Workplace bullying

What is workplace bullying?

  • Workplace bullying is repeated “unreasonable behaviour” directed towards an employee or a group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. Unreasonable behaviour is behaviour that a reasonable person having regard to all circumstances would expect to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten another employee.
  • Workplace bullying is often an abuse of power by someone who is stronger either physically, verbally, mentally, socially, electronically, politically or financially.
  • Instances of workplace bullying have the deliberate intent of causing physical and psychological distress to another and can include behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates the victim in front of co-workers, clients or customers.
  • Bullying can range from managers to workers (downward), a worker to co-workers (sideways) and workers to managers (upwards).
  • Indirect bullying is harder to recognise as it’s often carried out behind the employee and is designed to harm their reputation or cause humiliation, i.e. lying, spreading rumours, playing nasty jokes, teasing, name calling, insults, mimicking and encouraging others to socially exclude them.

The Bully Zero Australia Foundation offers workplaces the opportunity to engage in workplace bullying training and can develop an effective workplace bullying policy to ensure the organisation is reflecting its legal obligations.

Examples of workplace bullying?

Bullying in the workplace may include: 

  • Manipulation and intimidation, making the employee feel less important and  undervalued.
  • Performing abusive or offensive acts in front or behind their back.
  • Unreasonable criticism which is not part of the management performance process.
  • Verbal and physical abuse, shouting, making threats and isolation from colleagues.
  • Refusing to delegate or withholding information the employee needs to perform duties.
  • Making fun of an employee i.e. comment about their family, sexuality, gender identity, race, culture, education or economic background.
  • Deliberately changing work hours or schedules to make it difficult for an employee to function effectively at work.
  • Withholding information or tools required to perform role.
  • Initiation or Hazing – where an employee is made to do humiliating or inappropriate tasks in order to be accepted.
  • Intimidation.
  • Accusations regarding lack of effort, destructive innuendo and sarcasm.
  • Preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation.
  • Undue pressure and setting impossible deadlines.
  • Unnecessary deliberate disruptions.
  • Failure to acknowledge good work and destabilising/undermining behaviors (e.g. failure to give credit, setting people up to fail).
  • Allocation of meaningless tasks or removal of responsibility.
  • Repeated reminders of blunders and setting up an employee to fail.
  • Unjustified criticism or complaints.
  • Threats to disestablish or demote.
  • Inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement of rules.
  • Excessive, unjustified or unreasonable monitoring of tasks.

Workplace bullying definitions

  • Pair bullying – takes place with two employees, one can be active and verbal while the other is watching and listening.
  • Gang bullying or group bullying – gangs flourish in corporate bullying climates, often called mobbing and usually involve scapegoating and victimisation.
  • Vicarious bullying – two parties are encouraged to fight, typical “triangulation” where the aggression gets passed around.
  • Regulation bullying – a serial bully forces their target to comply with rules, regulations, procedures or laws regardless of their appropriateness, applicability or necessity.
  • Residual bullying – after the serial bully has left or asked to leave, the behaviour continues and could continue for months and even years.
  • Legal bullying – bringing of a vexatious legal action to control and punish a person – considered one of the nastiest forms of bullying.
  • Pressure/unwitting bullying – having to work to unrealistic time scales and or inadequate resources provided to complete task.
  • Corporate bullying – an employer abuses with impunity, knowing the law is weak and job market is soft.
  • Organisational bullying – a combination of pressure and corporate bullying occurs when an organization struggles to adapt to changing markets, reduced income, cuts in budgets,  imposed expectations and other extreme pressures.
  • Institutional bullying – entrenched and is accepted as part of the organisations culture, employees don’t challenge the hierarchy.
  • Unwitting bullying: includes bullying where stressful circumstances, stemming either from the workplace or from personal issues result in a deterioration of office behaviour.

