We discussed bullying in an article not so long ago, and workplaces continue to be fraught with bullies and their victims. Thus, we continue our quest to help employers and employees recognise bullying behaviour and deal with it appropriately.
Bullying behaviour may not be instantly recognisable, or you may not be able to point to one particular incident of bullying. Often bullying comprises of an accumulation of many small incidents over a long period of time. Many people do not realise that the unfavourable behaviour directed towards them is “bullying” behaviour. Victims may not want to report the behaviour for fear of not being taken seriously, or being told to “harden up”. Employers may see a victim as being overly sensitive rather than genuinely investigating their concerns. If bullying behaviour is not dealt with appropriately it can have detrimental effects on both the employer and the victim(s). Bullying is not something to be tossed aside and ignored.
Bullying behaviour includes (but is not limited to):
using foul or offensive language
nitpicking, fault-finding or trivial criticism
sarcasm, hostility or rudeness
providing instructions without reasonable explanation
setting unreasonable goals or deadlines
refusing reasonable requests without justification
refusal to acknowledge contributions or achievements
attempts to undermine value and worth
isolating, treating differently
denying training necessary to fulfil duties
initiating disciplinary procedures for trivial reasons
A notable decision of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia is an excellent example of the importance of addressing bullying behaviour appropriately. In Swan v Monash Law Book Cooperative VSC 326 the employer was ordered to pay a total of just under $600,000 in damages to an employee who had been bullied over a 5 year period. It was found that the employer:
failed to properly define relations and expectations concerning workplace conduct;
failed to appropriately train employees to deal appropriately with bullying behaviour and complaints;
failed to consider appropriate measures to address inappropriate conduct, and a failure to inform the bully that his behaviour was inappropriate;
failed to intervene and investigate complaints within a timely manner when complaints were first raised;
failed to have a formal structure or complaints mechanism in place for employees to seek assistance when bullying occurred;
failed to monitor the situation;
failed to have a safe return to work strategy.
The Supreme Court’s decision demonstrates the onerous obligations on employers to ensure a safe and healthy workplace, and the high risks employer face if they do not comply. It is not enough to simply change a victims’ reporting lines, or transfer a bully from one team to another. Bullying can often occur because of a workplace’s culture or lack of policies and procedures addressing suitable and acceptable behaviour. Not only do these policies have to exist, but they need to be implemented appropriately and efficiently.
While New Zealand is slightly lagging behind Australia in relation to health and safety laws, and certainly in terms of compensatory awards in bullying cases, WorkSafe NZ’s bullying guidelines released in February indicate we are following in Australia’s footsteps in recognising the importance of cracking down on bullying behaviour. It is vital that employers have appropriate measures in place to deal with bullies and victims.