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Workplace bullying is a serious problem for workplaces and businesses. It represents health and safety risk to other staff, a form of misconduct and damage to the culture and happiness of your staff. For that reason, it is important to take a bullying allegation and formal complaints seriously. You should have practices and policies in place to respond to them effectively and take proactive steps to prevent workplace bullying. This article will explain: 

  • what workplace bullying is;
  • how to respond to a bullying allegation; and
  • how to help prevent workplace bullying.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Under New Zealand law, the definition of bullying in the workplace is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards other workers that can cause physical or mental harm. This covers a range of different types of bullying, including: 

  • physical;
  • verbal;
  • psychological; and
  • social.

If an employee is humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person, that would be an example of workplace bullying.

Single or occasional incidents of insensitive or rude behaviour towards another person is not considered workplace bullying. The definition calls for repeated behaviour. However, you should still take this kind of behaviour seriously, as it is a red flag and may become more serious. You have a good faith duty to your employees to investigate a bullying allegation.

How To Respond To a Bullying Allegation

When someone makes a complaint of bullying, you should treat this seriously and investigate it properly. It is very important to ascertain what has actually happened, particularly if there are varying or contradictory accounts. While you have a good faith duty to investigate bullying, you also have a good faith duty to the person accused of bullying to treat them fairly. Investigations should be impartial and fair to all parties. They should be informed of the process and kept up to date. 

Particularly serious cases of bullying may be criminal offences and could be referred to the police. This depends on the facts, and you should obtain advice from an employment lawyer if you believe an employee has committed a criminal offence.

As a general rule, you and your business should support staff throughout an investigation. This includes both those who have experienced bullying and are accused of bullying. This support could include:

  • assistance in understanding the investigation process;
  • providing external counselling; and
  • language and cultural support if needed.

You need to ensure you are keeping the workplace safe for the person who made the complaint (the complainant) while the investigation is ongoing. If the complainant and the person accused of bullying work together closely, you may decide to have them work in different locations while you investigate. If the matter is serious, you can also suspend the person being complained about. However, you should have a reasonable basis for doing so.

How To Help Prevent Workplace Bullying

While it is difficult or impossible to completely eliminate the risk of workplace bullying in your business, there are steps you can take to lower the risk. As a starting point, you should provide clear guidelines for your workers about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, as well as processes of how you will deal with bullying if it occurs. This may involve a bullying and harassment policy and other processes.

You or other senior staff should monitor your business’ workplace culture. You should also constantly review your policies to make sure they continue to be effective in preventing bullying. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the business, such as by: 

  • getting worker engagement;
  • talking to employees when they leave the business in exit interviews; or
  • engaging with unions.

Key Takeaways

It is important to respond quickly and effectively when there is an allegation of bullying in your business. Workplace bullying is when an employee displays repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards other workers that might cause them physical or mental harm. In responding to workplace bullying, you should focus on:

  • effective fact-finding;
  • ensuring that the person making the allegation feels safe at work (such as by distancing them from the alleged bully); and 
  • carrying out a fair investigation.

You should also think about how your business can help prevent workplace bullying by putting strong policies and practices in place. If you want to know more about responding to bullying or an allegation of bullying, contact LegalVision’s New Zealand employment lawyers on 0800 005 570 or complete the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is legally defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards other workers that can cause physical or mental harm. 

Should an employer suspend someone who has been accused of bullying?

This depends on the circumstances. Suppose the complainant is unsafe or would otherwise have to work closely with the person accused of bullying. Here, you should consider steps such as suspension to remove the person accused of bullying from the workplace.

How can a business prevent bullying in the workplace?

There are a range of things a business can do to reduce the risk of bullying. Having clear expectations around behaviours, good policies and practices, and good communication with employees to ensure that those steps are working can all help to reduce the risk of bullying in your business.

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