Bullying and Rudeness in the Public Service

Geoff Plimmer, Alina Haider, and Ao Zhou (Ollie) from the School of Management, Te Kura Whakahaere, Victoria University Wellington Te Herenga Waka ask some insightful questions about bullying and rudeness in the public service and seek to offer some solutions.

Why are public services generally susceptible to bullying?

Bullying and other harmful behaviours are tremendously damaging to employees, witnesses, and organisations. For employees, recognised effects include anxiety, depression, poor productivity, and difficulty changing jobs. If left unaddressed, witnesses are fearful and get the message that these behaviours are acceptable. They learn not to speak up and avoid the risk involved in raising the concern. Organisations suffer from demoralisation, high turnover, reputational risk, lessened productivity, and collaboration.

Globally, including New Zealand, interpersonal misconduct seems more common in public sectors compared to other sectors. Statistics NZ data suggests the New Zealand public service appears to have a higher rate of reported bullying than in the workforce as a whole, which is similar to findings from international studies. BusinessDesk-IPANZ’s 2022 survey found that 22 per cent of public servants reported having been personally bullied or harassed in the previous year. The reported rate of bullying is similar to that reported in earlier studies from 2013 and 2018.

There are several possible reasons for this. First, the nature of much public service work creates the conditions for poor behaviours such as bullying. Demanding and uncertain roles with limited resources create scope for conflicts. Public servants also sometimes face unenthusiastic but high needs ‘customers’ (such as those in prisons, schools, and hospitals), who create stress and opportunities for conflict between staff. Public servants often deal with emotionally demanding and stressful issues that require difficult interactions with each other. They often work in areas the private sector does not want to and that are inherently hard to manage. They also wrestle with conflicting or ambiguous goals (as those doing policy advice often do).

Second, poor HR systems and difficulty in dismissing people mean tackling both poor performers and perpetrators of bullying is difficult. Workplace bullying can be a toxic form of ‘performance management’.

Third, the leadership of public agencies often has room for improvement, defaulting to restructures as a solution to any problem (a known driver of bullying). As the BusinessDesk-IPANZ survey results show, sometimes people are perceived to get into those positions without merit. Their mediocrity and the sense of injustice these appointments engender probably does not help either. The survey data shows that most who had been bullied did not report it (63 per cent), mainly because they did not think constructive action would be taken and it was not worth the hassle.

Some definitions:

Workplace bullying is defined as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can cause physical or mental harm. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social. This may include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.”

Employment New Zealand

Incivility is defined as “low-intensity deviant workplace behavior with an ambiguous intent to harm”.

Andersson & Pearson, 1999, p. 457

Who gets bullied?

Most studies point to organisational factors that cause bullying, but some studies have looked at who gets bullied. Our perception is that bullying and other harmful behaviours can happen to anyone, but a few patterns can be discerned. Internationally, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities are at risk, as are both high performers and low performers. Bullying reflects a fundamental power imbalance. This is reflected in the BusinessDesk-IPANZ survey where the most junior respondents reported the highest rates of bullying (43 per cent). Higher rates were also reported by both Pasifika (42 per cent) and Asian (31 per cent) respondents compared to others.

Those with negative affect (e.g. depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and hostility) are also at risk. Studies that attribute the cause of bullying to the victim are controversial. It is not a very productive research stream.

What factors specifically lead to bullying?

Many studies point to a series of job and organisational factors that often lead to bullying. Time pressure, unclear or ambiguous roles, job insecurity, limited ability to make decisions, and limited social support are all risk factors. Organisations with competition between staff, such as for rewards, also create risk. Both authoritarian (controlling and dictatorial) and avoidant bosses (that turn a blind eye to problems) create risks. Although tough bosses sometimes get results, more competent bosses can set high standards without bullying. They also know that the hidden costs of bullying are severe. Avoidant bosses used to be seen as neutral, but they are now seen as negative because they signal that harmful behaviours are acceptable.

Is general incivility or rudeness harmful?

Bullying is not the only type of bad interpersonal behaviour in the public service – incivility and harassment, for instance, overlap with bullying but are also sometimes distinct. It would be good to see a broader discussion about interpersonal misconduct generally than the (very important) legalistic and procedural issues that bullying brings up. Both research and legal definitions of bullying usually emphasise its repeated nature over a period of time. But other harmful, short-term, or one-off behaviours can also be very destructive.

Basic incivility, or workplace rudeness, for instance, often includes a lack of respect but is often subtle, covert, and plausibly deniable. It can be done in a moral tone and can involve social ostracism. If repeated and sustained, it can be defined as bullying, but is hard to prove. Studies find that, as well as being personally distressing, it harms wellbeing and innovation. Recent research at Victoria University Wellington Te Herenga Waka has found that it harms the wider team, not just individuals, long after the individual might have ‘gotten over it’.

