Dealing with bullying, harassment and discrimination

Bullying, harassment, and discrimination are issues requiring careful handling. Both employers and employees should know their rights, responsibilities and options.

Investigating bullying, harassment and discrimination

Any investigation into possible instances of bullying, harassment or discrimination needs to consider both parties involved. This includes:

  • the person who the behaviour and actions were directed at (the complainant), and
  • the person being complained about.

The person making the complaint (the complainant)

  • The person dealing with the complaint must make sure that the complainant is supported throughout the process. This may include giving them access to the organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme or other counselling services.
  • If the behaviour is serious and the complainant’s job brings them into contact with the person complained about, it’s important that the complainant is protected. This could involve the person complained about being suspended while an investigation is carried out.
  • If the behaviour is considered less serious, it may be appropriate for the person to be moved to another area during the investigation. The complainant should not be the person moved (unless they specifically want this) as it may look like they are being punished. In some instances, it may be appropriate to give the complainant time off work (on discretionary leave) during the investigation, if that is what they want.
  • Given the sensitive nature of these types of complaints, confidentiality during and after an investigation is very important.
  • The person responsible for deciding the appropriate action should consider what the complainant wants to happen. For example, for minor instances, a complainant may prefer the matter to be dealt with by the manager having a quiet word that the behaviour is inappropriate. However, what the complainant wants is not the only factor to consider, and a manager may decide a different course of action is appropriate.
  • The employer should keep the complainant informed about what stage the investigation is at, and any decisions or actions that have been taken.

The person complained about

  • At the end of the investigation, if it’s decided that there was bullying, harassment or discrimination, disciplinary action for misconduct or serious misconduct may be taken against the person being complained about.
  • The nature of this action will depend on the circumstances and the individual involved. Instances of serious misconduct could result in the person’s dismissal without notice. This person’s privacy and confidentiality should also be protected.

Reporting bullying, harassment, and discrimination

If you see or hear bullying, harassment, or discrimination at your workplace, you should report it. To make sure you saw or heard things correctly, you can check with the person the behaviour was directed at or with other people who were there. If you do nothing, this type of behaviour could become, or remain, the culture of the workplace.

Malicious complaints

If an investigation finds that a complaint was made maliciously, and that the bullying, harassment or discrimination did not happen, a misconduct investigation could be held in relation to the person who made the complaint.

Serious or criminal behaviour

Sometimes bullying or harassment in the workplace may also be civil harassment covered by the Harassment Act 1997 and the complainant could apply for a restraining order.

If the behaviour:

  • includes violence
  • is criminal harassment (where the person intends and knows it is likely for the harassment to cause the other person to reasonably fear for their own or their family’s safety)
  • is another criminal offence

it should be reported to the Police.

How to report a crime or incident - New Zealand Police(external link)

Employers dealing with complaints

Receiving a complaint

If you receive a complaint of bullying, harassment or discrimination from an employee, you must make sure it is properly investigated.

  • Either the complainant or the employee being complained about (or both) could bring actions against you if the complaint is not investigated properly.
  • The complaint is not always made by the complainant — it can be made by someone who saw or heard the behaviour. Even if the person who the behaviour was directed against does not want to make a fuss, the matter should still be investigated as there may be other people who saw or heard the behaviour. Even if it is not harassment, it may still be considered misconduct.
  • When you receive a complaint of harassment or discrimination, this could be misconduct or serious misconduct so you should follow the proper investigation process and take appropriate action.
  • In addition to an employment investigation, serious cases of bullying or sexual harassment may be referred to the Police.
  • Because of the sensitive nature of these types of allegations, you should be careful to keep the investigation as confidential as possible. If the person who has been complained about works closely with the complainant, you may decide that it is appropriate to separate them while you investigate. If you temporarily move the person to a different work location, you must make sure that this does not appear to be punishment.
  • You could consider suspension of the person being complained about if the matter is serious.

WorkSafe has guidance for employers who have received a complaint of bullying.

Bullying at work – WorkSafe(external link)

After the investigation

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

If, after the investigation, you decide that the behaviour was bullying, harassment or discrimination, you:

  • may take disciplinary action against the person responsible
  • should continue to support the complainant as appropriate
  • should consider whether your workplace policies adequately cover inappropriate behaviour
  • should consider the culture of the area where the behaviour occurred. If the behaviour could be seen as acceptable in that area, you may need to take further steps to change the culture
  • could train managers and employees in what sort of behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable. It may be appropriate to consult with the complainant on any changes you are thinking of putting in place
  • should try to stop these behaviours from happening again. In relation to sexual and racial harassment, you must take whatever steps are practicable to stop the behaviour happening again. This could, for example, involve limiting access to certain parts of the workplace.
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