When bullying is alleged, it must be probed
We’re seeing media reports and allegations about bullying in a number of workplaces, which is a matter of some concern.
Bullying in any workplace is harmful. It causes stress, anger, anxiety and depression, and it takes away confidence. Bullying behaviour raises the need for workplaces to take action, and I’m pleased to report that many New Zealand businesses are taking it seriously.
Sometimes it’s hard to say what is and isn’t bullying.
Strong leadership or clear statements of expectation in the workplace could be experienced by some as bullying. Younger employees or those from different cultures might find some workplace interactions personally threatening, and our rather direct Kiwi style of ‘‘robust conversations’’ could seem intimidating.
But bullying is something else. Experts say it is the intimidation or persecution of someone weaker, deliberately and repeatedly. There must be a power imbalance, an intention to cause harm, and it must be a repeated behaviour.
Confirming whether there is an intention to cause harm may not be obvious, but if bullying has occurred or been alleged, then there’s a responsibility to investigate and deal with it.
The Health and Safety at Work Act says workplaces must act to prevent and deal with any hazard that can cause harm (bullying certainly qualifies as a hazard that can cause harm).
Business is taking heed. A BusinessNZ and Southern Cross Health Society workplace wellness survey shows Kiwi companies are increasingly focused on preventing and dealing with harm.
The latest survey in 2017 showed more businesses reporting that they have stress identification systems and assistance programmes for employees who need them.
Large companies, of more than 50 staff, that have systems in place to identify and manage stress have increased from about a third of those surveyed to more than half of those surveyed since the 2015 survey.
Smaller firms are also more likely to have systems in place, rising from about 15 per cent to 32 per cent of those surveyed.
Such systems are designed with the intention of helping employees affected by actions such as bullying, and making bullying less likely to occur.
Workplaces must also take action regarding perpetrators. If an allegation of bullying is made, a good process is required – both parties must be heard, evidence must be gathered, and the use of a mediator or independent reviewer can be helpful.
For employers, allegations of bullying can be fraught. An allegation will often be made by a staff member about another staff member, and if it isn’t true or doesn’t meet the threshold for bullying, a personal grievance could follow from either party. So, bullying allegations need to be treated correctly.
Another reason for active bullying policies is to ensure the integrity of performance management. Performance goals can be undermined if feedback is viewed as bullying. A workplace where bullying is clearly not tolerated is much less likely to have performance discussions misinterpreted as bullying.
Among all the actions that can be taken to prevent bullying, it is probably most important to ensure a positive culture.
Culture is set at the top, and leaders and managers should do their best to model the behaviour they want to see practised by all.
Respectful communication and clear messages about performance expectations help to build the kind of workplace culture where bullying is much less likely to happen.
Claims about a number of MPs have raised awareness of workplace bullying generally.