Workplace bullying: A costly business phenomenon
Review by Dr Katrina McChesney, Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education, University of Waikato
Bentley, T., Catley, B., & D’Souza, N. (2019; revised edition). Andrea Needham Leadership Charitable Trust.
Workplace bullying is “a complex, widespread and serious problem in New Zealand and internationally” (MBIE, 2020, p. 11), with as many as one in five New Zealanders experiencing bullying behaviour at their workplace each year. It is important, then, that we raise awareness of what constitutes workplace bullying, the impacts it has on those involved, and how to address and prevent it from occurring.
When the original edition of this book was released in 2003, it was the first comprehensive, research-informed account of workplace bullying in New Zealand. It shone a light on what had previously been largely swept under the carpet. Andrea Needham, the original author, died in 2009. Now, others who have joined the mission to understand and address workplace bullying in New Zealand have updated and re-released this revised edition of the book, supported by Needham’s legacy trust.
Having experienced workplace bullying first-hand, I was excited to read this book and immediately felt understood as I read the early chapters. A strength of Needham’s work was the direct accounts she sought from a wide range of New Zealanders. These accounts bring the text alive from beginning to end, showing the personal experiences and impacts of workplace bullying here in our own New Zealand context.
As I progressed to the middle of the book, however, I felt increasingly discouraged. The message seemed to be that workplace bullying is largely unaddressed and perhaps even unaddressable, and that targets of bullying are therefore best to leave their current organisations (ideally having negotiated a healthy financial settlement in the process). While clearly based in the accounts the author had collected, this message did not sit well with my sense of justice. It contrasted with the way we teach our children to stand up when either they or others are being bullied, and how we teach them to take a “That’s not okay!” stand to help bring change.
At the same time, Needham offered a helpful framing of workplace bullying by comparing it to domestic violence, showing the many shared characteristics of these “fraternal twins” (Chapter 10). Seen through this lens, an initial priority on victims/targets getting out of dangerous situations in order to stay safe makes more sense. However, as we know from New Zealand’s work on de-normalising domestic violence, steps to protect victims must be partnered with whole culture shift work to de-normalise workplace bullying. This aspect was not well addressed in this book, which mainly focused on the roles of individual targets of bullying, individual bullies, and individual workplaces.
The final chapters gave sound practical advice for targets, bullies who wish to change their behaviour (will any of them ever read this book?!), and workplace leaders. Needham also provided a detailed worked example of the financial costs associated with allowing workplace bullying to persist within an organisation, in the hope of motivating leaders/managers to take greater action against bullying. Finally, the editors of the revised edition provided helpful updates on the legislative work that has taken place since the original 2003 edition, with workplace bullying being better understood as a health and safety hazard and attracting increasing government attention.
Overall, those wanting to understand or think through workplace bullying in New Zealand are likely to find this book helpful. Those seeking “bibliotherapy” support for their wellbeing in the face of personal experiences of workplace bullying should proceed with caution.