8 July 2011

The State Services Integrity Survey carried out in 2007 and again in 2010 measured levels of trustworthiness in agencies, based on the experience of State servants. In 2007, the most frequently observed misconduct was abusive and intimidating behaviour towards employees. Remedial recommendations for agency leaders included taking decisive action where this bullying behaviour arose. In 2010 the survey indicated that, if anything, bullying had worsened, with the responses suggesting that 38% experienced this staff on staff intimidation. There was no evidence of any concerted attention given to reversing the trend.

Bullying is common in many jurisdictions but seems more rife in New Zealand than elsewhere, with problems being greater in education and health sectors. There is regular media attention to problems in schools. Earlier this year Michelle Obama, supported by the US President, fronted a campaign that highlighted the blighting effect of bullying on school children. School bullies become workplace bullies. Work by the Health Research Council and the Department of Labour found that bullying is more prevalent in New Zealand due to the “autocratic and old style of management” still existing in many of the country’s organisations.

A HuffPost blog entry last week “…Abusive Bosses and Unhealthy Management” indicates that the New Zealand experience is far from unique. The blog reports that …a Gallup Poll of 1 million workers found that bad bosses are the number 1 reason for quitting a job. And a 2011 Harris poll found that 36 percent of workers report ongoing work stress, “most of which is related to negative or outright unhealthy management practices”.

Keynote addresses as both the New Zealand Employment Law conference in June, and the UK Employment Law conference yesterday featured bullying and intimidation in the workplace.

The State Sector Act specifies that departmental chief executives are responsible for “fair and proper” and “good and safe” workplaces. The State Services code of conduct imposes an obligation to treat everyone fairly and with respect. The guidance explains that the standard includes “…not harassing, bullying or otherwise intimidating members of the public or colleagues.”

Of course, publishing a code is never enough. Integrity is a state of mind, not a set of rules. And leadership means leading by example.