Man says he was bullied so badly while working at MBIE he had to quit job

Warning: This story discusses bullying, harassment, and suicide.

Workplace bullying and harassment is a real problem in New Zealand. As many as one in five workers are affected every year, with women and minorities experiencing the highest levels of bullying.

One man, a lawyer who is Muslim, said he was bullied while working at the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the ministry responsible for investigating and preventing bullying in the workplace. 

He said he was left feeling suicidal and eventually had to leave his job, while it's believed the woman who he claims bullied him was promoted.

"Back in Afghanistan, you get 'physical harm' by being blown up and I have experienced that. I saw lots of my mates being killed. But when I came to New Zealand, I experienced a lot of mental harm caused by other people," the man, who has asked to remain anonymous, told Newshub.

Those people, he said, are lawyers. He said they're bullies who made his life hell, forced him out of a job, and almost out of his mind.

"I just got to a point where I thought life was not worth it, I just wanted to shoot myself," he said.

The man is sharing his story in the hope that others don't go through the same experience. He is himself a lawyer and worked for MBIE. 

He started working there in Auckland in 2018. The following year he became a lawyer there but within months he said the bullying started by an older female colleague. He said he was constantly singled out and picked on for any mistake, was called a "dick" for missing a conference, was accused of theft when he took a keyboard home to work, and was called back to work early after surgery.

"I was told by my surgeons to stay home for two weeks, and then I was required to go back after three days," he said. 

"I showed her my medical certificate, she said, 'You are just making this up, you've been partying'. I said, 'I actually don't drink because I'm Muslim', and she said, 'Ah, whatever', and just laughed it off."

He laid official complaints with supervisors. They offered sessions with a psychologist, who said he needed to be protected from the bullying.

MBIE told him to work from home and then called him back in. He said he was told it is what it is and the colleague was protected and promoted.

"So I couldn't speak to her asking her, 'Why are you doing this', otherwise she would get so upset and she would swear at me," he said.

"They [MBIE] talk about helping workplace bullying issues and harassment but unfortunately for me, it was a different story."

He finally quit last year, feeling powerless and disillusioned.

But MBIE told Newshub the man resigned during an integrity investigation into him, pointing out they're conducted when there are allegations of wrongdoing against staff and potential risks posed to MBIE.

In response, the man said it was claimed he had a conflict of interest because he worked for MBIE but spoke out against the Government over Afghani refugees while also helping many of them into the country.

"I escaped the war to experience peace but then I experienced a different conflict. Bullying is a mental harm to you by another colleague," he said.

He added he's not alone, claiming a colleague who died by suicide also faced pressure and problems working at MBIE.

"One of my colleagues took his life … He was showing signs of anxiety," he said.

"It was quite tough and everyone thought it could have been prevented."

Since 2016, MBIE has received 51 formal bullying complaints from staff. Forty-seven were either not substantiated, withdrawn or resolved, while four were substantiated, partially substantiated or are still being investigated.   

That includes the man Newshub spoke to. Two years after he laid his complaint, he's still waiting for answers and an apology.

Allan Halse, from CultureSafe NZ, is the man's advocate.

"We are talking about the government agency that is supposed to get workers safe, so it's quite frightening, in fact, it's terribly frightening. It means no one can have confidence in this organisation," he said.

New Zealand is one of the worst countries in the world for workplace bullying and harassment. Yet Halse said WorkSafe, which operates under MBIE, has never prosecuted one single workplace bullying case.

For its part, MBIE said it takes all reports of alleged unacceptable behaviour seriously.

MBIE said it's committed to providing a safe and respectful work environment and staff are encouraged to speak out about bullying and harassment.

When asked why this investigation has lasted more than two years, MBIE said they can take time for a multitude of reasons and every case is different.

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