Virtually everyone knows someone who has been bullied in the workplace. Health and safety regulator WorkSafe New Zealand lists more than 40 different behaviours that can be considered bullying. Examples include: shouting, encouraging staff to feel guilty, scapegoating, changing goalposts or targets, ridiculing, setting unachievable tasks, and much, much more.
It's important to understand that bullying isn't one-off incidents of bad behaviour. It's repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed at others. Bullying isn't always verbal. It can be carried out by telephone, email, text messages, or other social media at work or out of hours.
Employers who don't deal with bullying risk breaching the Employment Relations Act 2000, Human Rights Act 1993, Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, Human Rights Act 1993 and the Harassment Act 1997.
Associate Professor Bevan Catley of Massey University, who facilities workshops for Diversity Works says the situation can be more difficult for employees to navigate in a small business. There may be no HR department and/or the manager concerned is the owner of the company. In that situation there may be nowhere to turn within the workplace.
Catley says never ignore the issue. "Studies have shown that being bullied can lead to higher levels of stress and health issues, and impact productivity.
"If the bully is the person ultimately in charge, the only real option is to address the situation with them," he says. But a confrontation with a bully is never a good idea. Instead, he recommends getting some advice or coaching from a qualified, experienced third party before taking action.
If you decide to meet with your boss, take a support person with you, says Catley. That could be a trusted friend or family member, a union representative, an HR consultant, or employment lawyer. You can also get advice from your community law centre, Citizens Advice Bureau, your workplace counsellor if your employer provides one, the Employment NZ contact centre, or WorkSafe.
Catley says there are three broad types of bullies in the workplace: chronic, situational and opportunistic bullies.
The chronic bully learned his or her behaviour in childhood and may have a personality disorder such as narcissism and borderline personality disorder.
"Chronic bullies do not process social information accurately and make unrealistic judgments about other people's intentions," says Catley. "They are by far the most hazardous. "They think of themselves as being superior and powerful and may not be capable of empathy.
Chronic bullies may:
• have an obsessive need for power and dominance
• revel in positional power
• be charming, arrogant or lack empathy for others
• be manipulative and deceitful
• dominate meetings and other situations
• believe they are superior to others.
The situational bully is likely to join the pack and become involved in mobbing one or more individuals lower down the hierarchy. "Workplaces that are poorly organised, going through organisational change, work to deadlines, have weak or dictator-style leadership, and/or poorly defined hierarchies may be more at risk of situational bullying," says Catley.
Bullies may also act out of frustration with the working environment, feelings of inadequacy for the appointed task, or from a strong desire to achieve. However, when the situation is no longer conducive to bullying, the situational bully's behaviour stops.
The opportunistic bully is someone who is self-centred, ambitious, and prepared to win at any cost, which means controlling everything and everyone on their way to success, says Catley. "They ... will bully targets they perceive as threats ."
Catley advises people who believe they are being bullied or harassed by their manager to:
• Keep records of incidents of bullying. Write down the date, time and what happened. Take note of who said what, any witnesses to the incident and how that person's action made you feel.
• Discuss the situation with a trusted person such as a colleague or friend to get a sense check of whether what you are experiencing is unreasonable behaviour.
• Contemplate whether you feel able to discuss your concerns with the manager in question. This may be enough to encourage the person to change the behaviour.
• Consider whether you wish to lay a formal complaint about the bullying. This should trigger an investigation, ideally undertaken by someone who is trained to carry out such inquiries and is unbiased/not involved in the incident. A formal complaint is a significant step but may be necessary if the informal options have not resulted in change.
If you feel unable to talk to your manager, or it has no effect on the behaviour, you can discuss your concerns with HR or the company's health and safety representative.
WorkSafe says don't avoid the issue. If you do, your stress levels may rise and lead to negative emotions, depression or anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. You don't have to wait until things are very bad before dealing with the issue. Instead find out about your workplace's policy and processes and follow them.
A low-key response such as talking to the person targeting you may work. However you plan to respond, gather information by recording days, times, places, what happened, how you felt, and how you reacted. Focus on the incidents, keep your language neutral and try to see their viewpoint without excusing the behaviour.
If that doesn't work consider escalating your concerns further. You can request mediation at any time and if that doesn't solve the problem raise a personal grievance and have the matter investigated by the Employment Relations Authority.
WorkSafe's Bullying Prevention Toolbox, which can be found at Tinyurl.com/PreventionToolbox, has useful information and sample letters for making informal and formal complaints. It also has information for businesses on what they should do to minimise and manage the risk of bullying in their workplace.
Finally, don't quit in a fit of anger or despair and avoid sending angry emails, walking out, rallying staff members to your side or creating a witch hunt.