’s triggering legal proceedings.

How do we compare to the rest of the world?

At the time of the 2011 study, we could find only one other published study that reported a higher prevalence than ours, which was a study in the USA. A recent meta analysis of international prevalence rates reported an average of almost 15%. Clearly in New Zealand it’s too high.

Is overt bullying (shouting at someone, threatening them) easier to identify than non-overt task-related forms of bullying, such as giving people unmanageable workloads?

Just because the behaviour is overt doesn’t guarantee that it will be easier to recognise if you’re the target of it, or to manage it. Bullying can be subtle and often takes place in a context where there aren’t witnesses and no obvious damage. It basically becomes the word of one person against another, or is explained away as something else. It’s not like a fight, an assault, in which you can say, “look at my black eye, here’s the evidence”. That’s not to say the damage isn’t real; it just manifests differently.

WorkSafe specifically locates bullying as a hazard. Many organisations are quite comfortable and competent at dealing with physical hazards, and they have language and frameworks for dealing with them. Bullying is a psychosocial hazard, but it’s still a hazard. So managing bullying is not about needing to reinvent a whole lot of new frameworks, but adding it to the hazards already identified. Once you become aware of a hazard, you have to do something about it.

What’s the difference between a bully and an overbearing or possibly toxic manager or colleague?

Sometimes not much. But going back to the definition, the first thing you ask is whether the behaviour is unreasonable. That is, would a reasonable person in the same circumstance see the behaviour as unreasonable? It’s the “reasonable person test”, which comes from the legal field. But it’s not an objective test and what is reasonable varies, from organisation to organisation, even within an organisation. The next “tests” are to ask: “is the behaviour repeated?” and is it “targeted at an individual, or group of individuals”? If it doesn’t have all these elements, then it’s probably not bullying. Additionally, reasonable management action done in an unreasonable way is not simply bullying – just bad management.

However, just because the thresholds have not been met doesn’t mean you shouldn’t deal with behaviour that is viewed as unacceptable in your workplace.

Sounds complicated …

Identifying and managing bullying is often complex and messy and can involve multiple people. It’s quite clear in the literature, when you look at the work done investigating the perspectives of HR professionals – they often report bullying as one of the most difficult and time-consuming things they have to deal with.

Your recommendation to someone who thinks they’re being bullied?

The best advice you can give someone is to keep a written record of their experience. Document what is happening to you; make a record of the time, date, what happened, how it made you feel. Bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour, so what you’re trying to establish, typically in the absence of hard physical evidence, is a pattern of repeated, unreasonable behaviour.

So you’ve gathered the evidence and made a complaint – what can you expect?

You should expect your employer to take it seriously. You should expect them to follow their policy and processes. You should expect your employer to offer support to you and all the parties involved, such as witnesses. You should expect your employer to communicate with you about what the process is, what the potential consequences are, to maintain confidentiality and to keep you informed of progress while bearing in mind the principles of natural justice.

Can a leopard (or workplace bully) change their spots?

It depends. Some people are chronic bullies, and that’s perhaps how they’re wired. Whether they can be rehabilitated is a question for the psychologists. Then there are situational bullies, the kind of bullies that engage in bullying behaviour as a survival mechanism, because it’s easier to dish out than receive. The issue there is whether you can make changes to the work environment so that the situational bullies will go back to being good organisational citizens.

Your research showed that those who witnessed bullying reported many of the same negative outcomes as those who were targeted.

Bullying has a toxic rippling effect – it can have a significantly detrimental effect on an organisation, and the smaller the organisation the more significant that impact is likely to be. The negative individual and organisational costs of workplace bullying can be substantial.

Sometimes, where the alleged bully is also considered a star performer, the organisation is tempted to let things go because they believe that person is too valuable.

I’m not sure that’s the greatest way of thinking. If you want to take it to a logical conclusion, we all leave a workplace, one way or another, even if that means being taken out in a pine box. So, what is your plan for when they eventually leave? And while you might have one or two star performers, chances are you’ll have lost plenty of other good people along the way. You might retain this one talented person and win that small battle, but I suggest you’d be well on the way to losing the war for talent.

If a workplace has developed or tolerated a culture of bullying, can you shift that toward a culture of civility?

I’d like to think so. It’s down to senior management commitment, and it takes time and resources. Change management is tough. But people build organisations, so people can change them. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t want to go to work and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Bullying resources

You can find WorkSafe’s guidelines and a bullying prevention toolbox on their website.

You can also find a range of step-by-step guides and resources on how to address workplace bullying on, a free online workplace wellbeing tool developed by national health agencies.

Associate professor Bevan Catley from Massey University is co-director of the Healthy Work Group, which has launched the New Zealand Workplace Barometer, a longitudinal study that aims to identify the psychosocial risk factors in our workplaces and how they affect employee wellbeing and organisational performance.

Organisations interested in participating in the New Zealand Workplace Barometer project can contact Zoe Port on

Margo White is an Auckland-based freelance journalist. She spoke to Bevan Catley on behalf of workplace wellbeing website

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