Workplace bullying is endemic in New Zealand.  It has been reported that as many as one in five workers are affected each year, and that New Zealand has higher rates of bullying and harassment than other comparative countries.

It is difficult to understand why this is the case.  What is it about us and our workplaces that has led to these outcomes?  The answer is not obvious – New Zealanders are generally practical and honest people, we do not have an overt class system, and we have a Prime Minister leading from the front with a culture of kindness.

 I could come up with all sorts of theories, including that we are still relatively insular as a country and have less understanding and tolerance of difference, we are “hard workers” and expect everyone to pull their weight, and we also have a natural reluctance to intervene in other people’s issues.  Generalisations are dangerous, and these factors along with multiple others, are no doubt contributors.

What we do know is that despite the significant amount of information and education that has been provided over the past 5 years by organisations such as the Ministry of Business and Innovation (“MBIE”), workplace bullying and harassment continues to be a serious problem. 

This has led to MBIE undertaking a review as to the nature and extent of bullying and harassment at work in New Zealand.  Public consultation closed on 31 March and their pending report will consider what, if any, changes are required to existing employment institutions, such as the mediation service and the way the Employment Relations Authority and WorkSafe operate.

It is clear that culture change needs to continue to occur to reduce the prevalence of workplace bullying and increase the likelihood that it will be “called out”.

But, sadly, workplace bullying will never be eradicated so we need to become a lot better at dealing with it.  Currently my experience is that employees are often extremely reluctant to raise complaints of bullying as they are terrified of being viewed as trouble makers or as weak and unable to cope.  Further, when they do raise issues these are often dealt with in a formal and legalistic way by their employer. 

This is not surprising because the options generally made available to an employee who has been bullied are self-help – confront your bully (often not an appealing option particularly where the bully is your manager); ask a manager or HR to intervene (this may successfully address low level bullying issues); or make a formal complaint.  Once a complaint is made a formal process is triggered and the result is generally an investigation in which one party is vindicated and the other is vilified.  Either way, relationships are often destroyed.

The other problem with investigations is that there is often a lack of genuine or perceived independence brought to these processes.  It is not unusual for employers to form a view as to where the problem is, then to conduct an investigation to establish or prove this subconscious or conscious bias.  Alternatively an independent investigator may be appointed, but this can be very expensive and result in a lengthy process, so is not a realistic option for some employers. 

In my view what is needed is the creation of a new government agency solely to deal with bullying and harassment at work.  This agency could provide a completely independent and confidential service, and to deal with issues without an employee’s employer necessarily needing to be involved or know about it.  For example if both a complainant and the person complained about agreed to attend facilitated relationship counselling and with the assistance of an independent person were able to resolve their issues, that might be the end of it.

There would, of course, need to be an escalation pathway whereby the employer was informed if either party wanted that to occur, or if the potential for serious harm was identified. 

Where early resolution was not possible, this agency could conduct or facilitate a panel of approved providers to undertake workplace investigations that would be truly independent and which both parties could have confidence in.

An agency such as this should not usurp an employer’s decision making in relation to disciplinary matters, but employers could be required to justify why they did not implement any recommendations made.

It would also help to amend the Employment Relations Act to make it unlawful to discriminate against a person who has made a bullying complaint.  This protection already exists where a person has raised a personal grievance, so it would not be difficult to extend this.

The reality is that most employers are not well equipped to deal with bullying themselves and so there is a strong case for an independent agency to be established to provide a greater level of support and objectivity.  Whilst we can not set up new Government agencies to address every issue, the damage inflicted by bullying on workplaces and the people within them, means that the investment would undoubtedly be justified.