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Investigating Workplace Bullying

8 August 2019

Everyone is entitled to a safe work environment. In addition to health and safety precautions, a safe work environment also means an environment free from bullying.

Recently there was a high-profile case of potential bullying in the media, with allegations brought against the Financial Capability Commissioner. A lot of time went into the investigations, and a learned QC produced a substantial report with all of her findings into exactly what is and isn’t considered bullying.

It seems like it should be a straightforward matter. But this report found there is a difference between a robust management style and bullying. 

Investigating Workplace Bullying

As a manager in the workplace, you must investigate all accusations of bullying. You have a duty to everyone in your workplace to make sure it’s a safe environment. That means getting full details of all the allegations, preferably in writing, with all of the dates and times of the alleged bullying behavior.

When writing down any allegations, be sure to put them in context. The words themselves may not constitute bullying, but how were they delivered? Was the person standing or sitting? Leaning towards you? Shaking their fist? Were they holding an object in their hand? Body language and facial expressions can completely change the tone of a message.

An Independent Workplace Investigator

You also have a duty to the employee accused of bullying to act in a fair and reasonable manner. In smaller businesses with fewer than ten employees, that may feel like walking a tightrope. To help, and in the interest of fairness, it’s best that an investigation is carried out by an independent third party. Someone who will not be the decision maker in whether any disciplinary action will need to be taken.

Part of that investigation will mean putting the accusations to the person accused of bullying. Even that must be carefully managed. While everyone should have the right to face their accuser and any ‘proof’ of allegations, you must assess any chance of violence or risk of harm to the accuser as a result.

How To Investigate Workplace Bullying

All businesses have limited resources. Regular Kiwi SME’s (in particular) without their own HR departments may be tempted to ‘wing it’ and try to run their own investigation around their normal workplace responsibilities. Worse still, employers may react without following proper process and dismiss an employee. Neither of these are good ideas, especially if either the accuser or accused launches a personal grievance claim, and their lawyers ask to see the methodology and findings of your investigation.

As your trusted employment advisors, we have a number of people in our team at Godfreys Law who can advise you on the right process to follow. We can lay out all the steps that need to be followed and make sure your management team, or people within your business do what’s expected. If you don’t have anyone in your business to carry out an investigation, someone from our Employment Law team can be your independent third party in any bullying inquiry. 

Bullying and Disciplinary Action

Accusations of bullying should not be made lightly. The results of an investigation may find merit in the accusations and disciplinary action should be taken against the accused or bully. However, if the investigation finds no substance in the allegations, and the accuser made complaints of bullying out of malice or spite, there could be grounds to take disciplinary action against them.

Actions that disrupt a workplace and destroy camaraderie can be damaging to a business, even harming the bottom line. Even if accusations of bullying are completely unfounded, once someone has been accused it can colour the way others see them in future, which is very unfair.

Your Christchurch Employment Law Team

Do you have a policy in your Christchurch business for investigating accusations of bullying? Is someone claiming to be bullied at work, and you need help with the next steps? Our Employment team at Godfreys Law can walk with you each step of the way, or take over managing the process from beginning to end.

For more information, or to talk with a member of our Christchurch based Employment Law team, contact Godfreys Law.

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