Tuesday, February 20, 2024

David Alexander Lillis: Exposing Workplace Bullying in New Zealand - Part 1

Bullying and other harmful behaviours are tremendously damaging to employees, witnesses, and organisations. For employees, recognised effects include anxiety, depression, poor productivity and difficulty changing jobs. If left unaddressed, witnesses are fearful and get the message that these behaviours are acceptable. They learn not to speak up and avoid the risk involved in raising the concern. Organisations suffer from demoralisation, high turnover, reputational risk, lessened productivity and collaboration. Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023) 


This article is the first of two on exposure of workplace bullying in New Zealand. I have written these articles in the hope that public discussion of bullying will lead to necessary improvements in our workplaces. Unfortunately, New Zealand may be among the worst in the world in both schoolyard and workplace bullying (e.g. OECD-Library, 2023; Redmond, 2016) and, far too often, managers coerce staff into resigning through ongoing abuse, threats and unfair performance reviews. However, it is not only middle management that can deliver bullying. Top-down, lower level-up and “sideways” bullying occur too, frequently as a result of competitive workplaces and cultures.

Over the last few years I have been collecting both interview-based anecdotal evidence and research-based information on workplace bullying and have communicated with various organizations on this issue. It is clear to me that many interviewees have suffered from trauma and psychosocial harm from brutal performance management, in addition to professional and financial damage. I myself have been an unwilling witness to several such episodes in our public service and am aware of recidivists who have bullied staff over many years at different organisations.  

Today, I am a retired public servant who spent twenty years in our public service. I remember most of my public service colleagues as decent people but certain managers and senior executives bullied others without mercy. However, while authoritarian positional power can drive bullying, often the problem is complex and involves multiple people, including bystanders. 

By identifying such behaviour we may reduce harm, if not end it completely. Taxpayers’ money maintains senior public servants’ handsome salaries, not to mention non-disclosure agreement pay-outs, and therefore our taxpayers have a right to expect better.

Our goal is to ensure that New Zealand employers, including those in the public sector, become aware that even performance management of underperforming staff should be conducted in a humane manner. Even more importantly, false allegations of underperformance should never be used as justification to manage-out but, unfortunately, certain organisations believe they can indeed engage in framing of good staff and otherwise mistreat them in order to manage-out. I have seen it myself several times. New Zealand can do better. We must do better.

Everyone’s View Matters

The controversy surrounding Labour MP, Dr. Gaurav Sharma, during 2022 has underscored the serious, and by now well-publicised, bullying problem in this country. It has prompted diverse opinions from numerous observers. No doubt, the public is not privy to all of the relevant details, and so it can only react instinctively to what it reads or hears.

As an advocate against bullying, I believe that we are but one step along a long and difficult road if we are to address bullying in our schools (OECD, 2018), workplace and government bullying effectively. Some have shown sympathy towards Dr. Sharma, following public debates. However, though recognizing bullying in parliament, Tracey Watkins’ perspective echoes a somewhat less sympathetic view (Watkins, 2022). Of course, diverse views make it difficult for any third party to form a clear perspective on Dr. Sharma’s experience, but our Beehive has a long-standing reputation for bullying. While the precise details are unknown to us, it is concerning that even Dr. Sharma, a general practitioner by profession, may not have been immune to parliamentary bullying. Unfortunately, I have observed very nasty bullying several times within our public service, and I report that the perpetrators always get away with it and even gain promotion to executive positions.  

A more recent case concerns the CEO of Pharmac, who is alleged to have made negative remarks about a person who was not her employee (Quill, 2023). Under the Privacy Act, hers and other executives’ communications were disclosed, prompting calls for her resignation. Those communications revealed a “crude clique” among senior staff that had involved swapping childish and insulting remarks.

This behaviour by the leader of a government ministry cannot be tolerated. (Quill, 2023)

One expert commentator emphasised the need to review the internal culture in order to ensure greater accountability. He said that the comments showed a culture of callous attitudes towards patients and an arrogance that they were somehow untouchable (Quill, 2023).

Not having worked at Pharmac, I hold no strong opinion on the issue, but I must say that I have observed directly much worse behaviour from public servants, often entailing humiliating and degrading of staff and in some cases resulting in managing-out or, more precisely, bullying-out. In several organisations where I have worked (including public sector agencies), I too found callous attitudes and indeed the arrogance of untouchability.

Unfortunately, most of my efforts to contact senior academics and public servants in order to expose bullying have hit a dead end. Telephone conversations are terminated very quickly and go nowhere, and emails are not returned. Here we may have avoidance behaviour, another form of human behaviour that may unintentionally enable bullying. The advocate is often labelled a troublemaker and can become a target. However, I incline to the view that most often what we are seeing is not in fact passive avoidance, but instead active protection of the organization through shutting down the complainant.

