15 August 2011

The Public Service Association is reported to be surveying at their homes, the union’s members who work for the Department of Building and Housing, because of the extent of bullying in the Department. Bullying in the workplace is a common New Zealand circumstance, and a number of surveys show that government agencies are seldom better than other employers. The PSA has said that in the Department of Building and Housing the environment is “beyond the point that is acceptable’ (whatever that may be).

In the State Services integrity and conduct surveys in 2007 and again in 2010, the misconduct most frequently observed by respondents was abusive and intimidating behaviour towards staff. Of particular concern is that this bullying by managers was the only measure in the survey that deteriorated substantially between the two surveys. Whereas 36% of State servants observed abusive behaviour in the 12 months prior to the 2007 survey, this deteriorated to 38% in 2010.

From an ethics perspective, bullying is concerning not just because of the misconduct itself but because managers should be setting the tone of their agency and modelling standards expected of their staff. A bully is not being fair. Being fair is a primary requirement of State servants. Unfair managers will be unable to meet the other integrity principles of being impartial, responsible and trustworthy.

Research last year by the US Workplace Bullying Institute found about 50% of the U.S. workforce had been bullied by someone at work or had witnessed a colleague being mistreated. The State Services surveys didn’t provide any description of harassment, but the US survey listed unwarranted or invalid criticism; blame without factual justification; being treated differently than the rest of your group; being sworn at or threatened; exclusion or social isolation; being shouted at or humiliated; excessive monitoring or micro-managing; and being given work unrealistic deadlines.

Forty percent of female State servants report they have observed abusive or intimidating behaviour, but “only” 33% of men had that experience. The US research was that men are more likely to participate in aggressive bullying behaviour (60%), however when the bully is a woman her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%) – as in the circumstances reported in the Department of Building and Housing

The State Services Commission recommended 8 priority areas for agencies if they were to moderate the misconduct highlighted by the 2010 integrity survey. A focus on bullying was not included, possibly because the need was obvious. Any attention given to acting with integrity and modelling expected standards would diminish the frequency of bullying. As in new Zealand, no United States jurisdiction has yet treated bullying in the workplace in the same way as sexual harassment, prescribing an offence and stipulating management processes. However 16 states have proposals to legislate.