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New workplace bullying guidelines

By Renika Siciliano - February 2014

New WorkSafe “Preventing and responding to workplace bullying” guidelines issued on 20 February 2014 provide assistance to employers and employees on how to deal with workplace bullying.  The guidelines outline best practice for dealing with all levels of workplace bullying.  They include a series of templates and checklists aimed to enable such issues to be resolved in the workplace before turning to third parties such as mediation services through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Whilst it is nothing new, workplace bullying is increasingly being brought to the fore and this has highlighted the need for clarity around processes and expectations for both employers and employees.  Employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment for employees and conversely employees also have an obligation to raise potential safety hazards with their employers, including bullying.  The new WorkSafe guidelines define bullying as:

“repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. Repeated behaviour is persistent and can involve a range of actions over time. Unreasonable behaviour means actions that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would see as unreasonable.  It includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.”

Employers must ensure that, where a bullying complaint is made, a thorough investigation must be completed by an impartial investigator to determine:

  • Whether or not the allegations of bullying have merit, based on the collection of all relevant evidence including interviews with other employees and documentary evidence; and
  • What next steps need to be taken to ensure a safe workplace, regardless of whether the allegations are proven.

The key focus is on protecting the health and safety of employees and acting in good faith by carrying out a fair and thorough investigation process.  The general principles of natural justice apply to the process itself and employers must protect all employees throughout the process, meaning that the rights of the complainant and the alleged bully are to be balanced carefully.  Keeping the parties informed of the process and next step(s) at each stage of the process is important so that both parties are not unnecessarily affected by the process itself.  This can occur through delays, causing stress for the parties involved, or failing to ensure confidentiality.

The WorkSafe guidelines can be found online on the WorkSafe New Zealand website.  Our Team can provide legal advice on the management and investigation of bullying claims and the drafting of policies/procedures to cover these issues.

Renika is an Associate in our Dispute Resolution and Māori Legal Teams, specialising in Employment law, and can be contacted on 07 958 7429.