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Kerre Woodham: Workplace bullying or crossed wires?

Author
Kerre Woodham,
Publish Date
Fri, 17 May 2024, 10:10am
Photo / Getty | File
Photo / Getty | File

Kerre Woodham: Workplace bullying or crossed wires?

Author
Kerre Woodham,
Publish Date
Fri, 17 May 2024, 10:10am

The report out that workplace bullying is costing the country in terms of productivity and lost earnings is nothing new.  Bullying and harassment are conservatively estimated to cost employers $1.5 billion a year, according to a new study by KPMG, published for Friday's Pink Shirt Day.    

Years ago, there was a story on workplace bullying that surfaced in the news and the Department of Labour had to scramble to get extra staff to man the phones when a helpline they set up to take calls was overwhelmed. They had to keep it running for far longer than they ever imagined they would need to, such was the response. 

I'd like to think things have changed since I was a young journalist, but I don't think they have, and the report seems to confirm they have not. 

I grew up in newsrooms which were no place for the fainthearted.  Sure, there was no physical hazing or pranking, but journos are good with words and there was some brutal sledging.  I wasn't often on the receiving end of it, but on the rare occasion, I had a boss lean over me screaming into my face that I was effing useless and that I didn't deserve to be there and who the ‘f’ had I slept with to be on the team was fairly memorable.  To be fair, I was a bit rubbish. Most people new to any job make mistakes and haven't developed into the best versions of themselves, and yes, I probably didn't deserve to be there. I knew I hadn't slept my way into the job and the others knew I hadn't so that bit didn't really matter. So, after a bit of a cry in the toilets and being mopped up by my colleagues it was onwards and upwards.  A different person might have been scarred for life. Given up on their chosen career and done something else.    

And I rather fear it is still happening because today’s study used data from the Human Rights Commission’s 2022 report, which surveyed 2500 workers across Aotearoa and found 29% of workers experienced at least one bullying or harassment behaviour in the year before the survey.  The report found that 58% of the total cost of ($780m) in 2021-22 arose from impacts on female workers as they are disproportionately affected by bullying or harassment, according to the report. Or maybe it’s more likely that they will report it or that they will find offence and hurt from words other workers might not. 

It found that every worker affected cost employers about $1600, which could be broken down into absenteeism ($219), presenteeism ($450), where you’re there, but you’re not there. You’re at your desk but you’re not working. Increased staff turnover ($674), and internal procedures such as dealing with complaints ($270).  Big numbers, no doubt about that.   

At least now there are procedures for dealing with complaints. Back then, it was ‘suck it up and get on with it’. But I mean, nobody in the olden days was trained to be a boss. After a certain period of time you were promoted, you became one whether you were good at dealing with people or not. These days, I think the training is a little bit better if you want to be a manager. You’re given a bit more support once you become a manager, but back then, it just simply didn’t happen. 

But it’s also difficult to know how people are going to receive your words. I mean, we were talking about this before and the boss is, you know, sometimes he will say ‘I'd like you to do this’, and a young worker will say, ‘yeah, no, not really for me.’ And he goes ‘it wasn't, this isn't a workshop. This is, this is not a discussion. This is what I need you to do to do your job.’ And that can be construed in this day and age as bullying.  

A bit of banter between work mates, fine. A bit of banter with the wrong workmate? Not fine. 

It all has to be so nuanced, doesn't it? And I know that I have got the height of a rhinoceros, I know that I will go for the one liner wherever I can and sometimes that can be hurtful. So, I have tried to give younger workers, you know, when they feel that they might, I might have gone too far, a way of letting me know that. I know that I'm older, I've been around longer,  I can be bolshy, so I try to let them know that they can tell me if I'm a bit much. So far they haven't, and I hope that's not because they're not cowering in their crocs. 

I try to be mindful that we're all of different generations, that we all grew up with different expectations. But it must be incredibly difficult to manage when you are a manager with numerous generations of workers. When you need a job done. When people respond in different ways to different instructions.  

I have no doubt that there are some toxic, nasty, petty people who exist to make others' lives misery, but I do sometimes wonder whether some of these figures Are not toxic bullying but crossed wires. 

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