Beating bullying bruisers


Workplace bullying can be considered analogous to kiwifruit, says leading organisational psychology researcher Dr Helena D Cooper-Thomas

Kiwifruit are a major export earner for New Zealand:  harvested, sorted, packed onto pallets, and sent off in shipping containers around the world. 

If kiwifruit are handled well, they arrive in pristine condition. If kiwifruit are mishandled, for example in trying to work faster to get them packed more quickly, they can become cut and bruised.

One small nick can spoil a whole pallet of kiwifruit.  Few customers are happy to buy rotten fruit, and the business suffers.

This analogy is a useful way of thinking about bullying and other negative behaviour in the workplace.

If people are – as is often said – your greatest asset, then invest the time and effort to treat people respectfully.

If you ignore incivility, rude remarks and bad behaviour, then you are allowing those small nicks to occur.  Those cuts will fester and they risk spoiling the climate of your workplace.

Here’s some information and ideas on bullying to help you think about how it may be affecting your workplace, and what you could do.


Bullying is a significant hazard in New Zealand workplaces, characterized by negative acts that may be directed at an individual either in more covert ways (e.g., being humiliated or excluded), or overtly (e.g., being shouted at, threats of violence), or in ways that focus on an individual’s work (e.g., persistent criticism of work or effort, excessive monitoring of work).


Using a stringent criterion of experiencing having to experience such negative acts over six months or more, approximately one in five New Zealand employees experience bullying.  On a weekly basis, approximately one in ten New Zealand employees witness bullying by others.

These prevalence rates are similar to other countries. For example, in the Australian State of Victoria, they have tracked bullying over time and found rates to be very stable.

In their research, one in five employees experience bullying.  However a higher rate is found for witnessing bullying: one in three employees.


Commensurate with these high prevalence rates, bullying has high costs.  For those who experience bullying, they experience negative emotions such as anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, they feel they cannot cope and often experience emotional exhaustion at work.

Unsurprisingly given the repeated criticism of the individual themselves and their work that is part of bullying, they report lower performance at work and may quit their job.  There are also well-documented cases of suicide from workplace bullying.

Thus the ripple effects are much broader than just the perpetrator and target, affecting friends, family and colleagues.

Colleagues are also directly affected by witnessing bullying.  Witnesses to bullying report higher strain, lower wellbeing, lower performance and higher intentions of leaving.

Again, harking back to the analogy at the outset, allowing negative acts to occur can affect the climate of the workplace more broadly, having pernicious effects.

Identifying bullying can be difficult, especially as it can be subjective – what one person thinks is fun hijinks, another may experience as intimidating, whether or not they are the target.

When identifying bullying, assess firstly whether the behaviour is reasonable or not, and secondly whether it is persistent or not.

Taking the first of these, consider whether another person in the same situation would see the behaviour as reasonable or not.  If you decide it is unreasonable, then that is one criterion met.

The second criterion is whether the behaviour is persistent.  A one-off incident is not bullying.

While persistent does not give you a specific guideline of time, many academic researchers in this area use a timeline of six months or more.

However, this is a long time to experience bullying, and I suggest a shorter timeline may reveal persistence, depending also on how frequent the bullying behaviour is within that time frame.


Turning again to my analogy at the outset of packing kiwifruit, it is critical to have a respectful climate at work which allows people to be fully engaged and authentic at work.

Employees can do their best work when they feel safe and valued.  It no surprise then that I suggest organisational-level strategies as being the most important in preventing or reducing bullying.

An assessment of the organisational climate will provide information on where potential problem areas are, for example specific departments or particular types of work.

While surveys are a common way of doing this, more recent brief “pulse” surveys might be suited to this, or else data could be collected through interviews or focus groups.

Think about what will suit your workplace best, and how you can enable employees to be comfortable giving their views.

Leadership is critical in establishing and maintaining a respectful climate.  Leaders should role model considerate behaviour towards others.

This does not mean avoiding conversations around performance standards, but rather that such discussions should follow best practice in being constructive conversations.

Leaders also play a critical role in dealing with negative behaviour.  If leaders see misbehaviour or hear of it from colleagues, they should take the time to find out what happened and deal with it.

A laissez-faire approach, ignoring events as much as possible, suggests that leaders don’t care, and those with opportunities to bully may do so, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be repercussions.

My research with New Zealand academic colleagues found that bullying happened more in fast-paced and chaotic environments, especially where there was weak leadership.

In particular, where employees are reacting on the spot to the demands of customers, clients or patients, the immediate task demands may mean that other employees can get away with negative behaviour towards a target employee or group of employees.

In such environments, an employee on the receiving end of the negative behaviour may prioritise the immediate task demands and not stop to deal with the negative behaviour because doing so would look unprofessional; both as the task would be delayed and also because it would involve an interchange about the negative behaviour in front of others.

Strong leadership that role models intervention in such cases is likely to permeate through the culture, so that employees who are targets or witnesses to such negative behaviours feel safe to speak up, knowing that they will be supported by their leaders.

Beyond climate and leadership, organisations should have an anti-bullying policy and make sure this is accessible and implemented.

Employees will feel safer knowing that their employer has taken the time to consider how bullying will be dealt with.

For more information, check out the government guidelines available via Work Safe New Zealand at