Bullying at work

Bullying at work is a serious health and safety breach. It is a form of misconduct and must be dealt with responsibly.

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or a group of employees that can cause physical or mental harm. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social. It could include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.

A single or occasional incident of insensitive or rude behaviour towards another person is not considered workplace bullying, but it could become more serious and should not be ignored.

Bullying can happen not just between managers and employees, but also among co-workers, contractors, customers, clients or visitors.

Employers have legal obligations to make sure that their employees are healthy and safe at work. This includes managing the risks of bullying at work.

Employees can help prevent bullying by having a clear understanding of what kind of behaviour is appropriate and what is not. They can also help by contributing positively to workplace culture and by calling out poor behaviour directed towards themselves or others.

If bullying causes physical harm, this can be a criminal offence which should be reported to the Police. Call 111 if there is immediate physical danger.

What employers can do to address bullying

Employers should have policies and procedures in place to prevent and respond to bullying in the workplace.

As an employer, you should provide clear guidelines for your employees about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, as well as procedures for how you will deal with these behaviours.

You should make sure that all employees are aware of procedures guidelines and policies. These should include well-defined standards of expected behaviour at work and promote a healthy and respectful culture.

Creating workplace policies and procedures

WorkSafe has tools to assist employers to assess the risk of bullying at work.

Bullying at work: Advice for small businesses – WorkSafe(external link)

Preventing and responding to bullying at work – WorkSafe(external link)

You should monitor your workplace culture and regularly review your policies to make sure they continue to be effective in preventing bullying. This can be done a number of ways depending on the business, for example, by:

  • reviewing complaints
  • interviewing employees who are leaving
  • getting feedback from employees and people outside the organisation.

Responding to bullying complaints

When a formal complaint of bullying is raised, you should treat it seriously and investigate it properly. Some serious cases of bullying could be criminal offences and may be referred to the Police.

Throughout an investigation you should provide support to employees, including those who are accused of bullying. This support could include help with understanding the process, providing external counselling, and language and cultural support, as needed.

You should also consider what is needed to ensure you are keeping the workplace safe for the complainant while investigations are carried out. If the complainant and the person who has been complained about work closely, you may decide to have them work in different locations while you investigate. If the matter is serious, you could also consult with the person being complained about then suspend them.

After an investigation

If, after the investigation, you decide that bullying did not occur, you might still choose to remind people in your workplace what type of behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable.

If you decide that bullying did occur, you:

  • may take disciplinary action against the person who bullied
  • should continue to support the employee that made the complaint
  • should consider whether your workplace policies cover bullying behaviours adequately
  • should consider the culture of the area where the bullying occurred. If the behaviour is seen as acceptable in that area, you will need to take further steps to change the culture
  • could train managers and employees in what sort of behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. You could consult with the complainant on any changes proposed to be put in place
  • should try to stop these behaviours from happening again.

If you are an employer accused of bullying, you must make sure the investigation is done by an independent party and not by someone who reports to you.

Further steps to resolve bullying complaints

If bullying complaints cannot be resolved, or parties are unhappy with decisions that have been made, there are further actions that can be taken.

Personal grievance and mediation

If the complainant is not happy with your response, they may try to resolve the issue by raising a personal grievance through Employment New Zealand’s free mediation services. Employees have 90 days from when they first identified the bullying to raise a personal grievance claim under the Employment Relations Act.

Personal grievances


As an alternative to taking a personal grievance, an employee may be able to take their issue to:

Employment Relations Authority (ERA)

If the employer or the employee is unhappy with the outcomes of mediation, either party can go to the ERA.

The ERA can deal with health and safety issues if they are a part of a personal grievance under the Employment Relations Act as implied terms of an employment contract.

Who can apply to the authority – Employment Relations Authority (external link)

Employment Court

If the employer or the employee is unhappy with the ERA decision, either party can apply to challenge it in the Employment Court.

Employment Court of New Zealand(external link)

When bullying is a crime

Bullying can be a crime in some circumstances. The relevant legislation depends on the type and severity of bullying.

Crimes Act

If physical or sexual harm is caused by bullying, this may be a criminal offence and covered under the Crimes Act.

Crimes Act 1961 – New Zealand Legislation(external link)

Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA)

The HDCA may apply if bullying is occurring through digital channels. Digital communication is defined widely in the Act to include any form of electronic message such as texts, photos, pictures, and recordings.

Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 – New Zealand Legislation(external link)

Harassment Act 1997

If the bullying leads someone to fear for their safety, then it may be covered under the Harassment Act 1997.

Harassment Act 1997 – New Zealand Legislation(external link)

Employment Relations Act

The Employment Relations Act requires employees and employers to actively maintain their relationship. Repeated verbal or emotional attacks on an employee may breach the duty of .

Providing a safe workplace for employees is an implied obligation in all employment agreements. Employees may raise a personal grievance if an employer fails to manage bullying and creates an unsafe workplace.

Employment Relations Act 2000 – New Zealand Legislation(external link)

Health and Safety at Work Act

Businesses must remove or minimise risks to employees’ health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable, including the risk of harm from bullying at work. This Act applies to both employees and contractors.

Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 – New Zealand Legislation(external link)

Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act may apply if the bullying includes discrimination on the grounds of:

  • race or colour
  • disability
  • sexual orientation
  • sex (including pregnancy or childbirth)
  • age
  • ethnicity or national origins
  • religious or ethical belief.

Human Rights Act 1993 – New Zealand Legislation(external link)

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