Bullying – what should you do?

December 1, 2021

Nobody, even the boss, has the right to direct bullying behaviour at you.

Christina Couling
Christina Couling

Workplace bullying is insidious, harmful, and very common. It can vary, but is often present in organisations that condone bullying as part of a so-called tough management style.


It may be helpful to outline what constitutes bullying and, possibly more importantly, what doesn’t, according to WorkSafe.

Workplace bullying is: Repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm. That behaviour is persistent and can involve a range of actions over time. It includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.

It 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 work instructions to be carried out, warning or disciplining workers in line with workplace policies, differences in opinion or personality clashes that do not escalate.

Under the law, workplace bullying is considered a hazard which harms workers. As such, leaders/managers must minimise its likelihood by implementing such things as a code of conduct, reporting procedures and manager training.

Health and safety processes, as outlined in the Health & Safety at Work Act, mean bullying can be added to risk registers and be the subject of Provisional Improvement Notices (PINs) and complaints to management.

A collective response?

While employers are legally obliged to mitigate bullying, a collective response is going to yield the best outcomes for workers. It is workers who can set the tone and acceptable workplace behaviours. In this regard, we would encourage workers to get together to discuss the issue of bullying and set rules around what is acceptable in their workplace. There is strength in numbers after all.

Workers can designate “safe zones” where no bullying behaviours are tolerated. An easy place to start is wherever you do your handovers, where staff must stick to discussing the patients. The zones can then be expanded throughout.

Safe zone principles might include:

  • Critique actions and ideas, not people.
  • Support others, rather than undermining them.
  • Set realistic and attainable goals (for self and others).
  • Act assertively, not passively or aggressively.

It is best to nip bullying behaviours in the bud immediately. If you are on your own with someone exhibiting bullying behaviour you could raise your hand as if indicating someone to stop and state calmly that you will not tolerate having that behaviour directed at you. This small physical barrier is often enough to stop someone in their tracks. If that doesn’t work, you are more than entitled to leave the immediate area. Nobody, even the boss, has the right to direct bullying behaviour at you. We would suggest incident reporting as well, as this will back you up if anything arises from the situation.

If you witness someone else having bullying behaviour directed at them and you don’t feel able to directly stop it, it can be helpful to simply stand beside the person who is being bullied. Bullies generally don’t like witnesses, so again this can be helpful.

Of course, this is all easy to say and more difficult to do. However, if we continue to do what we’ve always done we can expect more of the same. NZNO staff and delegates can support bullying-free workplaces, so please get in touch with NZNO’s member support centre (0800 28 38 48 or [email protected]) if you are interested in doing this.

NZNO’s role

When bullying complaints are made against someone who is an NZNO member, NZNO’s role is also to ensure that the person is dealt with fairly and as per the relevant workplace policies.

We often hear that “NZNO is supporting the bully”. However, every worker deserves to be treated with fair processes and afforded the opportunity to adjust their behaviour. That is what we would all expect if allegations are made against us.