Thursday, February 22, 2024

David Alexander Lillis: Exposing Workplace Bullying in New Zealand - Part 2

Instilling Trust and Confidence in the Public Service

The Public Service Commission has published a web-page, stating that international rankings and research conducted in this country show that trust and confidence in public servants is crucial if they are to operate effectively within our communities (Public Service Commission, 2022). The relevant web-page notes that public service values, such as integrity, fairness and openness, are strong predictors of public trust and that integrity is its single largest driver. In addition, the competence of the public service is critical. It must be responsive and reliable, as well as anticipate new needs.
During my twenty years in our public service, I found most of my colleagues to be fine professionals and good colleagues. However, the public service was the first and only place where I met people who clearly enjoyed abusing others and dismissing or firing. Several laughed openly on their way to managing-out good people. Often, such managers and executives ‘play for keeps’, apparently intent on harming an unwanted person’s career or the career of a professional or political rival. A significant number of my interviewees (from personal experience) and I (from direct observation) can attest to that.

In organizations where I worked several managers treated my colleagues with astonishing arrogance and, often, downright contempt. However, answer back and you can lose your job the same day. Nobody will stand up for you - least of all the human resources staff who, evidently, are there exclusively to support management but appear to have lost interest in the worker.

Our public service fails persistently to acknowledge abusive behaviour and psychosocial workplace hazards, and too often uses mediation and taxpayer-funded non-disclosure agreements to cover-up, instead of acknowledging and addressing them within the workplace. The consequences of such a system can include erosion of peoples’ characters, confidence and capabilities, often resulting in negative narratives, managing-out and, possibly, blacklisting. New Zealand is small and blacklisting could be an issue that requires further research.

Once managing-out is framed as necessary in order to address performance issues, little can be done to stop it. Daily abuse, even after the person has resigned, and provision of negative referee reports to other prospective employers, compromises and hurts the person even more. I have seen such processes directly and I suggest that such malevolence should never appear in our public service - nor anywhere else.

Perhaps the original intent of the Employment Relations Authority was very different to how it is used today. Unfortunately, if the employer and employee go to mediation, then the relationship may already be well past repair.

Do we have the Right Model?

Perhaps the public service model could be improved – currently, a template where chief executives can earn much more than the prime minister and where even second-tier executive salaries can total as much as those of five or six nurses or teachers. Many middle managers, I believe, are greatly over-remunerated for their age, qualifications and accumulated experience and achievement. For example, a young and modestly-qualified public service manager of a research unit, who may have no research experience or qualifications whatsoever, can command a salary within the range of a university department head who has thirty or forty years of academic and administrative experience and a significant publication record. Consequently, too often we see blind ambition and competition for the top jobs.

A question to consider is the extent to which bullying results from the workplace environment and conditions, as opposed to resulting from the natural behaviour of individuals who by nature are predisposed towards bullying. Lack of resourcing (time and money) may create psychosocial workplace hazards which often are not addressed and in turn lead to negative behaviours. Stressed people under pressure, or simply ambitious people, may bully others and in some cases may not even be aware of their behaviour. Sometimes they get rewarded because they appear to be successful in their role. The behaviour is rewarded and they do it again.

Time pressure, unclear or ambiguous roles, job insecurity, limited ability to make decisions, and limited social support are all risk factors. Organisations with competition between staff, such as for rewards, also create risk. Both authoritarian (controlling and dictatorial) and avoidant bosses (that turn a blind eye to problems) create risks. Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

Much bullying is linked directly to power and influence. Today, we exist in a world of consultants and reduced “big-picture” understanding, strategic vision and long term planning. In such a world we may have reduced accountability and little vested interest in creating positive working cultures. Ineffective use of performance management as a tool for building staff capabilities may be a significant issue in certain state sectors. Instead, performance management and sustained abuse and rudeness are used as weapons to exit disliked staff. If we were to improve our ability to communicate and signal earlier when there is an issue and address it (from employer or employee) we would not get to this point. What if the person being exited is actually a strong performer? Conversations about working environments are the employers’ responsibility, but system power sits with managers and unions.

Basic incivility, or workplace rudeness, for instance, often includes a lack of respect but is often subtle, covert, and plausibly deniable. It can be done in a moral tone and can involve social ostracism. If repeated and sustained, it can be defined as bullying, but is hard to prove. Studies find that, as well as being personally distressing, it harms wellbeing and innovation. Recent research at Victoria University Wellington Te Herenga Waka has found that it harms the wider team, not just individuals, long after the individual might have ‘gotten over it’. Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

Of course, bullying is not confined to the public service. I once worked at a non-government organisation where staff were exposed to truly dreadful bullying. A new chief executive bullied staff out of employment by accusing them of long-term underperformance and other misdemeanours, and coercing them to hand in their resignations under duress. At least a dozen staff, I estimate, were forced out unfairly. I do not know her motivation for pushing those staff out of employment, but I am aware that she had done similar things previously at other places where she held leadership roles. Possibly, we sense a desire simply to have her own people on staff. But how fair was this situation on those who were driven out?

