Workplace Bullying – Reframing the Problem


We are all aware of increasing attention being paid to bullying in the workplace and Pink Shirt Day is another example of efforts to bring this dark issue and into the light (quite literally). More is written and spoken about the problem than ever before but there is very little evidence that the increased profile is making a difference.

Why are we not making progress?

The lack of progress may well be due to the problem being mischaracterised as an interpersonal issue between bully and victim, rather than an organisational issue. While the former may be the presenting symptom, the latter is more likely to be the cause.

Characterising bullying as an interpersonal issue places blame on individuals (including the victim) but has no impact on the cause. It also encourages expensive and ineffective ‘solutions’ such as staff training, new clauses being added into employment agreements and maybe even legal action.

For bullying to exist in an organisation there will, almost certainly, be features of the organisation which support it. The most common of these are:

  • uncertainty, including role uncertainty and threats of redundancies,
  • staff who are rewarded for political behaviour,
  • resources are allocated on a competitive model,
  • lack of transparency in HR decision making, and/or
  • ineffective people management.

Bringing this to a concrete point for analysis; mass redundancies are a reality in the New Zealand public sector which is facing enormous financial pressure and this creates a breeding ground for bullying to occur. If we add in a second layer of uncertain role definitions, competition for remaining positions, lack of transparency around decision-making criteria and stressed leaders who are ineffective managers of people, the foundation to support bullying behaviour among employees is building. Finally, if we add in a third layer of employees who have the characteristics most associated with perpetrators of bullying such as low self-esteem, sensitivity to perceiving others as threats and a political way of analysing situations and behaving, it is more likely than not that bullying will occur within the organisation.

What needs to happen?

The first, and maybe most confronting step, is for organisations to accept responsibility for the environment in which their employees work. Reframing the problem as an organisational issue and a health and safety matter is a great starting point but it needs to be backed up with top-down policy, practice and modelling through all levels of the organisation. Around twice as many employees witness bullying than are subject to it themselves so staff need to be rewarded, rather than punished, for having the courage to be upstanders and not bystanders.

Employers who take this organisation-wide approach will be rewarded with lower rates of absenteeism, reduced risk of legal action, positive publicity (or at least not negative publicity) and fewer costs in recruiting and training staff to replace victims of bullying who leave.

A useful question to begin this process might be ‘what are we going to do the day after Pink Shirt Day’ to ensure that bullying does not survive or thrive in our organisation?

What can Fair Way do to help

Fairway Resolution Ltd (Fair Way – kia tau) is an independent and experienced provider of professional workplace services. We work with a wide variety of public and private sector organisations and, whether your requirements are preventative, diagnostic, investigative or restorative, we know how to help and we are keen to work with you.

If you would like to have a conversation about our services please contact us on 0800 774 408 or email us on We would love to chat with you.

About the author

Louise Taylor NZDB, BA, LLM is a Resolution Practitioner at Fair Way.  She has worked in legal education and legal practice for the past 33 years in both the public and private sectors.

If you would like to get in touch with Louise, please contact her by email at