Bullying does not include:

  • Occasional differences of opinion.
  • Non-aggressive conflicts.
  • Dissatisfaction or grievances with organisational and management practices.
  • Feeling upset or undervalued.
  • Managing under performance of employee and other actions in accordance with policies and procedures.
  • The employer has the right to delegate, monitor the flow, performance manage and provide feedback on work quality.
  • The employer is permitted to reprimand, transfer, demote, discipline, counsel, retrench or disestablish an employee as long as they are acting reasonably.
  • Reasonable management actions carried out in a fair way.
  • Setting performance goals and or management processes, enforcing standards, deadlines and providing feedback.
  • Informing an employee about unsatisfactory work performance or inappropriate behaviour, rostering and allocating working hours.
  • Occasional differences of opinion and non-aggressive conflicts and problems in working relationships.
  • Transferring an employee to another area with reason.
  • Deciding not to select an employee for promotion with reason.
  • Implementing organisational changes or downsizing.
  • Single instances of inappropriate behaviour is not bullying, however such behaviour should be treated with caution and reported as it could escalate.

Unfair dismissal

  • If an employee is dismissed due to reporting bullying they could make a claim for unfair dismissal seeking compensation or reinstatement.

Constructive dismissal

  • If an employee is forced to leave a workplace because the employer has failed to act on reports of bullying then there maybe a case for unlawful constructive dismissal.

Workplace bullying and discrimination law

  • Bullying could be unlawful under Federal and State anti-discrimination legislation where the bullying is linked to or based on the following attributes covered by various legislation.

It is unlawful if an employee is subjected to bullying because of the following attributes:

  • Race;
  • Sex;
  • Age;
  • Disability;
  • Impairment;
  • Pregnancy;
  • Religion;
  • Sexual orientation.

Federal Anti-Bullying Laws – Fair Work Commission (FWC)

  • From the 1 January 2014, the FWC has jurisdiction to deal with bullying complaints raised by employees and has the power to make an order for the bullying to stop.
  • Whilst provisions under the Fair Work Act 2009 do not create powers to make orders on reinstatement or compensation, there is now increased pressure and onus on organisations to be proactive about preventing workplace bullying and promptly dealing with any related complaints, in order to avoid intervention by the Commission.

For more information click on the link below:

What should an organisation do to ensure they are compliant?

  • Have adequate systems and training in place to manage bullying claims.
  • Have policies and procedures about bullying in the workplace including a social media policy.
  • Have Managers trained in effective management of employees to avoid claims,
  • Have staff trained in appropriate workplace behaviour including bullying and harassment.
  • Have satisfactory arrangements for investigating, monitoring, processing and implementing outcomes or complaints.
  • Conduct training for managers, supervisors and staff on bullying, harassment and discrimination issues.

Social Media

  • Social media has the capacity to be beneficial to the productivity and social cohesion of workplaces which can increase presence in the market place. Staff use social media as their primary form of communication in the competitive hunt for talent BUT some employees have made defamatory remarks, posted misleading and deceptive comments or behaved in a discriminatory manner.
  • Some organisations use social media for their advertising to facilitate the activities of working and social groups effectively.

Cyber Bullying

  • Cyber bullying at work involves the use of and sending of cruel or threatening messages via: emails, text messaging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Fango, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik Messenger, iMessage, Viber, blogging, instant messaging and Twittering.
  • Impacts of online bullying can be significant because of the potentially large size of the audience and the anonymity in which comments can be made.
  • Some employees have posted inflammatory and offensive content or bad mouthed their current of former organisation which can compromise the reputation of the organisation and their employment position and open litigation.
  • Organisations are now implementing web-filtering systems to protect their employees, which can provide the organisation with evidence enabling them to intervene early before cyber bullying escalates.
  • Some Australian organisations do provide devices that leave the boundaries of the workplace and thus have extended protection to wherever these devices are connected to wireless internet.

What can the employer do to protect its social media reputation?

  • Workplaces have the right to direct an employee to either remove or correct online comment/s, or information that is unauthorised and irrelevant to their organisation.
  • Disciplinary action could include termination of employment.
  • Developing a social media policy with employees and defining how the policy is relevant to their duties is paramount to make effective use of their social media.
  • Monitoring compliance and on-going training is fundamental if the policy is to be reflected in the day to day behaviour of employees and the employer.
  • Bully Zero Australia Foundation offers workplaces the opportunity to engage in workplace bullying training and can develop an effective workplace bullying policy to ensure the organisation is reflecting its legal obligations.

