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A guide for HR leaders

Workplace bullying - red flags and safeguards

Dr. Briar Moir

By Dr. Briar Moir on Oct 15, 2020.

Workplace bullying - red flags and safeguards

Workplace bullying is New Zealand organisation’s elephant in the room: it’s underestimated, misunderstood and unknown.

Our research validates Stats NZ’s findings that New Zealand organisations are places where bullies are tolerated more than should be. Stats 2019 survey of working life found around 300,000 employed people, or 11% of workers, reported experiencing discrimination, harassment, or bullying in the previous 12 months[1].

The AskYourTeam survey asks everyone to respond to the statement “I feel safe to tell the truth even when it’s unpopular” and “Honesty and directness are valued in our organisation”. These questions are prime markers of inclusiveness and psychological safety within an organisation and are red flags to whether there is fertile ground for bullying.

Our data shows that in the Local Government and State Sectors, employees are 20% less willing to speak up with the truth than their leaders. This is potentially compounded by employees believing that even if they do speak up, the environment is not conducive to honesty and that their feedback is not valued, and concerns will not be acted upon appropriately.

Bullying red flags comparing execs and employee scores
Chart 1:
Bullying Red Flags: Comparing Exec and Employee Scores

The private sectors’ results are not as negative as those in the public sector. Our research suggests that employees are cautious in sharing their views, being 14% less willing to speak up than their leaders. Employees may feel more forthcoming around this issue due to the survey’s anonymity.

Responding to bullying at workplaces
The effects of bullying and conflict within the workplace can be serious. Yet, employees report being only somewhat satisfied with the safeguards their organisation has in place and that they will be applied equally across all employees. Our data shows employees’ confidence in the effectiveness of their organisation’s systems and processes were significantly lower than their leaders’. Employees scores were 11-15% lower than executive scores across the three sectors.

Bullying Safeguard Comparing Exec and Employee Scores
Chart 2: Bullying Safeguard: Comparing Exec and Employee Scores


Ask. Listen. Act.

Get in touch with our team today so that we can help you make sure bullying is not alive in your organisation.

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High-performing teams need psychological safety
An important factor in how well different teams function and in creating inclusive cultures is the level of psychological safety employees feel at work[2][3]. In psychologically safe environments employees are empowered to take risks, inspired to care about their work and to be as good as they can be. They believe that if they make a mistake, they won’t be penalised for it, they can speak up without fear of ridicule, and they won’t be judged negatively for asking for help or feedback.

Our survival mechanisms encourage us to avoid taking these risks, even though they help us learn, innovate and help teams perform more effectively. That sense of risk is magnified for someone who perceives themselves as a minority in an organisation as human instinct is to conform to group norms. Bullying clearly undermines psychological safety. Diverse and inclusive work environments are impossible without psychological safety.

The social, emotional and financial reverberations of COVID-19 will leave few lives unchanged. As we enter a period of more settled, albeit uncomfortable uncertainty of possible lockdowns, the cumulative effect of stress and lack of control can undermine wellbeing. It can also weaken the cognitive processes that make people capable and productive, both in their personal and professional lives. For those experiencing discrimination, harassment, or bullying the impact will be magnified.

Leaders can help their employees by:
  • taking action against all forms of inappropriate behaviour
  • providing the processes and procedures to ensure issues can be raised without fear, and that they will be responded to quickly and appropriately.
  • creating psychologically safe cultures
  • fostering a sense of belonging
  • ensuring they are aware of, and have access to employee assistance programmes

[1] Stats NZ (2019) One in 10 workers fees discriminated against, harassed, or bullied at work. www. https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/one-in-10-workers-feels-discriminated-against-harassed-or-bullied-at-work
[2] Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has been a leading proponent of creating psychological safety at work.
[3] Edmondson, A.C. & Lei, Z. (2014) Psychological Safety: The history, renaissance, and future of interpersonal construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational behaviour. 1, p23-43.)