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  • Writer's pictureMegan Wood

Workplace bullying: what every employer needs to know


When we think of bullying our minds usually conjure a schoolyard bully like Nelson from The Simpsons. As entertaining as a caricature like this can be, as adults we know that bullying can take many forms and be difficult to define, let alone combat, especially in the workplace. We all want our people to feel safe at work so having a comprehensive understanding of what qualifies as bullying, how to spot it and how to put a stop to is best practice for any employer. Let’s explore workplace bullying and what you need to know.

According to Work Safe New Zealand workplace bullying is defined as:

Repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.

That definition is pretty broad, what does it really mean and what might bullying look like in the workplace? Acts of bullying across teams can include:

  • Direct verbal insults and threats

  • Excessive criticism, especially of a personal nature

  • Moving, disrespecting or destroying personal belongings

  • Deliberately excluding specific team members from meetings, gatherings and social events

  • Ignoring

  • Non-verbal displays of anger and disrespect such as sighing, eye rolling and hostile looks

Acts of top-down (manager to subordinate) can include:

  • Setting unachievable tasks

  • Deliberately assigning an individual tedious, unrewarding tasks

  • Constant unwarranted criticism

  • Regularly assigning one individual the least desirable shifts

  • Failure to offer support or reward efforts.

As you can imagine, some of these acts of bullying can be so subtle that they are almost impossible to spot, let alone determine how to effectively intervene. So let’s look at some of the recommended systems that can be put in place to ensure bullying is not left unchecked. How do I reduce the chances of bullying occurring?


There will always be incidents of bullying in any workplace, to some extent. Some will resolve themselves, some won’t. In the end, if you want to retain good people you need to make big, obvious strides towards building a positive and inclusive workplace.

  1. The most important thing for any employer is to ensure that everyone under your employment has a safe and impartial avenue for reporting issues, and that all staff are informed of the process

  2. Ensure that all employees know how bullying incidents will be handled and that the process is transparent - your people need to know that their concerns are taken seriously

  3. Make sure that you set a good example by your own interactions with employees, and that the managers you recruit reflect the core values of your business

  4. Partner with third party workplace EAP services that include free counselling services and encourage staff to use it

  5. Set up support groups within the company for minorities that may be at more risk of bullying such as those in the LGTBQI+ community

  6. Take extra effort to train managers to look for signs of bullying within their teams, these include extra sick days, drop in work quality, change in personality or demeanour and, in top down situations, mass resignations within one team over a short period of time.

What do I do if there is an allegation of bullying at work?

  1. React immediately and take the complaint seriously

  2. Keep the names of the involved parties anonymous as much as possible

  3. Consider whether to carefully investigate the issue by talking to witnesses and other team members or seek advice before proceeding with an investigation as there may be other avenues such as mediation that could be more appropriate depending on the circumstances

  4. Even if you are unable to find ‘proof’ of bullying, it is best to assume that it is taking place and to take steps to relieve the tension

  5. Avoid face to face meetings with both parties as the victim of the bullying is unlikely to feel safe to talk openly

  6. Make sure that the person who made the allegation knows you are seeking advice on the matter and taking it seriously. Provide them with options, these can include changing teams, rethinking seat allocations or allowing more work-from-home opportunities, as well as offering Employee Assistance or counselling.

  7. If the person at the heart of the complaint seems unaware of the impact of their actions, suggest they embark on some courses in employment psychology or sensitivity training.

  8. If you are undertaking an investigation, ensure the investigator has no bias, or consider utilising an external professional to handle the complaint.

It would be nice to think that we are all professionals and should be able to find a way to get along, but when you have hundreds of different personalities in one place there are going to be tensions. Keeping these tensions from erupting into something bigger is the key to retaining good people and nurturing productive teams. For professional assistance in handling complex employment matters including policies or processes around bullying and harassment, please get in touch.

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