In recent years, New Zealand’s online and print media have published articles on other possible bullying episodes, including allegations of bullying within the Christchurch Anaesthetic Technician (AT) workforce (Naish, 2022); within the Department of Corrections (Wall, 2023), The New Zealand Police (Halpin, 2023) and the Department of Housing (Johnston, 2018). Nothing to see here? Don’t you believe it! There is much more - and these episodes constitute the tip of a very large iceberg. I will refrain from comment on these situations but, several years after working there, I remain deeply shocked at the bullying that I observed first-hand in our education sector. If those are the sorts of attitudes that pervade the public institutions that lead and administer education and its assessment, then it should be no surprise that education has gone downhill in recent times. Unfortunately, I have witnessed equally despicable bullying in other organizations within other sectors. New Zealand has a problem!

Confronting and Exposing Bullying

Intimidation, humiliation, exclusion and ridicule caused trauma and were often endured for too long with tragic consequences. Many organisations claimed a zero-tolerance policy on workplace bullying but the practice doesn't fit with the words.  Redmond (2016)

It is most difficult to confront bullying in an environment where staff across different levels of the organisation defend each other - safe in the security provided by multiple layers of bureaucracy that protect them. Bystanders feel disempowered and, where the system enables bullying, such behaviour may encourage more of the same.

Intimidation, humiliation, exclusion and ridicule caused trauma and were often endured for too long with tragic consequences. Many organisations claimed a zero-tolerance policy on workplace bullying but the practice doesn't fit with the words.  Redmond (2016)

How safe are those in lower-levels of power who question and challenge bullying? Of course, we have good, moral human resources people who do stand up for employees but risk themselves getting bullied-out. In any case, often there is only one human resources person for many employees. Perhaps if all employees acted together, the power dynamic would shift, but most bystanders are afraid to take action. This dynamic must change if we are to establish positive work cultures.

In 2022, the Public Service Commission published improved protocols on speaking up within the public service (Hughes, 2022), stating that all New Zealand workers, including public servants, should be able to raise concerns without fear of punishment or reprisal. A second initiative concerns the Protected Disclosures (Protection of Whistleblowers) Act 2022, which aims to make whistleblowing protection easier to access, understand and use. However, it is not clear whether matters have improved since those protocols were released. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it has not.

Allan Halse: an anti-bullying Advocate

Few people can advocate on behalf of bullied workers, and so New Zealand is fortunate to have Allan Halse of Cultureshift (Halse, 2023). Allan trains and offers consultancy to organisations and individuals on matters pertaining to workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination. His approach is based on the concept of “cultural safety”, which defines an environment where individuals can be themselves without fear of discrimination or harassment. Several people help Allan, including Bernadette Soares, Anendra Singh (who has published a book on workplace bullying in the mainstream media) and I.

Allan performs his duties at considerable risk. Unfortunately, he has been fined more than once for attempting to do what most of us believe to be the right thing (e.g. Akoorie, 2022).

Because few can assist beyond providing moral support, I believe that we must not only address school and workplace bullying at their sources, but strengthen existing legislation, including the Employment Relations Act 2000. We must establish improved protocols for leadership and management, as well as implement more effective criteria for appointment of leaders and managers. In our view, the onus remains on Government to create new and improved standards for and expectations of our workplaces, especially of its departments, ministries and other public entities. Improved standards must embrace employment, promotion, treatment and reward of workers.

Research Tells a Sorry Story

Andrea Needham was a pioneer in exposing and addressing workplace bullying in New Zealand and I recommend her book “Workplace Bullying - A Costly Business Phenomenon” as an excellent New Zealand contribution (Needham, published posthumously in 2019). I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea before her unfortunate death in 2009 but at the time of our meetings, it was clear to me that Andrea was very ill. Of course, her work brought to light a serious issue for this country.

Regrettably, New Zealand may be among the worst (possibly second worst) in the world for severity and prevalence of bullying (Redmond, 2016).

Most bullying victims live in a fractured twilight of loneliness and guilt. Their self-esteem has been smashed to pieces. They are isolated from the pack. They are confused by the apparently opposing forces of shame and anger. It is a desperate place to be. Mark Reason (2019)

Research-based studies of bullying highlight the seriousness of the problem in New Zealand. They consider characteristics such as gender, age, personality, relative minority status in the workplace and organisational status relative to the perpetrator (Catley, 2022). Gardner et al. (2016) tell us that New Zealand women report more workplace bullying than men. In a later study, Gardner et al. (2020) again report that women, regardless of role, age or ethnicity, are more likely to self-identify to workplace coercion than men. Possibly bullying is linked to professions that are strongly associated with females; for example, teaching, nursing and social work. Thus, gender inequity may play a part. 

