Alessandra Keighley was bullied at work.
The tactics of a workplace bully don’t seem like a big deal – a constant glare from a co-worker, the silent treatment, being ignored, or treated in a rude and disrespectful manner.
But the insidious behaviour could be costing New Zealand businesses billions of dollars a year. In neighbouring Australia, workplace bullying has been estimated to cost more than A$6 billion (NZ$6.4b) annually.
In contrast to playground bullying, its workplace counterpart can be more difficult to define. Cases often involve employees being bullied by more senior staff members, leaving victims feeling helpless.
It’s an issue that’s not uncommon – a 2012 study by the New Zealand Work Research Institute at AUT University found almost one in five New Zealanders had experienced workplace bullying- and it’s happening right here in Taranaki.
Andrew Laurenson, a partner at New Plymouth legal firm Govett- Quilliam who specialises in employment litigation, says he has seen about 15 instances where legal action has been taken due to workplace bullying.
“I deal with it from all sorts of different angles.”
Laurenson says if an employee makes a claim of workplace bullying, their employer has a duty to take action. If they don’t do so, there could be grounds for a grievance claim.
Though there is no specific legislation covering the issue, several different acts, including the Employment Relations Act, the Health and Safety in Employment Act, the Harassment Act and the Human Rights Act cover aspects of workplace bullying.
In February, the New Zealand Government’s newly formed safety body Worksafe New Zealand released a set of guidelines on workplace bullying outlining what it is, how it can be identified and how it can be dealt with.
The guidelines identify bullying as “a significant workplace hazard that affects employee health and business productivity.”
It can cause increased stress levels, decreased emotional wellbeing, reduced coping strategies and lower work performance.
Its effects can cost money by reducing productivity and disrupting workplaces through impaired performance, increased absence, low morale, a higher rate of errors and accidents, loss of company reputation, resignations and difficulty recruiting, poor customer service and product quality.
New Zealand Work Research Institute director, Professor Tim Bentley, says workplace bullying is the country’s biggest health and safety problem, affecting between 15 and 20 per cent of the workforce.
“It is the biggest cause of stress in the workplace, which is the biggest cause of lost time.”
Bentley says employers need to take responsibility for bullying and look at ways of preventing it from occurring, by using resources like those provided by the Worksafe guidelines.
“The biggest problem is ignorance. People don’t know what it is. People associate it with violence and harassment, which it’s not. It’s more subtle, repetitive, accumulative.”
He says once it can be identified and understood, it can be prevented from occurring.
“We should be willing to support people who have been bullied, bringing the issue into the open, into the conversation.”
It’s not a bad thing to find there is bullying in a workplace, but once it is discovered it must be dealt with, rather than being swept under the carpet, he says.
Removing the victim from the workplace will not usually solve the problem, as the bully is likely to reoffend.
Barbara McKerrow, chief executive of one of New Plymouth’s largest employers – the New Plymouth District Council, says although the organisation has around 500 full time equivalent staff, instances of bullying have been few and far between in the six years she has been chief executive.
She says many of the instances that could be identified as bullying have come from staff interactions with the public.
“In an organisation this size problems between people are inevitable.
“Because of the nature of the work, we receive more complaints about the way staff are treated by members of the public,” McKerrow says, using animal control officers as an example.
She says staff are trained to manage such situations and the organisation has a code of conduct, staff policy manual and a problem resolution process available for staff to follow if they have an employment relationship problem.
The processes are currently being reviewed alongside the Worksafe New Zealand guidelines and workplace culture is regularly measured within the council, she says.
“We are pretty innovative in the way we work on our culture. It’s a conscientious effort. We take every complaint seriously. Nine out of 10 times it’s not bullying.”
*** Alessandra Keighley says she wanted to share her story of workplace bullying to let others know that if they are being bullied, they can come out the other side.
She is now part of the team that runs Access Radio Taranaki, but a decade ago, the situation was very different.
About six months into a new job, once Keighley began to settle in and was achieving success, the attitude of her manager took a turn for the worse and the manager began bullying her.
Keighley says the manager isolated her from the rest of her colleagues, badmouthing and undermining her in front of staff and the business owners.
“It was just crushing,” she says.
“The worst part was it sowed self doubt. The undermining made me question whether I was capable. It had a huge impact on my self esteem as an employee.”
The manager was cunning and had a close relationship with the business owners. The manager made it look like it was Keighley that was causing problems.
When the bullying was not dealt with Keighley left the job. The bully then began to taunt another staff member and was eventually dismissed, at the employer’s expense.
Years later, Keighley says she did not realise she still had issues with what had happened until she spoke with New Plymouth woman Ally McCullagh of McCullagh Consulting.
“She helped me to understand it wasn’t about me and my performance.”
Keighley says the bullying didn’t begin until she had shown she was successful in her job.
“It was never about me other than as a compliment that I was a good worker.”
“Bullying is toxic to a business. It’s a blight. It’s so insidious. It costs them money and the business owners don’t know how to deal with it.”
“I would just love people to know it can get better.”
A 38-year-old mother, who preferred not to be named, has been bullied by a colleague for about five years.
“She used to be more in my face, but now it’s become more sneaky, cunning and subtle.”
The bully makes personal attacks and is nosy about the victim’s private life. She can be verbally abusive, shouting and yelling, teasing and ridiculing.
She will often do these things in front of other staff and clients, making the victim feel humiliated. The victim says it has stunted her confidence. She becomes quiet and avoids the bully as much as possible.
The ongoing bullying has had a snowball effect on her life, with “huge repercussions.” She began to dread going to work, but was unable to leave because she could not afford to. She felt stuck, like there was no solution to the problem and was put on anti- depressant medication by her doctor.
She says she is not the bully’s only victim and staff do not like to use the smoko room at work when the bully is in there.
When she finally built up the courage to speak to the business owners about the situation, she said they were unable to resolve it.
“They say they will do something but then they back off and it goes back to how it was,” she says.
She believes they are intimidated by the bully and are hoping the problem will just go away.
“They said they won’t get rid of her because they think it will be costly.
“She has everyone where she wants them.”
“I’m not putting up with it, but I don’t want to leave. If I do, she will just do it to someone else,” the victim says.
“I’m good at my job, I’m not just going to leave because of her.”
She says she is lucky that she has has friends (including Ally McCullagh who recently held a workshop in New Plymouth on identifying workplace bullying) to support her throughout.