Ponytail-gate raises the issue of bullying: How workplaces handle it is crucial.

When John Key decided to become acquainted (repeatedly) with a Parnell waitress' ponytail, he surely had little idea of the international furore that would ensue.

It was pure media gold - a Prime Minister tugging hair like a 5-year-old schoolboy is bound to garner guffaws or gasps of horror from the watching world.

Social media commentary fell into two distinct categories - some viewed the incidence as a bit of harmless horseplay, while others saw it as a clear case of workplace harassment. Serial litigator Graham McCready obviously saw it as the latter - he filed a private assault charge against the Prime Minister.

Whatever your position on "ponytail-gate", the situation has raised some interesting questions around what constitutes harassment in the workplace. What is seen as harmless banter by some can be construed as inappropriate and threatening by the person on the receiving end.


How do you determine what is inappropriate workplace behaviour? And how do you go about rectifying a situation that looks likely to get out of hand?

John Rooney, a partner at Simpson Grierson and an expert on employment law, says harassment is clearly defined in the Human Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act, both of which are enmeshed in law.

He explains that larger companies are likely to also have their own harassment policies in place, but they are not legally obligated to do so.

He agrees that there are often differences of opinion when it comes to the definition of harassment; that what is seen by one person as harmless banter can be read by the recipient as something rather more insidious and unwelcome.

"Often people who engage in banter will respond by saying that it was just harmless joking," says Rooney. "But off-colour jokes or sexually tinged comments can definitely constitute harassment."

Light-hearted one-off comments are unlikely to end up in disciplinary action, but if such comments are ongoing or the content is particularly unpleasant, there is a case for taking matters further.

The first port of call will be your immediate manager. They may bring the person aside for an informal chat, or if it's a more serious situation formal disciplinary action could be set in place.

The same applies when it comes to workplace bullying. WorkSafe (New Zealand's workplace health and safety regulator) last year released a significant document entitled Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying, which gives a clear definition of workplace bullying and has advice for employers and employees dealing with these issues.

Bullying constitutes a significant health and safety issue. Rooney says that before the WorkSafe document, bullying cases were based on precedents set by earlier cases in law - the new definitions help to solidify the definition of bullying within clear guidelines.

"Bullying is defined as repeated negative behaviour designed to gain power and dominance over someone else," says Rooney. "There is concurrently an implication of threat to the person being bullied. It involves exerting power over another person in such a way that they end up feeling intimidated."

Bullying in the workplace can be tricky to deal with, as it often occurs when others aren't around.

Rooney says that depending on the severity of the bullying there are a number of ways to deal with it.

"At a low level, there is always the option of confronting the bully personally and trying to resolve the situation yourself," he says.

If this isn't a viable option it's a good idea to approach someone in a senior role about what's going on, but if the bullying is being done by a direct manager this may not be appropriate either. Rooney says there is a move towards neutral third parties becoming involved in disputes of this nature - this can help address the power imbalance when a senior staff member is involved.

"An independent human resources professional or mediator will talk with everyone involved and come to a conclusion from the evidence they are given," says Rooney.

If someone is feeling subject to workplace bullying, it's a good idea to document situations as they arise. It's also good to talk to people who may have witnessed what is happening to provide evidence if the matter is taken further.

"It's also a good idea to keep any emails that may contain relevant material ... around workplace conflicts," Rooney explains.

Workplace harassment can become slightly murkier when dealing with the public. Waiting staff and those who work in retail often have to deal with difficult customers, but it's the manager's job to ensure that staff members aren't subject to threatening behaviour.

"The employer has an obligation to provide a safe working environment," says Rooney. "If someone is feeling threatened they should go to their manager and tell them. The manager will then need to work out how to deal with the situation."

Harassment of any nature in the workplace is a significant issue, but early intervention can stop it spiralling out of control.

There are many online resources to help people deal with such situations and by working together staff and employers can often help mitigate the worst effects of such a situation.