New Zealand has the second-worst rate of workplace bullying in the developed world, according to a 2016 study by Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London Universities, and a more recent NZ Herald poll has revealed that a discomfiting 78 per cent of people have experienced or witnessed bullying at work.
Katherine Swan, country manager of recruitment firm Randstad NZ, says these statistics are hard to hear, because we believe we're a country that values inclusiveness, being "good people" and looking after each other.
It's important to look at it from the whole social perspective, she says, "because we're seeing it not only in workplaces but in schools, online, and even in Parliament. The challenge is to say that we're not actually what we're selling and to do something about it. As a society, we need to address what is happening as a behaviour, right from young children in schools. It needs to be something we address holistically and that makes it a bigger challenge, but a more important one."
If you or someone you know is being treated unfairly - bullied or harassed - at work, Swan says it's important to speak up after the very first instance.
"Once is always enough." But, as many find it hard to speak up out of embarrassment or fear of the consequences, Swan suggests seeking out an advocate for support – someone who can go along with you when you do speak up. She says it's also important to know where you stand.
"Be really aware of your company's policies, what your contract states and what your statutory rights are." If, however, the behaviour continues, Swan recommends journaling each event and keeping a record that may be useful later on if you need to go into formal conversations.
Because bullying is such a hard thing to speak up about, Swan says that if you observe it happening to other people, you need to be an advocate for what's right and speak up for them.
"And it's really important that leaders build advocates in the organisation and lead from the front in terms of what the culture is."
Employers must take bullying more seriously and really focus on cultural change in order to eradicate it, says Swan.
"We want to create safe workplaces for everyone to grow professionally and personally. We want people to be engaged in what they're doing and find their work meaningful, but if they're being bullied or they see it happening, it really inhibits people from being able to do that. I think leaders need to take this particularly seriously. They need to hold themselves accountable for the culture they're driving internally. And they also need to create a safe place for people to air their concerns freely without judgement."
In order to lead from the front, leaders need to be really clear on what is acceptable and what's not, Swan says.
"People model their behaviours off their leaders, so it's important for leaders to take a stand on what's right. Policies absolutely support this, and I think it's good to have a framework of policies so people know what is expected of them and what to do in a situation like this, but they can't be sitting in a drawer. They need to be modelled from a cultural perspective."
In the difficult situation where it's the manager who's doing the bullying, the obvious solution is to speak to someone in the HR department, but many smaller organisations don't have this facility.
Again, this is where finding an advocate to support you in raising your concerns is important, says Swan. If a victim reports the bullying and is unsupported by their organisation, Swan suggests seeking advice from the community, either privately or publicly.
"There are public agencies such as Worksafe NZ and Employment NZ and a whole private sector who can offer advice. These agencies also offer support to employers on drafting policies around bullying and on how to take responsibility. But I think it's important that when something does happen, employers must not only take it very seriously, but must follow through on what's occurred. So it needs an investigation and really good clear communication afterwards as well."
While New Zealand now has good employment legislation around bullying, Swan believes there are two main reasons there aren't more people going down the legal route of laying a Personal Grievance against their employer.
"One is that people aren't well informed about the protections the law can give them, and the other is a lack of support to enable them to go down that path. There is absolutely an education piece needed for people around what their rights are, and the other part is the facilitation for them to be able to go down that road."
Swan notes that victims of bullying often find it easier to elect out of the situation altogether and move to a new place of employment rather than go down the road of making a complaint.
"Randstad's research shows that alignment between values and culture is very important, so if organisations don't take this seriously, they're going to have high turnover and lose really good people in a talent-short market. But the real problem when bullying is not addressed within an organisation is that the bully or the organisation is never held to account and the damaging culture of bullying continues."