First, leaders at the top must set the tone and build psychosocially safe climates, which concerns shared perceptions regarding “policies, practices and procedures for the protection of worker psychological health and safety”. This means senior management making psychological safety a priority in the face of other demands. It means communicating and working with employees about wellbeing. It requires commitment to act quickly and decisively to address problems. Organisations need to address both formal and informal processes – words on an intranet are not enough. Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

Unfortunately, despite twenty years or more of exposure in our media, we have not made sufficient progress towards safe workplaces.

Who Drives Public Trust?

The Public Service Commission states that it has explored the drivers of public trust in New Zealand. The key drivers are services that meet needs, provide fair treatment, are reliable, and have public servants who admit responsibility on making mistakes (Public Service Commission, 2022).

For the record, my opinion of the public service is generally positive. Our departments and ministries achieve ongoing incremental improvements for the people, economy and environment of New Zealand. And so - I have met many excellent people in the public service who work hard for the community of New Zealand, aspiring to achieve genuine public good. They are in the majority.

It is also my perspective that, in general, we appoint the most appropriate, best-qualified people from the available pool. Many managers and leaders are reasonably effective in overseeing staff who enjoy their work and achieve to their best. However . . .

I did meet a few senior people who fell very far short in their treatment of fellow humans. Unfortunately, often they rose rapidly to senior management and, in several cases, eventually to the executive level.

In such an organization few are prepared to question the bullying culture because those being bullied, or who have already been fired or managed out, say nothing in order to avoid possible blacklisting and minimize further problems with their careers. Others may not dare to question because they owe their positions to the top person and because they fear the consequences of speaking out - and maybe in some cases because they are predisposed towards bullying too.

Many current or former public service employees to whom I have spoken about bullying are deeply unhappy about their experiences but fear the consequences of speaking out, raising personal grievances or talking to me, Allan Halse or other advocates. Sadly, this situation is reminiscent of a totalitarian police state, rather than the progressive first-world nation that we want New Zealand to be.

There has certainly been some good, renewed attention to recognising and addressing these behaviours in the New Zealand public service. But it requires a substantial change in culture, people, and skill that will take time and sustained commitment. New Zealand government agencies often seem to have reasonable policies and legal responses, but they could do more to manage it as a behavioural issue, as well as a legal or reputational risk. Progress has been marred by false accusations in response to legitimate issues being raised around poor performance. Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

Non-disclosure agreements and pay-outs using taxpayer funds mean that decisions and actions that result in breakdown of trust are not learnt from, but instead are covered-up and the same mistakes repeated.

In principle, dealing with bullying would be very easy if chief executives ordered their managers to engage in strong management but not to abuse. However, if it really were that easy, then why does it continue to happen? Perhaps in reality it is not so easy because we are dealing with humans who, of course, have emotions, perceptions, priorities and nuances between cultures and genders etc. And what if the top person is the real bully? So we all need to have a shared understanding of what bullying is before we can expect people not to do it.

Let’s Improve our Workplaces!

Plimmer et al. (2023) suggest the following measures whereby organisations can address bullying:

  1. Leaders commit to and prioritise psycho-social safety 
  2. Tighten up recruitment processes to avoid employing the wrong people 
  3. Support managers for dealing with poor behaviours – training, performance reviews 
  4. Clear and easy-to-use complaints processes 
  5. Support recovery for individuals who have suffered from bullying.
We believe that these measures could lead to substantial improvement in our workplaces but, in addition, we must be more careful in selecting our top leaders and provide them with clear expectations in relation to leading harmonious work environments. Further:

Complaint investigation processes need to be clear, with multiple points of entry, so people can choose who to complain to. Mediation can help if done early in a conflict, but it needs to consider the fundamental power imbalance that often underlines harmful behaviour. Managers need to be trained in conflict management and complaint investigation – too often, they hide behind legalisms, such as requiring a written complaint before taking any action. Plimmer, Haider and Zhou (2023)

The author and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), used to observe workers on construction sites and farms, and sometimes reflected on the truth that, while managers hold power, earn the best money and can behave with great cruelty, it is in fact those being managed who do the real work. Unfortunately, sometimes it is those being managed-out who do the real work and perhaps in New Zealand it is time to back away from our present cult of managerialism.

There must also come a time when bullies and, indeed, bullying organisations, are forced to confront the people who they have hurt. Unfortunately, bullying is commonplace in New Zealand and will remain so as long as we continue to appoint senior executives who believe in brutal performance management and firing for minor issues; as long as human resources are tasked with supporting managers rather than with empowering staff; as long as aggressive and self-serving people are preferred as managers and leaders, and as long as people who hold limited subject-matter expertise rise to management and leadership over experts.

Over the last two or three years I have spoken to several well-known people who, following our election, now hold political power. I have made them aware of the problem of bullying and have passed much documentation and research-based material to them. Of course, these people have many political, economic and social problems to deal with, now that they are in Government, but let’s hope for further improvements in our places of work that could emerge from enhanced legislation and from the new protocols developed by the Public Service Commission on speaking up within the public service (Hughes, 2022). Apart from the basic human right to be treated well by employers, all New Zealand workers should be able to raise concerns without fear of punishment or reprisal.

