01 Nov 2022

Bad Behaviour vs Bullying

May 18 heralded Pink Shirt Day – a movement which began in Canada in 2007 when two students took a stand against homophobic bullying, mobilising their whole school, after a peer was bullied for wearing a pink shirt.

In New Zealand, Pink Shirt Day aims to create schools, workplace and communities where all people feel safe, valued and respected. It’s a fantastic movement that we should all get involved with.

Thinking back, when I attended school in the 1970s the term “Bully” didn’t really exist. It might have been used on a rare occasion when someone was rough-housing in the playground and was often related to a physical action. These days however, the term Bully is becoming as common as the words “if” and “but”. Before I go too much further – let me be very clear. I am absolutely not a supporter of bullying and will stand up to unacceptable actions when I see them. However, at the risk of alienating this audience, can I suggest that at times the term “Bully” is used as catch-all for unsavoury human behaviour and actions which may not always be appropriate? Bullying is used so frequently that it’s getting more difficult to accurately assess what is actually occurring. This catch-all phrase grabs the attention of any employer and rightly so they must investigate. The term Bully in 2018, harvests the same response as “Stress” did in 2010. It’s a call to action that gets results.

Every newspaper has articles on bullying; the determinations in the Employment Relations Authority are riddled with bullying cases – but I wonder, have workplaces and human behaviour really changed that much in the last forty years? Sadly, over the past few years, we’ve seen some very valid cases of bullying and this can’t be tolerated. Similarly though, we’ve worked with many employers and employees who are at their wits end, because they’ve been accused of bullying when their actions have been nowhere near what would constitute bullying. Vexatious claims are hugely time consuming but can’t be discounted. Many of the claims have resulted purely out of poor management skills, management direction, instructions or holding people to account.

Looking at the trends in Waikato workplaces we are seeing a significant trend appearing where more resilience training is requested. Are bullying and lack of resilience connected? Are employees different now than they were forty years ago – of course they are! The pressures are greater, expected outputs are higher, interference of social media hangs over our heads and overall the workplace is a much different place than it was. Similarly, people are bringing more of themselves to work every day – with current financial and social pressures experienced outside work, some employees arrive at work with reduced capacity to cope so the last thing they want to hear is the manager, who may also be experiencing the same pressures or perhaps lacks skills, directing the employee to complete a task.

Bullying must be stamped out – we all agree. Much of the advice I give employers and employees these days comes down to one key ingredient. What is the culture you want to create in your workplace? What is your moral code that’s acceptable to all the other humans you work with. A question that generally gets a rise when I talk about culture is – would you tolerate that behaviour if it was happening to your son or daughter? These days bullying may be more related to a psychological event, rather than a physical one.

We must collectively take a stance on bullying, but we also need to understand the difference between bullying and bad behaviour – they are not always one and the same. If you are concerned about what you think could be bullying behaviour then Worksafe (worksafe.govt.nz) has some excellent guidelines and tools available to employees and employers. Similarly, early advice and discussion by employees and employers alike will open up avenues. Also, initiatives such as workplace support programmes as well as targeted coaching interventions for individuals will also help.

Lastly – don’t wait for a claim or complaint to walk in your door – don’t wait for employees to suffer at the hands of bad behaviour or bullying (remember there is a difference) – as a business owner you set the culture in your business. It’s up to you.

By Senga Allen, Managing Director

Ph: 027 210 4212