Workplace abuse costing us millions Kiwi bullies

Workplace bullying is costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars a year - and at least one in five workers is suffering from it, a leading expert says.

According to WorkSafe New Zealand, which is publishing new guidelines today on identifying and dealing with workplace bullying, it can encompass any repeated and unreasonable behaviour, including belittling remarks, dirty looks, public humiliation, verbal abuse and unwanted sexual approaches.

Auckland University of Technology professor Tim Bentley, considered a leading expert on workplace bullying, said the guidelines were well overdue, and it was time the problem was given the same level of attention as physical workplace injuries.

"This is a far more insidious and major cost to the country," he said.

"It baffles me why organisations let it happen, yet they do. I think there's a feeling that, if you're a target, you're some type of weak person we can do without. In most cases that's nonsense."

Research conducted by WorkSafe's Australian equivalent suggested bullying was costing Australia between $6 billion and $36b a year.

The impact on New Zealand's economy was likely to be proportionally similar, Prof Bentley said.

The economic losses stemmed from people struggling to cope at work, high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover.

Often the person being bullied was talented and difficult to replace, while the person doing the bullying was insecure about their skills.

In bad cases, bullying could have a "poison well" effect that spread out into the organisation, causing huge problems, he said.

Bullying does not have to be personal, the WorkSafe guidelines say.

"Institutional bullying" can involve unreasonable workplace structures and deadlines that put an unfair burden on an employee.

An example of institutional bullying given in the guidelines was of workers at Christchurch banks who were still expected to meet sales targets after the earthquakes.

WorkSafe high hazards and specialist services general manager Brett Murray, who has overseen the new guidelines, said the work had been in gestation for some time, with input from unions, employers and academics.

It had been difficult to spell out exactly what workplace bullying was and what should be done when it was identified.

"It's not just a one-off instance of someone flying off the handle and saying something they regret later."

Although workplace bullying could be overt, it was often subtle and prevalent in static workplaces such as offices.

Research had suggested New Zealand had a higher level of bullying than other countries so it was important the issue was taken seriously.

Employment lawyer Andrew Scott-Howman said courts had struggled to determine what constituted bullying, so the guidelines would help to provide that.

Although most cases never reached court, the majority that did were often decided in favour of the employer, he said.

That was sometimes because employees made accusations of bullying to cover up their own poor performance or in the face of stern, but fair, management.

The guidelines would hopefully help reduce that type of behaviour as well, he said.

The Dominion Post