Bullying in the workplace is rising; despite the #MeToo movement and lots of talk about making workplaces safe and secure places to be.
According to a survey by recruitment firm Hays, 20 per cent of the country's employees are bullied at work — almost half of the people affected says it is because of their age, gender, sexual orientation or due to a disability.
Dig deep into the data and an even more disturbing picture emerges; 64 per cent of people with a disability claim they are bullied; 58 per cent of LGBTIQ+ are the target of bullies, and half of all woman and mature-age people are picked on at work. Fewer men (37 per cent) report bullying or harassment.
In Australia, a report by workplace think tank Reventure claimed that bullying in Aussie firms doubled between 2016 and 2017.
But according to the Hays survey, reporting the bad behaviour of co-workers to the boss or HR has an almost 50-50 chance of resolving the issue, and 15 per cent of those bullied or harassed at work leave the job without making a complaint. That leaves the bully in place and the company none-the-wiser (unless it is mentioned during an exit interview — something the survey did not touch on).
Of those who took part in the Hays survey and complained of workplace bullying, 41 per cent said nothing was done to help them.
"I was told I was lying about it and was fired," said one who complained. Another was moved from their role and placed in a different department.
Another was told to be "more resilient".
"I felt I was being blamed for having been bullied," they said. "My claims were swept under the carpet."
However, some people were pleased with the outcome after reporting it to HR, their supervisor or boss.
"The people involved were spoken to, explained to them their behaviour wasn't acceptable and a written letter of apology was given to me by the persons involved," said one survey respondent.
Another said: "Formal action was taken and the person in question had their employment terminated. However, this took a long time, and only happened after two more staff members came forward with similar complaints — up until that point it was believed to be a personality clash, despite witnesses to the behaviour."
Adam Shapley, managing director of Hays in New Zealand, says: "We chose to explore this issue through a diversity and inclusion lens since bullying and harassment cuts through many of the key diversity and inclusion considerations we have identified through talking to both employers and professionals.
"Measures range from the formal letter of the law, sanctions and workplace guides to day-to-day awareness of leaders and managers and the behaviours of all employees. However, given our findings, it seems that despite a growing awareness of the problem, more needs to be done to stop harassment and bullying at work — for all demographic groups."
Often employers will simply point staff in the direction of their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). These EAP firms are typically paid by the employer to provide the service to staff.
While speaking with an EAP counsellor can't stop the bullying or harassment issue at its source, it can help some people. However, in the Hays survey these services get a mixed review.
One respondent said: "The EAP provider admitted that my employer required full access to any information disclosed by me."
Another said: "I have twice accessed EAPs in two different workplaces. The first one was brilliant as the EAP knew the organisation really well. The second one was less helpful. Some EAP practitioners are good, some aren't."
While someone else reported: "Accessing EAP allowed my family to heal from a very traumatic experience. Having my employer's support strengthened my role as a mother and employee."
The survey reports that of the 35 per cent of people who looked to EAP to help them deal with workplace bullying, just 43 per cent found it helpful. That means that if 100 people felt bullied, of the 35 who looked to EAP for support just 15 were helped.
Disappointingly, 13 per cent of respondents claimed to have never heard of an EAP service at work. Shapley says that means companies need to do more to promote the service to their staff.
"This involves more than mentioning it on an obscure page on the company intranet. For example, line managers could raise it in team meetings and it could be referred to in internal communications.
"Encourage staff to access the EAP if required and ensure confidentiality and anonymity for staff who use the service. Conduct regular anonymous surveys to ensure your EAP provider is delivering to your staff the support they require."
For managers looking for guidance on how to handle issues of bullying and harassment among staff then these comments from survey respondents should provide a clue.
Education, immediate investigation, open and honest conversations, an apology and training.
More coaching of staff around diversity.
Training for everyone about what constitutes bullying.
Training so people learn about respect to women, not to make comments about appearance, and mental health issues.
More acceptance of difference, especially towards mature age employees.
Helping people become more inclusive and understanding of foreign workers.
Perpetrators given strict guidelines about behaviour and that behaviour then managed similar to performance management.
But if workplace bullying is on the rise that does beg the question 'why?'.
Until that question is answered Shapley says employers need to be aware of anti-bullying laws and follow correct procedures when complaints made.
Bottom line ... report bullies in writing even if you are heading out the door to a new job.