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Workplace Bullying

Published April 1, 2015 (last updated on April 18, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer

isolated male employee sits alone in dark lunchroom

Workplace bullying is a serious issue that can affect employee morale, increase absenteeism, and have a negative impact on productivity. It is essential for employers to understand what constitutes workplace bullying and implement processes to deal with bullying. 

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour between a worker and a manager or between co-workers, which creates a risk to their health and safety.

Types of workplace bullying

Bullying behaviour can take many forms, including:

  • Being aggressive, intimidating or humiliating

  • Physical abuse

  • Bad language or rudeness

  • Teasing, practical jokes or spreading rumours

  • Excluding someone from team activities or work related events

  • Unreasonable expectations of an employee’s work, whether assigning too much or too little

  • Withholding information to deliberately inconvenience a worker trying to complete a task

If an act of bullying relates to sex, age, disability or race, it may breach anti-discrimination laws.

How can workplace bullying occur?

Workplace bullying can be carried out in a variety of ways, including through email, text messages, internet chat rooms, instant messaging or other social media channels. Sometimes workplace bullying can also continue outside of the workplace.

Workplace bullying can be directed at a single worker or a group of workers and carried out by one or more workers. It can occur:

  • Between workers (sideways) 

  • From supervisors or managers to workers (downwards) 

  • From workers to supervisors or managers (upwards) 

Workplace bullying can also be directed toward or perpetrated by other people in the workplace, including clients, customers and members of the public.

Protection from workplace bullying

The Fair Work Act (2009) includes laws that apply to certain workers in Australia, protecting them from bullying and threatening behaviour. A worker includes:

  • Employees

  • Contractors or subcontractors

  • Outworkers

  • Apprentices or trainees

  • Interns

  • Students gaining work experience

  • Some volunteers

The Fair Work Commission is the national workplace relations tribunal that deals with applications to stop bullying at work under the Fair Work Act.

If the Fair Work Act workplace bullying laws do not apply to you, each Australian state and territory has a workplace health and safety body that can give you advice and assistance. For more information, refer to the Fair Work Commision’s list of workplace health and safety bodies.

Sexual harassment and workplace bullying

Some forms of sexual harassment, such as unwanted touching or sexually explicit comments, can also be considered bullying if the behaviour is repeated or continuous.

However, unlike bullying, sexual harassment does not need to be continuous or repeated and can be a one-off event. Additionally, there is no requirement for sexual harassment to pose a risk to health and safety.

Preventing bullying at work

As an employer you have to take steps to to create a safe workplace, which includes preventing or minimising the risks of bullying and harassment. You need to have a clear bullying and harassment policy in the form of written or visual documentation.

Many businesses will offer bullying and harassment training to clarify the policy and help workers understand what to do when they witness workplace bullying.

The risk of workplace bullying can also be minimised by:

  • Identifying unreasonable or threatening behaviour early 

  • Implementing control measures to manage the risks 

  • Monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the control measures 

Remember bullying does not include reasonable management action, such as genuine disciplinary procedures, proper performance management, giving constructive feedback, or directing employees on how to go about their work.

Facing a bullying claim

Since January 2014, workers can lodge a claim with the Fair Work Commission about bullying at their workplace (unless it is a sole trader or partnership). There is no time limit for them to apply as long as they still work there.

The Commission has 14 days to deal with the application and asks you, the employer, to respond in seven days. The Commission then holds a hearing to decide whether the person is being bullied and whether there is a risk that it will continue.

The Commission may ask the bully to stop the bullying behaviour or review your company’s bullying policy. It cannot issue penalties or award compensation, but your record of bullying may re-emerge in later workplace health & safety or compensation claims if you don’t comply with the Commission’s orders.

Employsure are experts in helping businesses manage their workplace relations, including cases of bullying. If you have any questions or concerns, please call our FREE 24/7 Advice Line now on 1300 651 415.

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