Work related bullying kept a corporate secret
FIONA ROTHERHAMFIONA ROTHERHAM
Opinion & Analysis
It's been described as one of our best-kept corporate secrets. But workplace bullying has been at the forefront of people's minds of late following some high profile incidences.
The NZ Herald exposed last week that the Auckland Council has paid substantial compensation to staff who were allegedly bullied by a senior manager, an Auckland Burger King employee claimed last month she was punched by a senior staff member, and earlier this year Housing ceo Katrina Bach received a warning after allegedly swearing and manhandling an employee.
There have been calls from academics for a new regulatory framework. While employers who allow bullying to continue unchecked may be failing in their legal obligations under the Health & Safety Act and the Employment Relations Act, the ERA doesn't contain a definition of workplace bullying nor is it direct grounds for taking a personal greivance claim.
However Victoria University law professor Gordon Anderson thinks both the Employment Court and the Authority have taken bullying seriously, going by cases taken in recent years.
Safeguard's latest health and safety newsletter published the outcome of an Employment Relations Authority determination which it said helped clarify the issue. The ERA dismissed a claim by the Port of Gisborne's former marine operations manager that his sacking for bullying and failure to follow safety policy was unjustified. The authority said the definition of workplace bullying might be personal or supervisory/managerial harassment, characterised by repeated and persistent offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour such that the recipient suffers detrimental effects to their feeling of safety, well being and general enjoyment of the work environment. (Some may find the latter an oxymoron,of course).
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has clear guidelines on workplace bullying and what redress you can seek if being bullied. The list of examples of bullying include: spreading malacious rumours or insulting someone, physical intimidation, overbearing supervision or overloading someone with work, and using abusive and humilitating language.
In my view we don't need new laws; rather it's about changing attitudes.
Equal Employment Opportunities Trust chairman Michael Barnett agrees, saying more regulation would only make things worse and businesses need less, not more compliance.
What is needed is for those at the top to take the issue seriously and ensure the rules they have on workplace bullying are enforced. After all, bullying is bad for business leading to poor performance, increased absenteeism, low morale, and loss of company reputation.
Barnett reckons there are a couple of good company exemplars - Air New Zealand and the Northland District Health Board, where new employees are inducted at the start in the company's core values. Managers are told what behaviours are acceptable and what are not.
These two companies also have good processes in place, Barnett says, so that people who have been bullied can talk without fear of reprisal. This is particularly important given global research showing workplace bullying is most often done by managers rather than peers.
Mind you, peers can be vicious. In a Canadian case a bus driver committed suicide due to harassment from his so-called workmates. The driver, who'd worked for the company for more than 20 years, was hassled simply because he looked similar to someone who had raped a woman. His bosses ordered him to take time off when he became stressed about the bullying but the problem instantly resumed when he returned to work. Taunts included him being asked 'who are you going to rape next' and 'what is it like raping a woman?'. Attitudes to workplace bullying are in much the same position as sexual harassment was two or three decades ago, reckons Anderson. Society and the courts were initially slow to recognise and deal with the issue but that changed gradually over time. There would be few people now who think even veiled sexual innuendoes are okay at work, let alone a pat on the bum from your boss.
While some practitioners note an increase in bullying claims from workers who's poor performance has come under scrutiny by their manager, all allegations deserve to be treated seriously.
Surely the best option is to foster a company culture that respects workers and their differences.
- © Fairfax NZ News