Bullying is not the only type of bad interpersonal behaviour in the public service – incivility and harassment, for instance, overlap with bullying but are also sometimes distinct. 

Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

Unfortunately, I must report persistent incivility and rudeness as weapons that managers use to assist in forcing staff out of work – and sometimes out of their careers altogether. The effects on anyone targeted by brutal performance management include degraded physical health, higher levels of strain, more destructive leadership and more team conflict. Of course, the targeted person may well lose his or her job and suffer professional and financial damage as a result.

Catley (2022) reports that New Zealand research has highlighted bullying among nurses, junior doctors, dentists and those in higher education. He discusses a large-scale study of workplace bullying, surveying more than 1700 employees from four industry sectors, and reports an overall prevalence of approximately 18%. However, my own investigations and my review of various other New Zealand studies have led me to believe that this figure is an underestimate. For example, Catley notes a 2015 editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, claiming bullying and harassment to be endemic in the health sector.

As regards the demographics of bullies – I can only report from direct observation that the female, gay and ethnic minority bullies I have known have proved every bit as nasty as white male bullies.

Government-sponsored research also suggests a widespread problem. The 2018 Survey of Working Life reported that around 300,000 workers (11%) experienced discrimination, harassment or bullying during the previous twelve months (Stats NZ, 2019). Its data suggests that rates vary from 18.8% in health care and social assistance, to 4.9% in agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining (Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment, 2020).

Several nurses and doctors have confided in me about bullying within the health sector. Though I have provided some research and statistical advice to health researchers and other medical professionals, both in New Zealand and overseas, I have never worked in a health-related organisation, and so cannot comment from personal observation or experience. However, in relation to the education sector where I worked as a researcher and statistician for several years (in government entities), I am forced to report enormous disappointment. I saw many episodes of physical intimidation, unfair performance reviews, constant public harassment, exclusion of the person from meetings and other fora, persistent rudeness and daily public reprimands delivered to disliked staff, plagiarism, taking over other peoples’ work and misuse of the performance review to justify managing-out. Such behaviours were carried out routinely by managers who had no subject-matter expertise and much lower levels of qualification and experience than those being exited. Those managers were ably supported by other staff, especially human resources staff who deliver their own forms of abuse, and so those targeted had no chance of successful self-defence.

Comparing New Zealand and Ireland

Globally, including New Zealand, interpersonal misconduct seems more common in public sectors compared to other sectors. Statistics NZ data suggests the New Zealand public service appears to have a higher rate of reported bullying than in the workforce as a whole, which is similar to findings from international studies. BusinessDesk-IPANZ’s 2022 survey found that 22 per cent of public servants reported having been personally bullied or harassed in the previous year. The reported rate of bullying is similar to that reported in earlier studies from 2013 and 2018.  Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

How does New Zealand’s 18% of surveyed workers reporting bullying compare with that of other countries? For example, the issue is considered to be serious in my home country, the Republic of Ireland, a country similar in population size to New Zealand. There, various studies reveal that approximately 9% of workers report workplace bullying and in Ireland it is believed that bullying has a profound impact on victims. I quote from an editorial in the Irish Times:

The problem is costing the economy a quarter of a billion euro per year in sick days and staff replacements, according to a study from the National University of Ireland, Galway. And, more importantly, bullying in the workplace is having a profound psychological impact on those who are facing a tormentor daily. (Kenny, 2021)

. . . and:

Numerous studies have shown that victims of bullying are more likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Bullying can even affect physical health. Those who experience workplace bullying are 1.6 times more likely to experience cardiac health issues, according to a 2018 study from Denmark. (Kenny, 2021)

Though the above figures from New Zealand and Ireland may not be directly comparable (probably based on different definitions and criteria on behaviours, severity, prevalence and frequency of bullying), nevertheless, it appears that New Zealand has a significantly worse problem than Ireland. Thus, New Zealand workers and taxpayers have every right to be concerned, and holding leaders to account is long overdue.


Akoorie, Natalie (2022). CultureSafe NZ and director Allan Halse each fined $9,000 for breaching confidentiality agreement

Catley, Bevan (2022). Workplace bullying in New Zealand: A review of the research 

Gardner, Dianne; O’Driscoll, Michael P.; Cooper-Thomas, Helena D.; Roche, Maree A.; Bentley, Tim; Catley, Bevan; Teo, Stephen T. T.; Trenberth, Linda. (2016). Predictors of Workplace Bullying and Cyber-Bullying in New Zealand.

