Don Franks

According to a feature in today’s Dominion Post, “one in five Kiwi workers suffer from workplace bullying, one of the worst rates in the world”.

The claim’s made by a Minister of Labour commissioned university survey, released on 16/4/2010.

A joint university research team – from Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London – polled more than 1700 workers from the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors asking how frequently they were exposed to “negative acts” at work.

Overall 17.8 per cent of respondents were identified as victims of bullying.

The international range was claimed to be between 5 per cent and 20 per cent.

Higher rates of bullying were found in the education and health sectors and hospitality area kitchens.

According to the study, bullying included bosses picking on workers, workers harassing colleagues and workers intimidating bosses.
The main preoccupation of the study was not worker’s welfare, but capitalist profits.

Lead researcher Professor Tim Bentley said the cost of bullying had been estimated in Britain at $NZ2165 per person each year and almost $NZ5.23 billion per year in Australia.

Bullying hit costs because of decreases in productivity due to worker absenteeism, staff turnover, lower staff satisfaction and time spent investigating bullying.

He wailed that workplace bullying in New Zealand could be “a billion-dollar problem”.

“Workplace bullying” is a relatively new sociological discovery and when I started my working life forty years ago, bullying was something that happened only to unfortunate school kids. So has workplace bullying just appeared or were we previously just too insensitive to notice it?

When it comes to recognising the realities of industrial relations bosses are usually streets ahead of learned academics.

So this time round I wasn’t surprised to I find myself in some agreement with David Lowe from the Employers and Manufacturers Association, who complained that the “negative acts” research question was too wide. “What people would normally describe as bullying and `two negative acts in the workplace’ are not one and the same,” Lowe said.

“If somebody had said to the person, `you’re not doing well enough, you need to do it better’, and told them that twice in one week, that might amount to bullying under this survey, but it is not bullying, it is simply running your business.”

Of course what David Lowe leaves out of his picture is the capitalist power relationship and drive for profit, but that’s essentially what the government commissioned survey does too.

Mixing up ” bosses picking on workers, workers harassing colleagues and workers intimidating bosses” as if all were the same thing is an idiocy which could only emerge from the rarefied high altitude atmosphere of academia.
If any worker looks like annoying, let alone “intimidating” their boss, that boss can warn or sack the worker and, if required, have the cops there in two seconds to get the recalcitrant intimidator off the bosses’ private property. If a worker is picked on by the boss, there are three main possible outcomes. On an organised site, worker solidarity and union support can offer some redress. For a well paid worker, the services of a lawyer might get some reprieve. For the great mass of New Zealand workers today, those two solutions are not available. Most workers systematically picked on by their boss can only lump it or leave.

What about workers harassing colleagues?

Looking back on my own work years, I can recall some, but not very much. As a teenage apprentice I was gleefully subjected to teasing and practical jokes, none of which left lasting scars. The ritual game had limits and was clearly a product of boredom rather than malice. There is a difference between horseplay and harassment, occasionally blurred, but usually apparent.

I can’t really speak about office jobs, but in factory and cleaning jobs, my experience of the culture is overwhelmingly one of respect and consideration for your workmates.

Human behaviour is conditioned by material circumstances. Generally, the higher level of organisation, the more civilised the general behaviour. On a low paid unorganised job where you have to run all the time, tempers get frayed, it’s everyone for themselves and some get hurt. These days, with union organisation at an all time low, and stress levels high, there probably is generally more inconsiderate behaviour across worksites. There may well be more incidents of basically powerless people picking on a weaker looking workmate just to give their own battered ego a boost.

Academics depicting desperate worker alienation as similar behaviour to employer harassment solve nothing. Insofar as their overpaid efforts affect anything at all, they help perpetuate capitalist injustice, by drawing a false picture of it.


  1. Hi there,

    I thought it was only me who have had terrible experiences at work with their bosses. My first job straight after University landed me in a terrible Accounting workplace that treated their staff like dirt. They overworked them and underpaid them. They were expected to come in on weekends and stay long hours after 5pm. They were also not paid a single cent for over time. I was quite surprised and I decided this would not be me. But as time went by I slowly got into this routine without even knowing.

    Overworking is a personal choice sometimes, as you want to complete your work and make your clients happy. However, disrespect and bullying at this workplace was so embedded that everybody just accepted their situation. The 2ND partner was the worst. She has had a baby recently and started working part-time. She would spend her time stabbing her employees in the back, gossiping about her own clients personal lives to everyone in the firm, watching youtube or spend time on facebook. Although she expected top performance from you PLUS a little more. If you don’t kiss her back-side as she walks in the door, she would make it her duty to ruin your life at work. One employee told me “Just to exactly what she wants, or trust me life is not worth living”. It was at that moment I realized how ridiculous this whole situation was. I pitied every fool who bowed down to such an incompetent woman and a pathetic workplace.

    We had a girl who was hired as a “Graduate” and worked here for 3 months, but she decided to quit. She had given no notice, although I found her crying and vomiting in the car park. She was taken into the Directors office and was yelled at for 2 hours for not attending a social event of the firm. She came out with her face red. There were several ‘closed doors’ incidents; until she gave up and quit with no notice except a written doctors certificate. She has gotten depression and they caused her to be ill.

    I too have had bad experiences within this particular workplace, although I’m grateful everyday that I have a mouth to stand up for myself. I have given them a month notice of the fact that I was quitting. Within that month I was yelled and embarrassed by the incompetent woman who people call her to be a “partner”. I’m glad because I knew then I had made the right decision. Perhaps I should have made the decision on my first 2 weeks, as this woman said I have “possum eyes” (meaning they are round and attractive). I have just laughed that comment off.

    My point is, that nobody should ever “Accept” a negative situation in their lives, and think that it’s OK for anybody to treat you bad. Because I consider myself to be an excellent hardworking employee. I have recently been given another employment opportunity by an Accounting firm and the team here is absolutely wonderful. We should never accept and stay within an unfair environment where they kick you when you are down. Always remember that these are just people, who were at a same position or perhaps worse at one time in their lives.

    Some people stay within these firms for 10-20 years while gritting their teeth. I’m telling you now, that It is not healthy! You need to leave or start looking for another job! Because once you have moved on, you will feel amazing and strong. I have never felt so proud and accomplished as I do now. I stayed within the firm for 1.5 years ( I was planning on staying for about 4-5 years). I decided that I’m worth so much more. :-)

    I hope somebody gets to read my post and finds the strength within themselves to make a positive direction in their lives.



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