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New guidelines seek to address workplace bullying

New guidelines seek to address workplace bullying

17 March 2014 - Bullying in the workplace is under the microscope with WorkSafe NZ recently issuing guidelines on how to prevent and respond to workplace bullying.

Sarah Townsend, an employment law specialist with Duncan Cotterill, says workplace bullying can come at an enormous cost to a business.

“Morale and productivity are often significantly affected, not to mention adverse effects on employees’ health and the potential for expensive legal claims.

“But what constitutes bullying is not always easy to identify. Case law has shown that the line between what constitutes bullying on the one hand, or blunt management on the other, is far from clear.”

She welcomes the new WorkSafe NZ guidelines that define workplace bullying as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

“There is now more certainty around preventing and responding to bullying in the workplace. While the guidelines do not have the force of law, employers will still be expected to comply with them where issues of bullying have been raised,” Townsend says.

“A failure to comply with the guidelines will significantly undermine any argument that the employer has acted as a fair and reasonable employer. Accordingly, all complaints of bullying should be taken seriously and promptly and fairly investigated.”

The importance of employers effectively addressing workplace bullying issues was recently highlighted by the Employment Relations Authority in the case of Hirini v Bay of Plenty District Health Board [2013]. In that case, an employee of a District Health Board brought complaints of bullying to the attention of management after a series of what were supposed to be constructive “group case reviews” left the employee feeling belittled, threatened and criticised by his colleagues. It was alleged that this demonstrated a pattern of bullying behaviour that was present throughout the workplace.

While acknowledging the complaints, management failed to look any further into the issue despite a process for doing so being outlined in the DHB’s policy manuals. This failure to conduct a thorough investigation saw the Authority find that the employee had been constructively dismissed. The employee was awarded three months’ wages and $7000 compensation for hurt and humiliation.


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