Workplace Bullying Series – Part 1: What is workplace bullying?


Workplace bullying.  What is it? What do you do when you feel you are being bullied?  What do you do if you have been accused of being bullied?  As an employer what do you do if your employee complains about workplace bullying and how do you prevent workplace bullying?

Our six-part series addresses all of these questions.

What is bullying?

Bullying is not limited to behaviour between managers and staff but can be between colleagues or individuals, including clients, customers, or visitors.  Nor is bullying constrained to conduct that occurs on workplace premises.  Cyberbullying and actions that occur outside of the workplace may all amount to bullying.  This is important to remember given the increase in employees working from home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The WorkSafe NZ guidelines define bullying as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.”  It includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating, or threatening.  It may also include harassment, discrimination, or violence, noting that these have their own distinct legal remedies.

Workplace bullying can be personal (direct) or task-related (indirect). This can look like:

Personal Task-related
Belittling remarks Assigning unachievable tasks and deadlines
Ignoring, excluding, and isolating Assigning meaningless or unpleasant tasks
Threats of violence Offensive sanctions, e.g. denying resources when there is no reason to do so


What bullying does not include

Though bullying behaviours can be described as unfair, unfairness alone will not always amount to workplace bullying.  Constructive feedback, high performance standards and warning or disciplining employees in line with workplace policies are not within the WorkSafe definition of bullying.  A one-off case of rudeness or tactlessness is not considered bullying as it is not repeated behaviour.


Legal obligations

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 imposes a duty on employers to ensure the health and safety of workers.  This includes psychological  health.  As bullying has been accepted as a workplace risk, if an employee is a victim of bullying, their employer is at risk of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 if the employer fosters an unsafe work environment where bullying occurs, or through a failure to adequately address bullying that they are aware of.

Employers will also have individual obligations arising from their company’s policies relating to bullying. It is important that employers understand their policies as they may create obligations that go beyond the WorkSafe guidelines.

Additionally, incidents of workplace bullying place the employer at the risk of receiving a personal grievance from the victim, or the alleged bully.  A personal grievance may be raised on the grounds of:

In part two of this series we will look at things employers should consider to help prevent and address workplace bullying.

If you:

get in touch with the Black Door Law team.

Disclaimer:  This information is intended as general legal information and does not constitute legal advice.

This article is part of a 6 part series on Workplace Bullying, our other articles in the series can be found in the following links:

Workplace Bullying – Prevention is better than cure

Workplace Bullying – What to do when you receive a workplace bullying complaint

Workplace Bullying – Obligations to the complainant

Workplace Bullying – The forgotten person (obligations to the respondent)

Workplace Bullying – The impact of on modern workplace on workplace bullying