Bullying in the Workplace | Harassment & Discrimination

This guide provides insights on what workplace bullying is, how to identify, address and prevent bullying within Australian workplaces.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying involves repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or a group of employees. This behaviour can be verbal, physical, social, or psychological. It often manifests as abuse or mistreatment by an employer, manager, or colleagues in the workplace.

Bullying is not confined to any specific sector and can occur across various workplace environments – from professional offices to retail spaces, cafes, workshops, and even in non-profit organizations or government bodies. It impacts a wide range of individuals, including volunteers, interns, apprentices, part-time, and full-time employees.

Certain forms of workplace bullying, especially those involving physical harm, threats, or stalking, are considered criminal offenses and can be reported to authorities.

Workplace bullying is an important issue that can significantly affect employee well-being, job satisfaction and workplace morale. It often leads to increased absenteeism and reduced productivity, which can be particularly detrimental to small and medium sized businesses. As a business owner, it's crucial to recognise the signs of workplace bullying and implement effective strategies to address and prevent it. This ensures a healthy and productive work environment.

Recognising workplace bullying

Bullying in the workplace can manifest in various forms, ranging from subtle psychological tactics to overt physical aggression. It's essential for business owners to recognise these behaviours to maintain a healthy work environment. It can present in the workplace in many forms, including:

  • behaving aggressively towards others, like shouting or physical threats
  • making an employee feel undervalued, less important or scared
  • teasing, playing practical jokes or spreading rumours about someone
  • pressuring someone to behave inappropriately or humiliate themselves to be accepted
  • excluding or stopping someone from taking part in work-related events
  • unreasonable work demands, or not being provided with enough work to do
  • intentionally not providing necessary information from someone impacting their ability to perform their job

If an act of bullying is based on an individual’s sex, age, disability, or race, it might not only be a case of workplace bullying but could also constitute a breach of anti-discrimination laws. When bullying is targeted at an individual due to one of these protected characteristics, it crosses over from being not just a workplace issue but also a legal concern. For instance, making derogatory comments about a person's racial background or mocking someone's disability falls under this category.

Dynamics of workplace bullying

In businesses, understanding and addressing workplace bullying is important for maintaining a positive and productive work environment. Bullying can happen through different means and from different sources, not just within the office but also through digital interactions and outside work settings.

In today’s connected world, bullying can extend to emails, texts, social media, and instant messaging. It’s important to monitor not just face-to-face interactions but also digital communication for signs of bullying. Bullying can also occur outside of the office environment, including during work related events or through online platforms. This can affect employee morale and work life balance.

Bullying in the workplace can happen from and within different level across a business. It can happen:

  1. Among colleagues which might be less obvious. It can range from ongoing criticism to more blatant conflicts or verbal confrontations. Such interactions, especially in smaller teams can significantly disrupt the workplace.
  2. From management to employees which can take the form of unrealistic expectations, overly harsh criticism, or excessive control over employees' work methods usually perceived as micromanagement.
  3. From employees to management manifesting as resistance to authority, spreading false information or collective non-compliance, affecting managerial effectiveness and team cohesion.

Protection from bullying in the workplace

In Australia, the Fair Work Act provides a specific legal framework designed to protect workers from bullying in the workplace. This Act outlines the categories of workers who are eligible for protection and the role of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in enforcing these laws.

Who is protected under the Fair Work Act?

  • Employees including those working under a variety of contracts, whether part-time, full-time, or casual.
  • Contractors and subcontractors are individuals or entities engaged in work under a contract, particularly in trades or freelance.
  • Outworkers are workers who perform their duties outside of the traditional workplace setting, often from their homes or personal workshops.
  • Apprentices and trainees are those engaged in learning a trade or skill, often combining work with study.
  • Interns including those gaining practical work experience, typically as part of their educational program.
  • Work experience students who are similar to interns, though are engaged in practical aspects of their education through work placements.
  • Some volunteers depending on the nature of their work and the organisational context.

The Fair Work Commission acts as the national workplace relations tribunal in Australia, and handles cases and applications related to stopping bullying in the workplace as defined under the Fair Work Act. People who believe they are being subjected to bullying at work can approach the Fair Work Commission to file an application seeking intervention and resolution.

