Definitions of Bullying

Bullying happens everywhere and the public service in New Zealand has been no exception.

IPANZ wants to help turn the tide on workplace bullying and in February 2020 we’re holding an event to talk about what bullying is and is not, and how we can create the workplace conditions to reduce bullying.

As Michael McCauley (Professor of Public Administration at VUW’s School of Government) said in our December 2019 issue of the Public Sector Journal, bullying is “the single most observed and reported form of misconduct in the New Zealand public service”.

It is important that we turn the tide on this. So a good place to start is with understanding what bullying is, and what it isn’t, so we know when to step in.

To help define bullying, we have drawn on guidelines from WorkSafe (New Zealand’s primary workplace health and safety regulator) and the State Services Commission.

From the WorkSafe Guidelines 2017

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.

It includes:

  • Repeated behaviour is persistent (occurs more than once) 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
  • Bullying may also include harassment, discrimination or violence.

Workplace bullying is not:

  • One-off or occasional instances of forgetfulness, rudeness or tactlessness
  • Setting high performance standards
  • Constructive feedback and legitimate advice or peer review
  • A manager requiring reasonable verbal or written work instructions to be carried out
  • Warning or disciplining workers in line with the business or undertaking’s code of conduct
  • A single incident of unreasonable behaviour
  • Reasonable management actions delivered in a reasonable way
  • Differences in opinion or personality clashes that do not escalate into bullying, harassment or violence.

For Managers: You should deal with all undesirable work behaviours (even one-off incidents) regardless of whether the behaviours fall under the above definition of bullying. Such behaviours can escalate and should not be ignored

From the 2003 State Services Commission Guidelines on Bullying  

Actions can be overt, for example:

  • Threats
  • Intimidation
  • Coercion
  • Verbally abusive or degrading language or gestures
  • Shouting, yelling or screaming
  • Unjustified criticism and insults, nit-picking and fault-finding without justification
  • Constant humiliation
  • Belittling remarks

Actions can be covert, for example:

  • Deliberately overloading an employee with work and imposing impossible deadlines
  • Sabotaging an employee’s work by withholding information that is required to fulfil tasks
  • Constantly changing targets or work guidelines
  • Isolating or ignoring an employee on a consistent basis

Here are some examples which are not considered to be bullying or harassment:

  • Friendly banter, light hearted exchanges, mutually acceptable jokes and comments
  • Issue reasonable instructions and expecting them to be carried out
  • Warning or disciplining someone in line with organisation policy
  • Insisting on high standards of performance in terms of quality, safety and team cooperation
  • Legitimate criticisms about work performance not expressed in a hostile or harassing manner
  • Giving negative feedback and requiring justified performance improvement
  • Assertively expressing opinions that are different from others
  • Free and frank discussions about issues in the workplace, without personal insults
  • Targeted affirmative action policies, parental leave provisions or reasonable accommodation and provision of work aids for staff with disabilities

Occasional differences of opinion, conflicts and problems in working relationships are part of working life. However, people may at times cause offence or harm unintentionally, but the issue is about the effect upon the person concerned, not about the intention.