Are you aware of upwards bullying in your workplace?

by Cameron Edmond26 Nov 2013
Bullying in the workplace is often believed to occur among those on the same level in an organisation, or down the chain of command – that is, a manager bullying their subordinates.

However, Sean Selleck, partner at Baker & McKenzie, feels that more attention needs to be drawn towards ‘upwards bullying’ – which occurs when staff bully managers.

Selleck cited the case of McGowan v Nutype Accessories Limited (2003) in New Zealand. In this case, the general manager had been bullied by an employee over a period of three months, in the form of verbal abuse with obscene language, offensive insults and personal threats.

The company’s managing director, although aware of the problem, was slow to act, taking no substantial action against the employee, even though they were on their final warning. Eventually, the general manager resigned; arguing his resignation amounted to constructive dismissal.

The Court found that the company had failed to provide a safe working environment for the general manager, and criticised the company for not taking steps to investigate the situation.

“The threshold at which conduct amounts to bullying is not necessarily higher for an employee with management responsibilities,” Selleck stated.

In light of the new anti-bullying laws, Selleck theorised that the ‘reasonable management actions’ exception will not be applicable in cases of upwards bullying due to the language used (‘management’), thus making upwards bullying all that harder to avoid or defend against.

Catherine Gillespie, managing director of Workplace Conflict Resolution, raised similar concerns over the language of the legislation.

“The Commission has included extensive reference to past case law in the guidelines but even the definitions of ‘bullying’ or ‘reasonable management actions’ are still vague and open to new precedents being set,” she stated. On the whole, however, Gillespie welcomed the new changes.

“At the end of the day, the measures are designed to prevent bullying in the workplace,” she said. “This is a great objective but the best measures any business can take should be in-house and include inspired leadership, training at all levels of the business and a workplace culture that leaves no room for bullying or behaviour that might be interpreted as bullying to arise in the first place.”

Key HR Takeaways
HC has expanded upon the necessity for strict anti-bullying policies previously. However, Selleck’s statements highlight the fact HR must ensure upwards bullying is addressed thoroughly as well. HR must ensure:
  • Employees are aware of their manager’s roles and responsibilities.
  • Employees understand what upwards bullying is, and that it is just as unacceptable as other forms of bullying.
  • Managers must have a clear understanding of who to speak with in the company if they feel bullied.


  • by Leanne Faraday-Brash 26/11/2013 3:15:57 PM

    Upward bullying has existed alongside stereotypical top-down bullying forever. Your article focuses on manager obligations one of which should be not to tolerate bullying by anyone of anyone. However what is often not discussed is the walking on eggshells with the aggressive or otherwise inappropriate subordinate for fear of a bullying grievance, the mentally ill employee for fear of being charged with discrimination or the popular, charismatic bully for fear of the manager being isolated or excluded by the bully's supporters.
    If anyone doubts the damage caused by upward bullying I can assure you I've seen too many managers (and supervisors) "terrorized" by groups on the shop floor who've waged hate campaigns against them because they want workers to work or because they are agents of necessary but unpopular change.

  • by Bernie Althofer 26/11/2013 3:51:47 PM

    It would be wrong to assume that it there was no upwards bullying, with some only wanting to point the finger at 'management'. Over the years, I have heard stories about upwards, downwards and across the organisation, and in addition, from one organisation to another.

    There is a risk to organisations if there is an underestimation of the damage that can be caused, how it can be caused, how could be involved and the motives for the allegation.

    Organisations need to be on the front foot as far being aware of changes that are coming, and need to make sure that educative processes start at the top and are lead from the top.

    Perhaps some individuals do not understand the complexity of what is involved simply because of the way 'training' or 'presentations' are conducted.

  • by Steve Gray 27/11/2013 6:05:06 AM

    One way to tackle this is to ensure people understand the company values (Respect is the one I want to point out here) then all staff can be trained in it, be given examples of it and you should then hear people saying, "stop harassing me, there's no respect here." (or words to that effect.)

    This lends itself to all manner of training and development options to ensure exceptional communication and respect is followed through.

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