Gardner, D., Roche, M., Bentley, T. A., Cooper-Thomas, H., Catley, B., Teo, S. T., & Trenberth, L. (2020). An Exploration of Gender and Workplace Bullying in New Zealand. International Journal of Manpower.

Halpin, James (2023). Police bring in leadership experts after result of bullying survey in Northland

Halse, Allan (2023). Culturesafe NZ.

Hughes, Peter (2022). Speaking up in the Public Service made easier.

Johnston, Kirsty (2018). More workers allege bullying at Housing New Zealand after suspected suicide

Kenny, Áine (2021). Workplace bullying: ‘Every incident has never left my head. I will never get over it’

Mark Reason (2019). New Zealand's workplace bullying is shameful - but don't blame the bullies

Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment (2020). Bullying and Harassment at Work. Issues Paper: An In-Depth Look.

Naish, Joanne (2022). Bullied staff crying in toilets as 'toxic workplace' for Christchurch anaesthetic technicians revealed

Needham, Andrea (published 2019). Workplace Bullying-  A Costly Business Phenomenon

OECD (2018). PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What School Life Means for Students’ Lives

OECD-Library (2023). Addressing mental health in New Zealand’s workplaces

Plimmer, G., Haider, A. and Zhou, A. (2023). Bullying and Rudeness in the Public Service

Quill, Annemarie (2013). Calls to sack Pharmac boss after 'sick, sneering' remarks

Redmond, Adele (2016). New Zealand has world's second highest rate of workplace bullying

Stats NZ (2019). One in 10 workers feels discriminated against, harassed, or bullied at work

Wall, Tony (2020). Bullying in prisons is so bad some staff have become suicidal

Watkins, Tracy (2022). Few surprises in Sharma drama

Dr David Lillis trained in physics and mathematics at Victoria University and Curtin University in Perth, working as a teacher, researcher, statistician and lecturer for most of his career. He has published many articles and scientific papers, as well as a book on graphing and statistics.


Gaynor said...

I wouldn't continue naming the MoE an educational establishment but rather a depot of Social Engineering. Because of a wrong turn middle of last century that is what it has become. Seeped in materialist, socialist theory unrelated to actually educating children the MoSE surged forward to destroy any intellectual or academic achievement. Obviously this makes no sense at all to any genuine educationalist so it required massive bullying to foist this nonsensical stuff onto the whole of the traditional educational establishment.

It was not only in head office that this culture prevailed but in schools and tertiary institutes. For decades teachers, who taught with methods and content that worked and were supported by a friendly principal could keep their jobs but if this was not the case the ridicule, slander and exclusion from promotion drove them out.

In the 1970s My mother. Doris, was very successfully teaching traditional phonics to remedial students in a local school. Parents and the principal acknowledged the outstanding success this was achieving with these reading failures but the MoSE would have nothing to do with it and demanded the principal hired instead conventional whole word remedial teachers and Doris be removed.

Intolerably to the MoSE the parents valued the phonics instruction and soon Doris had hundreds of students from schools, privately coming to her home. The bully boys and girls at the MoSE devised all sorts of bullying tactics to stop this deviance from their ideology but Doris's student numbers grew even larger and the persecution of her students became a national scandal and recorded on a Canadian Documentary, Written about by Los Angeles Times and recorded in many NZ media.

I am aware of the ideology at the Ministry of Health and some other government departments and my advice is to go privately. These ideologues have the fanaticism of any religious cult with a dogma. They believe themselves to be infallible and hence obviously, this justifies brutish bullying behaviour.

Anonymous said...

It is worrying that the agencies tasked with caring for NZ and its people, are run by self serving, malicious, calculated and dishonest individuals.

These individuals are employed by the NZ public and yet they are not elected to do so. Furthermore they use tax payer money to fund their viscous rat race to the top.

Our prime minister is our only publicly elected government employee; and basically a scapegoat for the top tier managers of our government departments.

Legislation needs to change, and I think it’s start at the top. CEOs of our government agencies should be elected and held to the same standard as our prime minister.

No one should have unscrutinised job security when being paid by New Zealanders.

David Lillis said...

Most public servants I know take their jobs seriously, but a few want rapid promotion to management because of the power, kudos and higher salaries.

Since the Public Service believes that a person does not need subject-matter expertise to be a manager, we now have all kinds of people in management, including the least qualified and least talented. I have watched this stupidity in actions several times and the most highly-qualified are first to get managed-out. Appalling!

I saw it in several places but especially in our education agencies where some of our research and/or statistics managers have no research degrees or research experience or talent. Some have no qualifications of any kind and they are the ones who ruin the careers of Ph.D-holders.
Where is the accountability?