Exploratory VUW research indicates that if left unaddressed, what looks like small and harmless rudeness in the short term can erode group functioning and climate over the longer term. When victims choose to tolerate it, satisfaction, engagement, and collaboration fall over the long term. When victims choose to speak up or talk to their team about the perpetrators’ behaviour, conflicts can escalate, with group members taking sides, leading to isolation or factions within teams. Managers are often incapable or reluctant to address it when it occurs: they ignore the issue or provide only emotional support rather than effective action – signalling that such behaviour is acceptable.

Ambivalent relationships seem particularly toxic

Incivility can also be embedded within ambivalent workplace relationships. These relationships contain a mix of positive and negative interpersonal behaviours, where the boss is friendly some days and then rude other days. Their unpredictable and confusing nature makes them apparently more harmful than purely negative relationships, as they lead to excessive rumination when people try to make sense of the unpredictable behaviour.

Supervisors oscillating between support and undermining (for instance, praising and belittling) sow mistrust and doubt in subordinates. Subordinates experience anxiety, mood disruption, and exhaustion. They also lose confidence, enthusiasm, initiative, and engagement at work. The ongoing stress can be brought home to family members. Subordinates commonly try a range of strategies to manage their stress but ultimately end up changing teams or leaving the organisation altogether.

How can organisations address bullying and other harmful behaviours?

There has certainly been some good, renewed attention to recognising and addressing these behaviours in the New Zealand public service. But it requires a substantial change in culture, people, and skill that will take time and sustained commitment. New Zealand government agencies often seem to have reasonable policies and legal responses, but they could do more to manage it as a behavioural issue, as well as a legal or reputational risk. Progress has been marred by false accusations in response to legitimate issues being raised around poor performance.

First, leaders at the top must set the tone and build psychosocially safe climates, which concerns shared perceptions regarding “policies, practices and procedures for the protection of worker psychological health and safety” (Dollard & Bakker, 2010). This means senior management making psychological safety a priority in the face of other demands. It means communicating and working with employees about wellbeing. It requires commitment to act quickly and decisively to address problems. Organisations need to address both formal and informal processes – words on an intranet are not enough.

VUW research has found significant differences in the extent to which government agencies care about psychosocial safety and that there is plenty of room for improvement. More concerned organisations have better line management, less bullying, and more job satisfaction. When executives at the top care, so do line managers. They are less likely to disregard poor behaviour and more likely to do managerial basics like plan, manage day-to-day tasks, and look after staff.

At a more practical level, there are basic steps an organisation can do. To protect everyone, clear job descriptions should reduce role ambiguity and increase autonomy, emphasise positive psychosocial behaviours, like courtesy, helping, and leadership skills, as well as just task accomplishment. Identifying and sanctioning harmful behaviours as a separate category also helps. These should be followed through in other HR practices such as selection, training, and rewards. Explicit effort to weed out bad applicants needs to take place through means such as detailed and expansive reference checking and psychometric tests. Staff surveys and unions can communicate problem areas to managers, and, of course, decisive action is then needed. Policies, processes, and training also help. Often training – such as in effective meeting management – needs to be mandatory for everyone, as those most in need of it never show up. Developing and supporting managers, training them in how to deal with conflict, and holding them to account is, of course, critical. None of the above suggestions are perfect, so a comprehensive approach will likely work best.

Complaint investigation processes need to be clear, with multiple points of entry, so people can choose who to complain to. Mediation can help if done early in a conflict, but it needs to consider the fundamental power imbalance that often underlines harmful behaviour. Managers need to be trained in conflict management and complaint investigation – too often, they hide behind legalisms, such as requiring a written complaint before taking any action.

More attention needs to be paid to supporting recovery from harmful bullying, as the effects linger for a long time. Most organisations provide EAP support, but this seems insufficient for the harm to individuals, teams, and organisations that bullying and other behaviours cause. Integrated counselling programmes, in-patient treatment for victims, monetary and non-monetary forms of redress, and group recovery programmes are all under-used options. This is probably because their costs are more tangible than the intangible but severe costs of harmful behaviours.

How organisations can address bullying:

  • Leaders commit to and prioritise psycho-social safety.
  • Tighten up recruitment processes to avoid employing the wrong people.
  • Support managers to deal with poor behaviours – training, performance reviews.
  • Clear and easy-to-use complaints processes (note the survey data shows respondents didn’t think organisations would act on complaints).
  • Support recovery for individuals who have suffered from bullying.

This article will be published in the forthcoming Public Sector Journal - Summer 2023, Issue 46.4.