Helping employees deal with workplace bullying

Anyone can be subjected to bullying in the workplace regardless of their position or seniority. The WorkSafe definition of bullying provides that bullying occurs when an individual or group repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards an employee in a way that creates a risk to health and safety.

Dealing with Workplace bullyingA risk to health and safety can be through the creation of stress or psychological harm. ‘Health’ in the health and safety legislation means physical and mental health.

Bullying can be obvious or it can be far more subtle. Often the issue for the employee victim is that the individual incidents can seem trivial in isolation, but when regarded together, they cumulatively have a significant adverse effect on the employee’s psychological health. The perception of individual actions as trivial often leads to employees failing to speak up about the treatment.

Employees are entitled to a safe workplace, and if you speak up, the employer should make changes. The Court of Appeal has found the objects of health and safety legislation require an employer to take reasonably practicable steps to avoid causing psychological harm. It has also held that it would be contrary to the employer’s acknowledged duty of trust and confidence in the relationship if the employer could expose the employee to unreasonable and unnecessary stress that the employer could reasonably avoid.

An employee needs to demonstrate the pattern of conduct that has affected them to avoid the bully downplaying the incidents as trivial. As experienced employment lawyers, we assist our clients to construct a detailed timeline of events and how these have affected them. A detailed and well presented approach is the key to successfully taking action to improve your workplace or to compel a settlement if you no longer trust the employer to provide a safe workplace.

If this is happening to you, we can assist you in raising bullying concerns. It can be intimidating raising bullying allegations. At Bell & Co, we will support you through this process.

One of the most interesting things we have observed occurring in the last decade is the change in attitude to bullying. In older case law, bullying was recognised by the Employment Relations Authority and the Employment Court as requiring some sort of severe conduct and an intention of the bully to cause harm. For example, Isaac v Chief Executive of Ministry of Social Development details that bullying is “something someone repeatedly does or says to gain power and dominance over another with behaviour that usually includes elements of personal denigration and disdain”.

Currently, the interpretation of bullying has shifted to place the victim’s experience at the centre of analysis. The Employment Relations Authority is adopting the WorkSafe definition of bullying and focusing on whether the employer has met its obligations. The Authority recognises that stress can be a workplace hazard and that it needs to be adequately addressed by the employer.

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