It is well-past time to heed the media reports, deal with the problem with genuine commitment and create workplaces for New Zealanders that are safe and inclusive and that enable them to perform to their capabilities and achieve good things for the future of our country.


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

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

Public Service Commission (2022). Trust and confidence in the Public Service

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.


Felicity Marshall said...

Bullying in New Zealand, and turning a blind eye to bullying reaches to the top.
I experienced this years ago and it changed the trajectory of my life.
I am medical. When i became unwell a posse of local doctors bullied me as a patient.
I appealed to the Health and Disability Comissioner, Mr Ron Paterson, to help me.
He obfuscated at every turn.
Ron Paterson staked his career on ‘low level resolution’ yet this is a dangerous approach for those who are bullied.
I asked for an independent investigation. He refused and closed my case.
The ombudsman, Mr Belgrave, ordered he reopen it.
The HDC then demanded ALL my private GP files, relevant or not, be handed over to the doctors’lawyers to trawl through. After Mr Belgrave’s intervention a second time, Paterson relented.
He then chose as his ‘independent’ medical ‘expert’ a doctor who worked intimately with one of the doctors who bullied me. I told him this was unfair and breached his own rules.
He over-ruled me.
The ‘independent’ expert attacked me personally, breaching the HDC’s own requirements for ‘independent experts’ ( maybe that’s the technicality the HDC used to fob me off i never before grasped- not being independent, the requirements didn’t in fact apply to him!)
The way i was treated was so bad, and witnessed, the HDC had no choice but to make at least one finding.
To get to this point took around seven years.
He found my right to be treated with respect had been breached.
His resolution was to send on to me me an “apology” letter he had asked the disrespecting doctor to write me.
The letter from this doctor, written on my local district health board letterhead, and forwarded to me by Ron Paterson read, essentially in total, “I apologise for speaking loudly under extreme provocation from you” (which is exactly how the ‘independent expert’ had framed my case, being unable to contemplate that what his colleague had done to me could possibly be his colleague’s fault).
He told me ‘here is your apology. The case is now closed.’
Ron Paterson’s revolting ‘apology’ letter to me in fact fit his own written definition of a ‘non-apology’.
Non apologies are known to exacerbate the harm done to a wronged person.
I took him to the Ombudsman yet again to hold him to account because his behaviour towards me was unconscionable, but this time something was different.
There was a new ombudsman.
This time, the responses they gave me, excusing him sending me this letter, were bizarre.
The HDC himself said to them in his own defence that he didn’t ASSESS the ‘apologies’ written by erring health professionals - his job was just to pass them on!!!
I even sent them written information proving that Ron Paterson was being economical with the truth about his knowledge of the harm generated by allowing non-apologies in healthcare settings.
They ignored that too and completely exonerated him.
I couldn’t figure it out…
…until TWO months later when Ron Paterson was announced as the NEW OMBUDSMAN.
Since that time I have turned everywhere, right up to parliament itself, to have Ron Paterson held to account.
NO ONE would look into it, and i know why not - once they do they will have no choice but to see his guilt, and thus be forced to investigate the entire fraudulent edifice that is the so called, and ONLY, patient protection mechanism for New Zealanders.
When even our highest ranking public servant; the ‘moral compass of New Zealand’, uses bullying to squash those who challenge his methods, and NO-ONE will hold him to account, then what hope do we have?

David Lillis said...

I am very sorry to hear of your experience but I am not surprised. I could name others who should be interrogated and be held to account. Why are education and health so bad? It has to do with those we appoint as CEOs and to the Executive.

Over the years since I left the Public Service, I have attempted to learn more about the top people (leaders) who I saw as bullies or otherwise suspected of orchestrating bullying (i.e. possibly ordering middle managers to engage in abusive performance management of staff out of work or to oversee unfair dismissals) from the safety of their offices. We may refer to such leaders, who order bullying of lower-ranked staff behind closed doors and without drawing attention to himself or herself, as “Grey Cardinals”, a term applied originally to certain decision-makers in the Roman Catholic church of seventeenth century France. Generally, those who I perceived as bullies were also considered by others to be bullies. I quote one interviewee, expressing dissatisfaction with a person who had been her chief executive but who also had been a chief executive at one of my own places of work:

"Under her leadership people went down like skittles."

I cannot comment on what happened at other organizations, but staff most certainly did go down “like skittles” at my place of work, including staff within my unit. So, it seems that many staff were belted out at that previous place of work too. Four interviewees confirmed that assertion, one relatively young interviewee describing her (and mine at another agency) former chief executive as “nasty”. Possibly, that chief executive had done similar things over a lengthy period of time in different places. Do we sense a pattern, here? If there is a discernible pattern, then a similar pattern is to be found with other bullies in that they behave consistently over the duration of their leadership careers. Oh dear!