What workplace bullying is not

It is important to distinguish between legitimate management actions and workplace bullying. While certain actions may feel unfair to employees, they do not necessarily amount to bullying if conducted reasonably and as part of standard managerial duties.

Reasonable management action is when a manager or supervisor carries out their duties in a fair and reasonable manner, even if it involves critical feedback or performance improvement plans, it is not bullying. Management practices include workplace changes like transferring an employee to a different department or re-assigning roles, and disciplining an employee for misconduct or poor performance in a reasonable manner.

Understanding the difference between reasonable management and bullying is key to maintaining a healthy workplace. Bullying involves repetitive, unreasonable behavior that undermines, humiliates, or threatens an employee whereas legitimate management actions are part of running a business and should not be mistaken for bullying.

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue that is addressed under the Fair Work Act. It's important to recognise what constitutes sexual harassment and how it differs from workplace bullying. Under the Fair Work Act, sexual harassment occurs when a worker or group of workers engages in behaviour of a sexual nature that is unwelcome and could reasonably be expected to cause the recipient to feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated. This includes:

  • makes an unwelcome sexual advance
  • makes an unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to another worker.

These behaviours might also fall under the category of bullying if they occur repeatedly or persistently. But unlike bullying, sexual harassment does not need to be continuous or repeated behaviour, it can be once off and there is no need to establish a risk to health and safety.

Preventing bully at work

Employers need to proactively create a safe and respectful work environment. This involves establishing a clear anti-bullying and harassment policy, documented in written or visual form. Many businesses also run training sessions to ensure employees understand these policies and know how to act if they encounter bullying.

Key strategies for minimising bullying risk include early identification of unreasonable or threatening behaviour, implementing risk management controls, and regularly assessing the effectiveness of these measures. It's important to remember that reasonable management actions like proper disciplinary procedures and performance management do not constitute bullying.

Responding to a bullying claim

When facing a bullying claim, since January 2014 workers have the right to lodge a claim with the Fair Work Commission about workplace bullying, except in sole trader or partnership businesses. There's no time limit for submitting a claim as long as the worker is still employed. The Commission must address the application within 14 days and it requires an employer response within seven days. A hearing is held to determine if bullying occurred and if it might continue.

The Fair Work Commission can direct the bullying to stop or a review of the company’s bullying policy, but cannot impose penalties or award compensation. Though a record of bullying might resurface in future health and safety or compensation claims.

Employment Compass specialises in supporting businesses with their workplace relations, including addressing bullying concerns. If you need guidance or have any questions, contact our free 24/7 Employer Helpline at 1300 144 002.

Frequently asked questions

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying involves repeated, unreasonable behaviour aimed at an employee or group, creating a negative work environment. This can be verbal, physical, social, or psychological abuse, and is recognised across all work setting and industries.

Who is protected from workplace bullying?

Under the Fair Work Act, protections cover employees, contractors, outworkers, apprentices, interns, students in work experience and some volunteers. Businesses must recognise these groups are entitled to a safe work environment.

How should businesses deal with a workplace bullying claim?

If an employee lodges a bullying claim, it's important for businesses to respond  to the claim quickly. The Fair Work Commission requires a response within seven days and aims to resolve claims quickly. Businesses should cooperate fully and review their policies.

What are reasonable management actions?

Reasonable management actions like performance management, providing feedback, or directing work aren't considered bullying. Businesses need to conduct these actions fairly and transparently.

What is the difference between sexual harassment and bullying?

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances or conduct and can be a one-off event. It differs from bullying, which usually involves repeated actions. Businesses should have clear policies and training to address both.

What steps can businesses take to prevent workplace bullying?

Businesses should implement clear anti-bullying policies, provide staff training, and monitor the workplace environment. Early identification of bullying behaviour and effective management controls are key.

What happens if bullying happens in the workplace and it's not addressed?

Failing to address bullying can lead to a toxic work environment, reduced productivity and legal consequences. Businesses need to take proactive steps and respond appropriately to any incidents.

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