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Lessons from a loner

10 Apr 2017

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By Janice Hughes, Director, Aspiring Law

At school, (yes, that was a few moons ago), I remember there was one guy who had an incredibly difficult existence. I can’t recall a single thing he did that would even begin to explain the insidious hostility levelled at him day in, day out; yet, he was “The Target”.

The “cool kids” put their sights on him, and never dropped their aim. Did they bash him? Not that I saw. Did they yell at him, and call him names? Not that I heard. What they did was exclude him. He was overtly ostracised and marginalised, and that group’s tactic of ensuring he was never welcome to join in was so cunningly pointed, it was frightening. Looking back, I think of all the things I wish my young self had done, and ponder, too, why the teachers failed to acknowledge, let alone address, the bullying that left this boy relegated, by cool kids’ decree, to loner.

Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour also occurs in our workplaces, and can be played out in a multitude of ways, creating havoc for everyone. In all types of abuse, they say sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the Government is again shining some powerful rays on workplace bullying through updating its self-help tool for business: Good Practice Guidelines: Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying.

Updated workplace guide

Janice’s Lesson Number 1: Don’t judge a book by its cover … or a Government document by the number of pages. By way of confessional, when I saw the first version that was released in 2014, I took one look at the page count, grimaced, and poured myself a super strong coffee to get me through what I anticipated would be 69 turgid pages. As it happens … it was really darned good, as is the newly-updated document that’s just been released.

The revised guidelines reflect, among other things, the introduction of the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which brought with it PCBUs. “Persons conducting a business or undertaking” have particular duties and responsibilities, and liability, under the new legislation – and, yes, that includes managing workplace bullying. While they’re mainly targeting PCBUs, the new guidelines also provide valuable education on other parties’ obligations, too.

Like its predecessor, I found the new version well-informed, it’s extremely user-friendly and speaks to all affected parties. It is, above all, practically useful and applicable, providing templates, legal information, assessment tools, procedural flowcharts, sample policies, pathways to resolution and case studies. In all, it tackles this very difficult and destructive issue head on.

Two major challenges of unpacking and remedying bullying in any environment are definitions and perspectives. These guidelines, put together by WorkSafe NZ and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, go to great lengths to explain what bullying is. As they explain, bullying isn’t a one-off incident, it’s a pattern of behaviour that any right-thinking person would deem unreasonable.

Still not sure what constitutes bullying? The guidelines list specific personal and task-related behaviours from overt tactics like physical violence and verbal abuse, to the more covert, such as changing goal posts or targets and unreasonable or inappropriate monitoring. Having advised on many workplace issues arising from bullying, I can’t stress enough how fundamentally crucial the ability to identify and actually label the behaviours is in preventing, addressing and resolving this issue.

Janice’s Lesson Number 2: Anyone from the “suck it up” school of thought should check out the alarming stats around the rates of workplace bullying in our country, and the disastrous flow-on effects, not just for the victims themselves, but for the very businesses that fail to manage, or sometimes even notice, these destructive behaviours. Bullying is a very costly business – emotionally and financially – and its impact reverberates far further than perpetrator and victim.

Sobering stats

Research here shows we have higher rates of reported bullying than the international norm. According to studies, a third of public service workers reported experiencing workplace bullying in the preceding six months, and a staggering 90 per cent of nursing students reported being subjected to bullying during their clinical placements. Research out of Australia reveals workplace bullying costs the country between $6b and $17b a year, or $17,000 to $24,000 per case.

If that financial reality isn’t enough to get those of you with legal obligations going, perhaps the consequences of getting it wrong might. Bullying is considered a workplace hazard under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HWSA). That’s right. A. Workplace. Hazard. Letting bullying go unchecked, or dealing with it badly, can see employers for the high jump, not only under health and safety laws, but also under the Employment Relations Act 2000, and potentially the Human Rights Act 1993 and Harassment Act 1997. And, let’s not forget the recent Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 (HDCA).

Janice’s Lesson Number 3: Both your freedom and bank balance could be on the line. Fines can top half a million dollars, and there’s potential jail time, too – up to two years of it – for failing to keep employees safe at work. Then there are the costs, fines and penalties, running into the many thousands, for a personal grievance claim: unjustified disadvantage from a bullied employee if the employer fails to deal with abuse, or constructive dismissal if the employee resigns because they can no longer put up with it.

Happy, healthy bottom line

I know. I know. For business owners, managers and directors, dealing with bullying can feel like “just another compliance issue to deal with”, but, aside from ensuring you stay on the right side of the law, a healthy workplace makes for a healthy business.

Janice’s Lesson Number 4: Prevention is always better than the cure. These updated guidelines provide solid grounding, but in formulating practices and procedures, make sure they are tailored to your organisation, and involve your legal adviser – especially if the bullying indicators start flickering. Your workplace culture and bottom line will be all the happier and healthier for it.