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Boss or Bully: The Difference

Published April 25, 2018 (last updated May 31, 2022) -

Everyone has the right to go to work and not experience bullying. Workplace bullying is a very serious issue, with recent studies showing one in five employees have felt victimised at some point in their career.

Many bullying claims come from employees against their managers or employers. This emphasises the difficulty in differentiating between bullying and reasonable management action – some employees can claim they feel bullied when being performance managed or having disciplinary action taken against them. Yet, management action taken against an employee is not bullying if it is carried out in a reasonable manner.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Employment Relations Act, employers have to identify and control hazards that could harm their staff. This includes hazards from undesirable behaviours like bullying; therefore it is important to make the distinction between bullying and reasonable management action. The following are examples of both.

Bullying is repeated behaviour that includes:

  • being aggressive, intimidating or humiliating
  • using bad language or rudeness
  • teasing, playing practical jokes or spreading rumours
  • exclusion from team activities
  • unreasonable work expectations, whether it be too much, too little or withholding information needed to do the job

Reasonable management action includes:

  • setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • rostering and allocating working hours
  • transferring a worker for operational reasons
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process has been followed
  • informing a worker of their unsatisfactory work performance
  • informing a worker of their unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
  • implementing organisational change or restructuring
  • taking disciplinary action including suspension or termination of employment

Employers should have a bullying prevention policy and procedure to address any employee issues. This will ensure that in the event of a claim, the employer can establish that they took reasonable management action to defend any accusation of bullying. Employers should regularly coach managers on the effective management standards and emphasise the bullying prevention policies and procedures in place. When expectations for work and behaviour are clearly demonstrated by management, there is less chance of undesirable behaviour from staff, and good staff conduct is the key to a healthy workplace.

If you have any questions relating to bullying or reasonable management actions, contact us today on 0800 568 012. Our specialist team can answer any questions you may have.

About Employsure

Employsure is one of New Zealand’s largest workplace relations advisers to small and medium businesses, with over 5,000 clients. We take the complexity out of workplace legislation to help small business employers protect their business and their people.

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