New Zealand Law Society - Review finds systemic bullying and harassment in parliamentary workplace

Review finds systemic bullying and harassment in parliamentary workplace

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Reviewer Debbie Francis has made 85 recommendations after an external independent review of Bullying and Harassment in the New Zealand Parliamentary Workplace.

The objective of the review was to establish whether and to what extent bullying, harassment and other harmful behaviour form part of the culture in the Parliamentary workplace. Of the more than 1000 survey respondents, 29% had experienced some form of bullying from a manager or a Member, 30% from peers and 24% from the public.

The review was conducted by Debbie Francis between December 2018 and March 2019. An online survey was emailed to current and former employees in December 2018. Individuals were able to request a one-on-one interview with the reviewer. Fifty-five interviews were also conducted with Ministers, MPs and Party officials.

The online survey resulted showed that 56% of respondents had experienced ‘destructive gossip’, 41% ‘undermining’ behaviour, 47% ‘demeaning language’ and 41% ‘aggressive behaviour’. ‘Unreasonable or aggressive behaviour that intimidates or threatens’ had been either observed or experienced by 78% or respondents. Fifty-four respondents said they had experienced ‘unwanted sexual advances’, 50 had experienced ‘unwanted touching’ and 14 had experienced ‘sexual assault.’

Some of the comments which resulted included:

“The fundamental problem is the power imbalance. It’s a master-servant relationship and they’re treated like gods. While they are due our respect, they are not gods.”

“My [MP] would just scream at me, asking for something one minute and then turning around and demanding it five minutes later, when it was clearly a two-hour job.”

One respondent was fearful of speaking out to their Member or Minister - “It felt very subservient” said one. “[He/she] ran that office in a way not conducive to good policy or operations. I was afraid to tell [he/she] what they needed to hear.”

Other review participants described being asked to undertake personal or inappropriate tasks such as buying clothing, or wine for the Member and it was quite common to be asked to buy Member’s lunch out of their own money.

Distinctive aspects of the parliamentary workplace create risk factors for poor conduct. These aspects include a high intensity culture, lack of investment in leadership development, unusual employment arrangements and barriers to making complaints.

Unacceptable conduct was tolerated and the identities of many of the perpetrators are an open secret, with some regarded as serial offenders. One fundamental perceived problem was the low accountability, particularly for Members, who face few sanctions for their behaviour.


The 85 recommendations include:

  • Better leadership, training and a recommendation that all Members sign an explicit agreement to abide by the Parliamentary Code of Conduct and that it should be part of the induction process.
  • Pastoral care should be improved, with the use of more specialists such as access to a mental health helpline with 24/7 access to clinical professionals. Parliament should secure the services of occupational health nurses, social workers and psychologists and spiritual advisors such as kaumātua, chaplains and imams.
  • Further investment in strategic workforce engagement should be made including the recruitment of an experienced Chief People Officer. The employment model should be modernized so that the triangular relationship for Member support and political staff be restated to reinforce the direct employment relationship between Parliamentary Services DIA/MaSS, and that these agencies act as more proactive employers in the recruitment, development and deployment of staff.
  • Independent and safe reporting channels are needed through which anonymous complaints can be made.
  • A case management approach should be taken to the investigation of complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, including deadlines for progress updates and outcomes to both complainants and accused.
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