Tips tackle bullying in workplace

By Steve Hart

Auckland employment barrister Michael Smyth's book arms employees with strategies to deal with a range of challenges at work including personal grievance cases.

People having trouble at work may want to arm themselves with some expert information before hastily resigning or making a formal complaint to their employer.

Putting all the issues into focus and exploring the realistic options can take time and money. Which is why Auckland employment barrister Michael Smyth has just published Employed But Under Fire.

It is his second book on New Zealand employment law, and though the first one was aimed squarely at employers, this second one is written in plain English for employees.

Smyth qualified to practise law in Britain and moved to New Zealand in 2001 to join law firm Buddle Findlay as part of his OE. He resat his legal papers, decided to stay, and now runs Approachable Lawyer, a firm specialising in employment and sports law.

After the success of his self-published book, Employed But Not Engaged, in 2008, Smyth decided at the start of last year that it was time to write a self-help guide for people facing issues such as being bullied at work and negotiating employment deals.

It was completed late last year and published in December.

Smyth says he self-published the book because he likes to be in control of the process, to have it designed just how he wants it.

The first question posed in the book is for those facing some level of bullying: Do you fight or flight?

"This is the first question employees need to ask themselves," he says. "If things aren't going well at work it is easy to start looking for another job. Some people just move on and forget about it.

"That said, it is not always possible to move seamlessly to another role. So if someone is leaving involuntarily, then they might want to know what they can do about raising a personal grievance."

If you do want to stand up and fight your corner, then this book explains how to go about it. It covers the process of raising a personal grievance, what to do if you're stuck in an apparently unjust disciplinary process or performance improvement process.

The book covers the legal options to tackle bullying at work by the boss or co-workers, how to make allegations without adding fuel to the fire, and the ideal strategy to adopt during sometimes difficult conversations.

"It ... is not just about the process you follow, it also provides practical strategies on how to deal with each step in the process," says Smyth.

"It is based upon all my experience as a practising barrister. When one does so many cases you get to understand the tricks of the trade to get the best outcome.

"The book is not a legal text book, it is a real-life practical guide."

Smyth's day-to-day practice involves representing both employers and employees. "I think I do an equal number of each. I think that helps because it means I get to see things from both sides of the fence," he says.

"I have developed a deeper understanding of how human nature works and what works best to get a successful outcome."

Despite the book being "very thorough" Smyth says it won't cause any solicitors to lose sleep through thoughts of lost fees. "For people facing problems at work then this book will give them a lot of comfort and a lot of knowledge," he says.

And he says though there is enough information to help lay people navigate the whole legal process of taking their employer to court on their own, most readers will eventually seek out professional representation.

"If you go to a disciplinary meeting you have the right to have a support person present, and that could be your lawyer," says Smyth. "Most people will take that opportunity.

"Where I think the book is of real value is that a lot of people are nervous about going to a lawyer, they don't know if they have a case or not, they don't know what they should be doing.

"Employed But Under Fire will give readers an overview and an understanding of the whole process, so if they do decide to get a lawyer involved they will be a lot more knowledgeable about what lies ahead.

"It will also provide some comfort, particularly the chapter on bullying, because they will understand they are not alone, and that there are things they can do - and that may lead to them seeking professional advice."

Smyth's book also looks at the psychological impact of workplace bullying on staff. "It all comes down to self-esteem," he says. "Often the bully will have low self esteem and in order to caress their egos they will put somebody down. Often, bullies will feel threatened by the victim.

"Often the victim of bullying is more capable at their job than the bully, but the bully will be higher up in the seniority of the organisation."

Smyth says the book would be ideal for employees to use to help their HR manager understand the problems they face at work, and the associated legal ramifications.

Elsewhere in the book are chapters on redundancy, with explanations on what the employee should expect to happen when a firm announces that jobs are to go.

Smyth says redundancy payments are purely a contractual thing, so unless there is a provision for it in the employment agreement there are no laws to force employers to pay it.

The book also covers restraint of trade clauses that some people might have in their contract of employment, as well as how best to negotiate an employment contract. "There is a chapter on the things to look out for in an employment contract," he says. "Some things are worth negotiating on, others might be seen as rocking the boat before you've started the job. So there is some advice to cover those issues - certainly restraints of trade clauses may need looking at."

Smyth says his book is ideal for people having difficulty at work as well as those looking to change jobs, and who need some guidance on job-offer contracts.

- NZ Herald

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