Workplace Bullying

Taking a Stand on Workplace Bullying

According to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) workplace bullying occurs when an individual or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or group of workers and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying may involve, for example, any of the following types of behaviour:

  • aggressive or intimidating conduct
  • belittling or humiliating comments
  • spreading malicious rumours
  • teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation ceremonies’
  • exclusion from work-related events
  • unreasonable work expectations, including too much or too little work, or work below or beyond a worker’s skill level
  • displaying offensive material
  • pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner.

However, in order for it to be bullying the behaviour must be repeated and unreasonable and must create a risk to health and safety.

It is important for employers to clearly understand the difference between bullying and reasonable management action undertaken in a reasonable fashion. It is reasonable for managers and supervisors to allocate work and give feedback on a worker’s performance. These actions are not considered to be workplace bullying if they are carried out lawfully and in a reasonable manner.

Some examples of reasonable management actions include:

  • setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • rostering and allocating working hours where the requirements are reasonable
  • transferring a worker for operational reasons
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process is followed
  • informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance in an honest, fair and constructive way
  • informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
  • implementing organisational changes or restructuring
  • taking disciplinary action, including suspension or terminating employment.

Workplace bullying can be catastrophic for employees and can lead to physical and metal issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, insomnia and digestive problems and it can also affect an employee’s relationships outside the workplace.

Bullying is also bad for workplaces and can cause high turnover, low staff retention rates, reductions in productivity, a lowering of reputation making it harder to attract employees and reductions in innovation and employee morale. All issues which have huge knock on effects on profitability and overall business viability.

The sad fact is bullying is rampant in Australian workplaces and a recent Drake International survey of 800 employees across the country revealed that more than 50 per cent of survey respondents had witnessed bullying and 25 per cent had been a victim of bullying in the workplace.

The survey also showed that employees are dissatisfied with the way organisations are handling bullying as just 30 per cent of the survey respondents who had been the victim of bullying were happy with the way their company managed the situation

While bullying behavior can be tricky to manage from an organisational perspective Drake Client Services Manager Judy Harper says organisations should tackle bullying like they would any other workplace challenge:

“Organisations need to be pro-active and address inappropriate behaviour like bullying in a systematic manner if they want enduring behaviour change and improvement in the workplace,” she said.

Strategies for managing bullying behavior

CEO & Founder of Boston company Safety and Respect at Work, Jean Copeland Haertl says organisations can make three simple changes to reduce bullying in the workplace:

1. Establish an anti-bullying policy.

Establish and implement clear policies and reporting procedures that address bullying. Most companies have code of conduct policies, but many of those policies are general, and/or solely address unethical and financial misconduct. Rarely do companies maintain policies with specific language that adequately defines a range of prohibited behaviors

2. Implement companywide training that addresses bullying.

Once a sound policy has been established with clear and multiple reporting mechanisms in place, leaders must ensure all managers and employees receive training on how to identify, respond and report potential bullying behaviors.

Because many managers and employees have trouble distinguishing bullying behaviors from workplace violence and unprofessional behaviors, it is critical that training underscore the many ways bullies target their victims in the workplace. Unlike one misdirected and unprofessional comment, bullies perpetrate a pattern of coercive control, often isolating their targets, undermining their work and engaging in aggressive and humiliating behavior.

Bullies are often known to most in the company. They are the “elephants in the room” much like perpetrators of domestic violence. Like batterers, bullies minimise, deny, sidetrack and blame their targets, hoping to avoid accountability for their actions.

Training must separate managers from employees, and highlight the challenges and fears employees struggle with in reporting these kinds of behaviors.

3. Implement disciplinary action.

Hold bullies accountable for their behavior by consistently and fairly implementing appropriate disciplinary action. Not unlike a worker who has violated a company’s sexual harassment or workplace violence policy, employers must investigate all complaints related to mutual respect policy violations.

Depending on the nature of the behavior and/or impact on the target, employers must take swift action and discipline workplace bullies – up to and including termination, if necessary. Sometimes, a bully who is confronted with the possibility of disciplinary action, including the fact that his/her behavior has negatively impacted another employee, will take steps to alter his or her behavior. Progressive disciplinary action can be combined with remedial training in some cases.

Successfully identifying and putting in place strategies for dealing with workplace bullying takes a proactive management strategy and commitment and awareness from employees at every level of the organisation. However, the benefits of a successful approach are significant and far reaching.

Further reading

In Australia there is a wealth of information available to help employers identify, deal with and take steps to prevent workplace bullying including:

Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying by Safe Work Australia

Preventing and Managing Bullying at Work a Guide for Employers by ComCare

The Fair Work Commission website



This Better Workplace Bulletin was first published in April 2015