Why don’t people report bullying?

  • Can’t be bothered with the paperwork and red tape, including the written formal complaint.
  • Fear of retribution.
  • Doubt that the problem can be solved, perceive nothing will be done and thus the behaviour continues to be unaddressed.
  • Fear of being regarded as weak or a failure.
  • Not being able to deal with it alone.
  • Management and staff will label the employee as nuisance.
  • Reporting may negatively affect career and impact on advancement or promotion.
  • Belief that the behaviour is a normal part of work culture.

Why does workplace bullying occur?

  • Personality clash, mood swings, robust or macho management including autocratic management/leadership styles.
  • Unreasonable or aggressive behaviour.
  • Excessive workload.
  • Organisational culture and or internal changes including budget cuts or restructuring.
  • Employees without relevant skills being moved into management.
  • Poor understanding of legal obligations including rights of employees and the consequences of bullying or a lack of awareness related to intervention and management.
  • Implicit or explicit endorsement of the behaviour.
  • Ineffective management and poor understanding of appropriate behaviour by leaders.
  • Inadequate policies.

Workplace bullying policy

Bully Zero Australia Foundation can visit your workplace to develop a workplace bullying policy including a social media policy.

Employees are less likely to report bullying if they:

  • Don’t recognise it.
  • Lack knowledge about bullying behaviours and their affects.
  • Unsure about procedure.
  • Don’t know where to seek support.
  • Fear retribution from the bully or bullies including losing employment.
  • Feel intimidated or embarrassed.
  • Believe bullying is part of the workplace culture and feel nothing will change.
  • Opportunities for promotion in the organisation may be affected.

Impact of bullying on employee include:

  • Severe psychological distress and mistrust in others.
  • Sleep disturbances and feelings of anxiety.
  • Physical symptoms i.e. stomach/back/head-aches, depression, sleep problems and general ill-health.
  • Medical expenses.
  • Incapacity to work, absenteeism or presenteeism.
  • Life outside work affected, e.g. study, family or personal relationships.
  • Reduced output and performance.
  • Loss of self-confidence/esteem, low morale – feel rejected or unable to trust others.
  • Damage to career, health and peace of mind.
  • Psychological, emotional problems and/or suicidal thoughts.

Effect of bullying on the organisation:

  • Lower workplace productivity, disruption and low efficiency.
  • Increased absenteeism, presenteeism, sick leave, high staff turnover and stress for all affected by situation.
  • Increase in recruitment and induction costs, down time as replacement workers are trained in new position/s.
  • Effort managing disciplinary and counselling activities.
  • Direct cost of dealing with complaints.
  • Costs associated with legal action and potential litigation.
  • Stress related costs via workers compensation with resultant increases in insurance premiums and or rehabilitation costs.
  • Staff turnover, it is estimated that bullying is responsible for 1 in 4 resignations in Australia.
  • Lack of motivation/confidence, low morale and self-esteem of employees.
  • Reduced performance and deteriorating relationships.
  • Legal costs including rehabilitation, workers compensation claims, counselling and an increase in insurance premiums.
  • Suicide, it is estimated that 1 in 100 workplace victims either attempt or succeed in suicide.
  • Corporate growth, damage to reputation, brand and image.
  • Results of poor organisational culture can be seen in staff effectiveness and in a stagnation of ideas as employees don’t have the confidence to raise new thoughts which impacts on the retention and hiring of good people.

Responsibilities of Managers and Supervisors

  • Supervisors and Managers are responsible for taking early corrective action to deal with behaviour that could be viewed as bullying, harassment, offensive or intimidating.
  • Managers should intervene in issues as they observe or if they are requested to intervene by a member of their team. Such actions should be recorded.
  • Prevention of bullying and inappropriate behaviour requires managers to:
  • Be aware of, identify and prevent bullying in their workplace and eliminate inappropriate behaviour.
  • Encourage staff to behave in accordance with the principles of equal opportunity.
  • Provide leadership and role modelling in relation to appropriate and professional behaviour.
  • Respond promptly, sensitively and confidentially to situations where inappropriate behaviour is exhibited or alleged to occur, has happened or may happen in the future.
  • Manager must be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of bullying and harassment, monitor and supervise the workplace, (they should conduct regular audits in areas where bullying could occur).
  • In any enterprise, its principals and staff are personally liable for bullying, however the onus is on the Employer and Manager/s to ensure unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated and if detected the employer and manager/s must act to stop it.

