New Zealand trumps Australia on workplace bullying advice 4

Cover of workplace-bullying NZWorkSafe NZ has released “best practice guidelines” on workplace bullying.  Best practice is a nonsense term but this guide is a major step above similar guides in Australia, in particular.


Guides always begin with definitions and the definition New Zealand has applied is the same as that in the recently released Australian workplace bullying guide but with a couple of odd semantic differences.  These variations should not have any effect on organisational changes required to prevent bullying but the variations are curious. Australia describes “unreasonable behaviour” the actions that generate the bullying as:

“…  behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable, including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening.”

New Zealand’s definition is:

“…. actions that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would see as unreasonable. It includes victimising,  humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.”

Is there a difference between actions and behaviours?  Maybe not, but the term “actions” seems to be a clearer term than “behaviours” and seems preferable. “… in the same circumstances” is an interesting change as it removes the subjective judgement from the Australian guide.  Australia already has judgement in the definition because the person is “reasonable” – they have already assessed the situation and determined a course of action – they have already “considered the circumstances”.  New Zealand’s definition is leaner and reduces the opportunity for legal debate on the matter.

Also the unreasonable behaviour needs to be aimed at “a person”.  This may seem unnecessary as unreasonable behaviour in this guide is considered within the context of workplace bullying that already involves a “worker or a group of workers”.

Australia erred in its guide by qualifying unreasonable behaviour:

“Examples of behaviour, whether intentional or unintentional, that may be considered to be workplace bullying…..” (emphasis added)

Such a “get-out” will be picked over by lawyers but New Zealand wisely makes no mention of unintentional behaviours.  Instead New Zealand looked to the Health and Safety Executive and provided a table that lists “attacks that are direct and personal, or indirect and task-related”.  Task related attacks may include sabotage, the lack of support from a manager, scapegoating, excessive workload and many others.  Direct or personal attacks may include ganging up, an inaccurate accusation, threats of violence, intimidation and others. This tabulated list, published early in the guide, helps enormously to differentiate the circumstances of workplace bullying and guide the response strategy.

Terminology – Attack, Victim

“Attacks” is an emotive term that is absent from the Australian guide but New Zealand’s use of the term reflects how bullying can feel to the receiver.  One case study in the NZ guide (and NZ should be congratulated for including case studies as they are extremely useful in clarifying workplace bullying) states:

“In retrospect, Denise believes it is clear that she was operating in a culture that she was not suited to (‘a man’s world’), and that she simply didn’t fit in and wasn’t wanted there. Women were not thought of highly, particularly in management roles, and she believes the personal attacks on her performance were aimed at removing her from the organisation.” (page 67)

While discussing semantics, many anti-bullying advocates hesitate to call those on the receiving end of bullying, victims.  Neither guide uses the term yet both guides describe an element of unreasonable behaviour as “victimisation”.  People who have been bullied feel like victims.  They are people who have been repeatedly treated unjustly, exploited and punished – all elements of victimisation.  The Australian Parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying repeatedly referred to victims and as one submission stated:

“The primary cause of the problem is the power imbalance between the bully and the victim, with the latter typically feeling powerless to do anything about the behaviour due to reliance on the income from his or her job or, perhaps, a desire for a favourable reference.” (page 8)

There may be good psychological reasons for not calling victims of workplace bullying victims but how else do you describe someone who has been victimised?

Institutional Bullying

The New Zealand guide also introduces “institutional bullying”.

“Institutional bullying or corporate bullying is when an organisation’s norms, culture or practice allow:

  • behaviour which causes offence or undue stress to others without concern for the consequences or their wellbeing
  • work structures, practices, policies or requirements which unreasonably burden staff without concern for their wellbeing. Work structures may lack a reasoned, justifiable or evidence-based rationale.” (page 8)

The significance of institutional bullying is obvious.  It pulls into the power imbalance behind workplace bullying, the issues of wellbeing, stress, workload, organisational structure and evidence-based decision making – all things that this blog has been talking about for many years and that the various OHS/WHS/HR/IR disciplines continue to struggle to integrate.  The NZ workplace bullying guide is used to link together all of the work and management elements that can contribute to unproductive workers when poorly applied or absent and that can contribute to increased productivity when done properly.

Kensington Swan lawyers said of this:

“It gives a [sic] setting unrealistic productivity targets for staff, and pressuring staff to work late as examples of institutional bullying.”

It is highly unlikely that these issues will be addressed in any of the investigations of Australia’s Productivity Commission but they are substantial challenges in the modern workplaces, particularly those executives who are learning about their new due diligence obligations under Australia, and New Zealand’s, work health and safety laws.

John Bottomley recently asked a safety forum what makes a good worker?  Is it the worker who is at work 80 hours a week and rarely goes home?  The good “company man”? Or is it the worker who balances their work and non-work obligations?  The worker who gets adequate sleep so that he or she are fully productive and does a good day’s work for a good day’s pay?  Could it be that a company’s institutional structure and reward program and even the corporate performance target is bullying workers?  New Zealand has posed it as a distinct possibility in its workplace bullying guide.

Evidence-based Information

There are many more attractions in the New Zealand best practice guidelines on preventing and responding to workplace bullying including extensive footnotes and references.  Such information is totally absent from the Australian guide.  Detailed referencing  tells readers that the information and strategy has not simply been pulled from the negotiations of some committee that professes to represent society and workplaces.  The information has been drawn from a broad range of sources including local and overseas academic research as well as local consultation.  The referencing shows the evidence base for the decisions, suggestions, strategies and techniques.

As mentioned above, the guide tabulates information and this type of presentation is useful because it is simple and clear.  The guide includes a locally developed table outlining “workplace factors that allow or limit bullying” (page 35) and a table of information from WorkSafe Victoria’s recent workplace bullying guide on “organisational factors that can lead to bullying” (page 36).

One could argue that New Zealand has benefited from all of the preparatory work that Australia and Victoria has done on workplace bullying and that is partly true but it seems that New Zealand has jumped well beyond the  limitations of the Australia source material.  It has its own extensive research base on the topic, has not been afraid to go offshore for advice, is prepared to name its sources and give credit where due and has blended individual responsibilities and actions with the institutional and corporate obligations in a guide that has the victim of bullying as its prime consideration.  The guide may not be “best practice” but it is a lot more mature than recent guides in Australia.  It deserves international attention.

Kevin Jones


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  2. > best practice is a nonsense term

    Not so. Normal people generally respond well to the phrase, politicians and lawyers don’t, particularly in the context of the traffic light of:

    green: best or good practice that exceeds minimum compliance
    orange: minimum compliance – achieves legal minimum
    red: falls below the minimum

    lawyers and politicians like to think that orange = green, and will attempt to persuade that this is so.

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  4. Very good article, its interesting how different countries and cultures tackle this issue.
    Irelands definition is:

    “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual‘s right to dignity at work.”

    It also states “An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but as a once off incident is not considered to be bullying.

    It gives a list of Behaviours that constitute bully and is available here.

    Kind Regards,

    Owen Ferris

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