Workplace bullying is, sadly, prolific in New Zealand.

When bullying occurs in the workplace, it can lower staff morale, decrease productivity and increase staff turnover. Most importantly, it can be detrimental to the physical and mental health of everyone involved.

In this article, we’ll define workplace bullying, provide some examples and explain how it can be resolved.

How is workplace bullying defined?

Workplace bullying, according to WorkSafe, is defined as ‘repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.’ 

This means that one-off incidents don’t amount to bullying, as the behaviour must have occurred more than once. 

Unreasonable behaviour is a little more difficult to define. It’s considered behaviour that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe to be unreasonable.

For example, victimising, humiliating, intimidating and threatening could all be categorised as unreasonable behaviour. Constructive criticism, differences in opinion, personality clashes and disciplining workers in line with the business’ code of conduct aren’t necessarily examples of unreasonable behaviour.

A few important points about workplace bullying:

  • Workplace bullying doesn’t necessarily occur in the workplace. It can occur outside of normal working hours
  • Bullying is commonly thought to occur in cases of senior management targeting junior staff, but it can also take place between co-workers
  • Workplace bullying might be physical, verbal or social and may be direct or indirect. Bullying doesn’t always take obvious forms and can result from subtle actions, such as spreading rumours or excluding a worker from a peer group

Workplace bullying in NZ

Examples of workplace bullying

According to WorkSafe, the examples outlined below could qualify as workplace bullying.

Direct and personal bullying:

  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Verbal abuse or belittling remarks
  • Physical attacks or threats of violence
  • Sense of judgment questioned
  • Opinions marginalised
  • Ignoring or isolating
  • Attacking a person’s beliefs, attitude, lifestyle or appearance
  • Ridiculing, insulting, teasing or ‘joking’
  • Suggestive glances, gestures or dirty looks

Indirect and task-related bullying:

  • Giving unachievable tasks or impossible deadlines
  • Withholding or concealing information
  • Undervaluing contribution
  • Underwork – working below competence (i.e. not pulling your weight in order to make someone else’s job harder)
  • Offensive sanctions (e.g. denying leave when there is no reason to do so)
  • Reducing opportunities for expression (e.g. interrupting someone when they’re speaking)
  • Making hints or threats about job security
  • Not giving enough training or resources

Bullying in the workplace

What protections does the law provide?

Workplace bullying is a serious matter because it can harm workers, risking their health and safety. Accordingly, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 prohibits adverse, coercive or misleading conduct against a worker. 

Additionally, the Employment Relations Act 2000 states that parties to an employment relationship must deal with each other in good faith. An employer who engages in bullying behaviour will likely be in breach of this duty. 

How should employees deal with workplace bullying?

If you believe you’ve been subjected to workplace bullying, we would recommend recording the details of each incident. 

You can seek advice from your health and safety representative, manager, union, local Community Law centre or from mediation services at the Ministry of Business or the Human Rights Commission.

Alternatively, you can make a formal written complaint to your employer.

You may also have grounds to raise a personal grievance for unjustified disadvantage under the Employment Relations Act.   

Personal grievances must be raised within 90 days of the action(s) giving rise to that grievance, but bullying conduct is often cumulative, which can make it difficult to adhere to this timeframe. Therefore, if you’re thinking about raising a personal grievance you should act quickly. In saying this, the Employment Relations Authority does have the power to permit personal grievances raised outside the 90-day period in cases of exceptional circumstances.

Harassment in the workplace

What responsibilities do employers have?

Employers have a responsibility to ensure their workplace is safe and minimise the likelihood of bullying. Therefore, businesses should have a policy in place against bullying, which:

  • Sets out the internal processes to investigate and deal with bullying
  • Clearly defines behaviour that isn’t acceptable in the workplace

If you’re dealing with a workplace bullying matter, feel free to send me an email or call our office on 09 489 9102. We provide legal advice to both employers and employees in relation to workplace bullying.


This article is brief and general in nature. You should not treat it as legal advice and should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this post. Armstrong Murray accepts no liability for losses suffered by any person or organisation who may rely directly or indirectly on this post.