'It is unlawful for people to be mistreated in their workplaces'

EEO commissioner provides insights on how New Zealand employers can proactively prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace

'It is unlawful for people to be mistreated in their workplaces'

Earlier this month, the Human Rights Commission and KPMG released a report into the cost of bullying and harassment for employers in New Zealand.

It found that bullying, sexual harassment and racial harassment in workplaces cost employers a “conservative” $1.34 billion between 2021 to 2022. And it could hit $1.5 billion in 2023.

The amount is an estimate of the economic costs for employers, who are impacted by increased use of sick and annual leave, higher turnover rates, increased time spent on addressing internal complaints, and decreased work performance due to bullying and harassment.

"This is a milestone-setting report that should wake employers up to the need to provide safe and supportive workplaces," Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo in a statement at the time.

But what can employers do to address bullying in the workplace?

The most important asset

Sumeo told HRD New Zealand that people are the most important aspect of a business.

“People are your most precious asset,” she said. “And on top of that, in New Zealand, it is unlawful for people to be mistreated in their workplaces. We have health and safety laws so there are also legal obligations upon our businesses and our business leaders to do the right thing.  

“We all have the right to be safe, we all have inherent dignity, we have a right to equality and to not be discriminated in our places of employment.”

Sumeo added that from an economic perspective, “when people are suffering at work, productivity suffers and when your productivity suffers, that impacts your profitability and the long-term prosperity of your business, and on a wider scale of an economic progression for the whole nation.”

Bullying and harassment can impact an employee’s self-esteem, confidence and their ability to feel safe at work, she said.

“When all of that is affected, their performance is affected, which then impacts their ability to progress,” she said.

“And we know, when people are affected, their families are affected. I've spoken to people where they've taken their stresses home or in the end they’ve had to leave their jobs. What that means is the income drop is significant. If you're trying to feed children, pay your rent, pay your mortgage, look after your elders, put the heating on, it has a direct impact on the quality of life of everyone connected to the worker.”

What HR can do to support workers

Amid the impacts that bullying and harassment can have on employees, Sumeo described some strategies employers can actively use to address it in the workplace.

Leadership and workplace policies: Sumeo said leadership is important when it comes to this issue and while the subject matter may be uncomfortable, she said leaders must have a policy around it. “As leaders, you’ve got to face up to it, you need to have a policy and you need to have a policy that makes it easy for people who are suffering to speak up, she said.”

Consider an independent body for people to send their complaints to: “One of the things that we've learned from our studies is victims of these behaviours don't make complaints because they don't think that people are going to take them seriously,” Sumeo said. “So, consider using an independent body to investigate these concerns. That gives some confidence to the survivor that they'll be heard.”

Provide employee training: Another key component is training employees on the issue of bullying and harassment. “We need some training on what is racial harassment? What does bullying look like?” she said. “Even in terms of where behaviours are happening, it doesn't just need to be happening in the workplace. If it happens while colleagues are traveling to a meeting, it counts; if it happens at a work function, it counts. Because it's directly related to work. So, we need to have our policies, we need to think beyond what's happening in the office or on the plant floor.”

Cultural competence: The report also identified the groups of people in the workplace who appeared to suffer more from bullying and harassment including Tangata Whenua, Pacific peoples, new migrants and Asian workers. As a result, Sumeo highlighted the importance of cultural competence and understanding different cultures and communities to reduce the instances of bullying or harassment as well. “It's really important that cultural competence, in its widest sense is brought in,” she said.

Dealing with bullying, harassment complaints

Sumeo went on to describe further actions employees can take if they are victims of bullying or harassment, such as making complaints to the Human Rights Commission, the Employment Relations Authority and WorkSafe.

“But one of the problems is that it can take so long,” Sumeo added.

“It can take two to three years for a case to go to the employment court. If my income feeds my children, I don't have the money or the time to wait that long to get a settlement. So we need to look at our whole justice system into how we make it easier for survivors of these behaviours to get support.”

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