Employer responsibility

  • Employers have a legal obligation and a legal responsibility under respective Commonwealth and State OH&S laws to provide a safe and bully free workplace.
  • Employers have a duty of care and this duty cannot be delegated.
  • Employers must take reasonable actions to prevent bullying and respond to any complaint immediately, this includes acting on bullying issues, implementing policies and procedures, training staff and keeping abreast with changes in state and federal laws.
  • The employer must ensure employees are aware of their rights and should monitor and review their policy at regular staff/safety meetings and the aim should be to check that prevention measures are working and implement these if required.
  • They should deal with bullying as soon as they are aware there is a problem and ensure they have created an environment that not only refuses to condone workplace bullying but also has appropriate reporting practices in place.
  • It’s not enough for an employer to establish a safe system of work – they must maintain the system and ensure it complies with Federal or State laws.

Employee responsibilities

  • An employee, while at work, must take reasonable care for his or her own health and safety and for the health and safety of anyone else who may be affected by his or her acts or omissions in the workplace.
  • An employee must not intentionally or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the workplace in the interest of health, safety and welfare.

Employees have a duty of care which cannot be delegated and they have the right to refuse work should they believe they’re in immediate danger or risk of injury and in such cases the employee can:

  • See a Doctor to gain a work cover medical certificate.
  • Contact their HR/organisational development Department.
  • Contact the Union.
  • Gain legal advice.
  • Contact their respective state Work Safe Department.
  • Equal opportunity and Human rights Commission.
  • Bully Zero Australia Foundation.
  • Private Lawyer (Nowicki Carbone Lawyers).
  • Fair Work Commission (FWC).

Prevention of bullying requires employees to be responsible

Employees should:

  • Be aware of and identify bullying behaviour and where appropriate utilise the organisations services or external mechanisms to stop it escalating.
  • Behave in accordance with the principles of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination.
  • If bullying behaviour is witnessed or experienced the employee should speak with the alleged bully to object to the behaviour, bystanders in the workplace also have a responsibility to take action.
  • Offer to act as a witness if the person being bullied decides to report the Incident.

Responsibility of bystanders

  • Co-workers that witness workplace bullying could suffer from negative effects, such as fear, stress and emotional exhaustion as a result of a colleague being bullied.
  • In some instances those that have witnessed  repetitive workplace bullying have chosen to leave their respective workplaces.
  • Bullying can hinder organisational dynamics such as group cohesion, peer communication and overall performance.
  • If an employee directly observes bullying behaviour they should report it.
  • Early intervention approach is the best strategy where an individual takes responsibility to take action on behalf of others.
  • Employees have a moral responsibility to help create a positive and safe workplace.
  • The employee can inform the victim about the steps they could take to resolve the behaviour.

What can you do if you are bullied?

Address the situation early.

  • Approach the perpetrator.
  • Keep a diary.
  • Modify behaviour.
  • Make sure you’re informed.
  • Mediation.
  • Review.
  • Speak to your OH&S representative.
  • Contact your union.
  • Gain information and advice.
  • Contact with the employee assistance program (EAP) – should be made which offers confidential support and assistance.

Note: Formal investigations should only be used for serious allegations

The Bully Zero Australia Foundation offers workplaces the opportunity to engage in workplace bullying training and can develop an effective workplace bullying policy to ensure the organisation is reflecting its legal obligations.

Who to contact?

  • Bully Zero Australia Foundation: 1800 0 BULLY (28559) Or (03) 9094 3718.
  • Relevant state Work Safe body.
  • Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
  • Fair Work Commission.
  • Fair Work Ombudsman.
  • Australian Human Rights Commission.
  • Work cover advisory service.
  • Federal privacy commissioner.