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The many faces of workplace bullying

Georgia 05 July 2017, 3:57PM
The many faces of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can be hard to spot, and even harder to deal with. However, new legislation has put the onus on the person conducting a business to take steps to deal with bullying if it occurs in their workplace.   

According to the latest Diversity Works NZ survey, over a third of people reported bullying and harassment as a significant workplace issue.  

Though it can take the form of practical jokes and teasing, workplace bullying is no joke and can cause serious harm.  

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 acknowledges the significant risk to mental wellbeing from workplace bullying, and makes minimising it the responsibility of employers.

The new legislation means that PCBUs (Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking) are obliged to take steps to minimise or eliminate the risks of workplace bullying, according to employment lawyer Kirsty McDonald.  

This puts the onus on the employer, but requires understanding from all members of staff, including those in an ­"officer", or manager, role.  

"Firstly, it's essential that pharmacists understand, as owners, what bullying is," says Mrs McDonald, who is partner at law firm Duncan Cotterill and deals with employment disputes. 

According to Mrs McDonald and the WorkSafe New Zealand bullying toolbox, bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour towards a group or an individual, that can cause harm.  

Bullying behaviours can actually be quite hard to observe. "It can be belittling someone, humiliating them, ignoring them, yelling - which are all types of personal bullying,"
she says.  

There is also corporate bullying, such as giving someone unattainably high targets, or institutional bullying, where certain behaviours have become accepted as a part of the workplace culture, she says.  

According to Mrs McDonald, bullying can be subtle behaviour, and can extend to social media and outside the workplace, but does not include sexual harassment, which is a separate issue.  

With an understanding in place, Mrs McDonald says the next important step is educating staff on the fact that bullying exists, what it is, and that it's unacceptable in the workplace.  

"We recommend putting together an anti-bullying policy that reinforces all this, and maybe explains what bullying is not," she says. 

She says the policy should also include the names of people who workers can go to with a complaint if they have one. She suggests getting the whole team together to review the draft policy, and open it to feedback, which in itself will encourage people to be aware of how they conduct themselves.  

"You basically want a framework to refer to in the case of a complaint, and people to feel confident about what avenue to go down to raise concerns," says Mrs McDonald.   

It's important to be aware of the ways different cultures communicate, and tackle that head-on, and suggests a training session about understanding and respecting different cultures.  

Once this groundwork has been laid, Mrs McDonald says employers need to keep on top of things, and the best way to do this is to create an open ­environment. 

"This could be through worker surveys, or one-on-one meetings between the pharmacy owner and staff," she says. 

According to the WorkSafe bullying toolbox, there are certain things to keep an eye out for that can be signs of bullying, like high staff turnover, decreased productivity and increased sick leave.  

Mrs McDonald says exit interviews are a good tool to use as well, as people tend to be more honest.  

Though you may educate your staff to the best of your ability, workplace bullying is still a likely possibility, and Mrs McDonald says it is the obligation of the employer to act immediately when they've received a complaint.  

"Firstly, you should ensure that you get all the details in writing; you can then assess the seriousness of the situation," she says.

This recording of specifics can sometimes be the only way to objectively determine whether it's a case of bullying, or normal workplace conflict, which Mrs McDonald says can be tricky.

Bullying sidebarDepending on the severity, there are options for informal or formal action.  

"If it's a low-level issue, a really good step is just to get the parties together," says Mrs McDonald. "If they feel uncomfortable, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) offers free mediators. 

"Another informal approach could be for the pharmacist to go and have a chat with the subject of the complaint, and just let them know they are concerned with their behaviour, which can often resolve the issue," she says.  

However, if it is a more serious complaint, a formal investigation needs be done. "We recommend using an outside party, especially for small organisations, so there's no risk of bias," says Mrs McDonald.  

An investigation will figure out whether the bullying claims were substantiated or not, and from then it is up to the PCBU to decide whether to take disciplinary action.  

Mrs McDonald stresses the importance of supporting both the complainant and the alleged bully in the complaint process, which might involve allowing one person to work different hours or report to a different manager.  

If the bully and the owner happen to be the same person, as is a real possibility in the pharmacy setting, Mrs McDonald says the employee should go straight to WorkSafe, which can handle investigations on their behalf.  

"Culture change begins at the top, from where the awareness and education can trickle down," she says.  

Employers should think about the damage of personal grievance claims, as well as brand damage and sick leave, and the effect on their overall business culture.  

"Not to mention, there is very real mental injury that can come from bullying," she says.  

Though it doesn't come down to a "fists up" approach, the WorkSafe bullying prevention toolbox gives employers the chance to arm themselves against workplace bullies, and the damage they can cause. GM 

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