Workplace bullying is back in the news with the Auckland Council paying off multiple whistle-blowers.

The Council is reportedly paying $300,000 in confidential settlements to two former employees. They were among four senior managers who complained last year about the behaviour and management of the infrastructure and environmental services department under John Dragicevich. The Council also recently made a large settlement to three former staff members in the billing and credit management team at Manukau, who lodged a complaint of alleged bullying and harassment by their team manager.

In New Zealand, there is no specific legal definition as to what constitutes bullying but it is generally defined as unwanted and unwarranted behaviour which is offensive, intimidating or humiliating. It's likely to be continuous or repeated, prolonged and deliberate. Specifically, bullying can include: verbal abuse such as name-calling or offensive language directed at the person; threats of violence; repeated humiliation in front of others; and teasing or cruel comments about any psychological problems.

The Council's harassment policy gives no further guidance as to what bullying is, but states that bullying is "unlawful under the Human Rights Act and will not be tolerated."

An employer has a duty to provide a safe workplace. We suggest the following steps to ensure you are meeting this standard:

  • Ensure there is a comprehensive company anti-harassment policy in place, which specifically addresses bullying.
  • Raise awareness of the unacceptability of bullying and harassment in (or outside) the workplace, through regular seminars and employee updates.
  • Promptly investigate any problems – reported or otherwise. Where bullying is obviously taking place, an employer may be liable for not taking proactive steps to address the situation, even where no concerns or complaints have been raised.
  • Subject to the outcome of the investigation, take appropriate disciplinary action against the responsible employees if required and keep the complainant advised throughout.

Ignoring a complaint or not taking sufficient action can prove costly to an employer in the form of settlement payments or substantial penalties for failing to take all practical steps to ensure a safe workplace.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.