Big rise in workplace bullying complaints

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 28/10/2014

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Bullies are being flushed out of the workplace, with a surge in cases since new guidelines to tackle the problem were introduced earlier this year.

Employment lawyers and academics agreed there had been a sharp increase in people raising bullying grievances since WorkSafe New Zealand issued the guidelines in February.

Although a rise had been predicted, it had been far greater than anyone expected, they said.

The guidelines, which identify different types of bullies and bullying, were an attempt to provide clarity around the issue, which was estimated to cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The most recent Survey of Working Life by Statistics NZ revealed 10 per cent of employees had experienced discrimination, harassment or bullying at work in the previous 12 months.

Last year, a survey by Victoria University found almost a third of the 16,000 Public Service Association members who responded had experienced bullying in the state sector.

Employment lawyer Andrew Scott-Howman was surprised by the number of bullying cases he had acted in and mediated for.

"Everyone was expecting a rise of work in the area, but this is probably in excess of anyone's expectations."

New Zealand was no worse than any other comparable country, but by putting a label on the problem, it had become easier to complain about.

"I don't mean to be melodramatic, but it has its similarities to when John Kirwan made it OK to talk about depression. Now it's OK to say ‘hang-on, I don't like the way this person is treating me'."

He estimated that in about a third of cases, employers were "completely shocked" by the allegations and did everything they could to sort out the problem after being made aware of it.

In a large number of cases the allegation was unjustified or the employee was simply not meeting expectations.

In one case, an employee had complained that her boss was not saying hello to her like he did to other people in the morning.

"The boss simply said, ‘Righto, let's organise morning tea once a week where I say hello to everyone.' "

Auckland University of Technology professor Tim Bentley, a workplace-bullying expert who is reviewing the guidelines for WorkSafe, agreed there had been a jump in cases. Although he did not expect it to turn into an "epidemic", the claims were only the "tip of the iceberg".

"These [guidelines] are providing awareness, some sort of process for people to follow if they feel they're being degraded. The bullying is going on anyway, all this is doing is flushing it out."

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Chen Palmer employment lawyer Claire English said the firm had seen a big increase in the number of employees raising bullying and harassment claims.

The guidelines were challenging for employers, but also helpful when nailing down spurious claims or accusations from employees who were simply being performance-managed.

There was room for the guidelines to be refined, but it was important employers made sure their processes were up to date. "This is certainly in the health and safety sphere, it's no longer HR. They need to have practices in place to manage it, not only get on to it but be seen to get on to it. WorkSafe can prosecute and have shown already they are willing to."

Both WorkSafe and Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse were unable to respond to questions.

A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment spokeswoman said bullying had long been part of the mediation service's workload.

Mediators had helped develop the guidelines and had received a presentation after they were released. Requests for mediation were being monitored to assess whether further training was needed, she said.

- The Dominion Post

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