Bullying in the workplace

Written by Stephen Hooper

Recent research

Recent government reports have sadly confirmed that New Zealand has a significant problem with bullying behaviour in our schools[i], and workplaces[ii]. In fact, in a school context: “New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bullying in the world.” [iii] This has been confirmed in the nationwide survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission. The Commission’s research states that 40% of workers report being bullied in their working life; 20% in the last 12 months[iv]. An additional 44% of staff have witnessed the bullying of their colleagues. These figures are consistent with the Ministry of Business’ figures which indicate that 16% of the Ministry’s employment mediations over the last 12 months involved bullying. [v] It is evident that we have a serious problem.

What is bullying?

What is bullying? There is no definition of workplace bullying in the Employment Relations Act 2000. However, since bullying has the potential to cause physical, mental, or emotional harm to employees, bullying allegations and complaints must be investigated and addressed by employers as part of their obligations as fair and reasonable employers who provide a safe working environment. The best definition of bullying comes from the Good Practice guidelines developed by Worksafe New Zealand[vi]. These guidelines have been adopted by the Employment Relations Authority and the Court as the criteria for bullying. Worksafe’s definition is:

“Repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.”

This definition emphasises the need for repeated and persistent actions over time that involve victimisation, humiliation, intimidation, or threats. It does not involve one-off or occasional instances of tactless or rude behaviour, setting of high-performance standards, providing constructive feedback, advice, or reasonable instructions or even warnings or disciplinary action. The definition of bully therefore creates a demarcation between reasonable management, differences of opinion and even clashes and those actions that escalate into bullying, harassment, or violence.

The impact of bullying

The Human Rights Commission’s report reminds us that the impact of bullying is far-reaching. The surveyed staff reported an immediate impact on their well-being, mental health, self-confidence, and their career prospects. Unfortunately, their report also states that about 29% of workers will not report allegations of bullying. They fear the consequences of raising their concerns, they distrust the internal systems to maintain confidentiality, or they feel they will not be believed. They prefer to talk with friends and family rather than use the internal workplace systems. In fact, less than a quarter of all workers who experience bullying will raise a complaint, and just under half of that group report dissatisfaction with the outcome.  What they want is more support but preferably from an independent and free service.

In recent months, several Government Ministries have partnered with Fair Way to establish independent Speak Up programs. The aim of these external processes is to support employees to feel comfortable and safe to raise concerns or questions about their colleague’s workplace behaviours, conduct, or activities. This includes breaches of Code of Conduct and policies and issues of intimidation and bullying. These external Speak Up programs enable managers, staff, and employers to proactively manage the health and safety risks and minimise the emotional damage and mental health impacts of bullying. Speak up provides a forum to raise concerns before the issues have escalated into repeated patterns of intimidation and destructive behaviours.

If your organisation is interested in exploring the use of an external Speak Up program for your group, we would be happy to discuss this further.

About Fair Way

Fair Way are experts in resolving conflict at work. Employers across Aotearoa partner with Fair Way to improve wellbeing, build internal capability and positively address conflict. Fair Way provides a range of workplace services including training and workshop packages, Kāpehu and dispute resolution services.

If you would like to find out more about Fair Way’s workplace services, please get in touch via workplace@fairwayresolution.com or call 0800 77 44 08.


[i] He Whakaaro: What do we know about bullying behaviours in New Zealand? Ministry of Education January 2021 https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/schooling2/learning-support/he-whakaaro-what-do-we-know-about-bullying-behaviours-in-new-zealand.

[ii] New Zealand Human Rights Commission (2022) Experience of Workplace Bullying and Harassment in Aotearoa New Zealand. Human Right Commission, Wellington, NZ.

[iii] He Whakaaro: What do we know about bullying behaviours in New Zealand? ,1.

[iv] New Zealand Human Rights Commission (2022), 6.

[v] Official Information request Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment DOIA 2223-0270 (29th August 2022)

[vi] Preventing and responding to bullying at work Worksafe New Zealand, 2017, https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/topic-and-industry/bullying/good-practice-guidelines-preventing-and-responding-to-bullying-at-work/

About the author

Stephen is a Senior Resolution Practitioner with Fair Way Resolution. He has a wealth of experience in employment dispute resolution, having worked as a lawyer and mediator for nearly 30 years. His career has spanned the public and private sector both locally and overseas.

If you would like to get in touch with Stephen, you can contact him by emailing Stephen.Hooper@fairwayresolution.com