BeyondBlue research in 2016 suggested that around 40% of Australians will be subject to workplace bullying at some stage in their career. While the facts of each scenario are different and the individuals involved react differently, its critical businesses understand their legal requirements in this area.

There are a number of national laws and state/territory health bodes that all work together to eliminate workplace bullying as well as support employees who may find themselves the recipient of unwanted behaviour. Businesses who are proactive and commit to providing a supportive and inclusive work environment can reduce potential actions being taken against them for bullying.


What is the definition of workplace bullying?

Bullying at work is defined as behaviour where an individual or group of people (on repeated occasions) act unreasonably towards another individual or group of people.

The Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 defines workplace bullying as repeated unreasonable behaviour towards a worker which creates a risk to health and safety.

The term “unreasonable behaviour” is rather broad in context and can range from the perpetrator acting in a way that is intimidating, humiliating or threatening.  Most common forms of bullying include teasing, practical jokes, being aggressive or purposely excluding someone from work-related events. Some instances of bullying are easier to identify than others, less overt types of bullying can include coercion or pressuring someone to do something they don’t want to do or purposely withholding information.


What is bullying behaviour?


As mentioned, its often easy to identify clear outward signs of workplace bullying such as name calling, aggression and physically touching someone.

Other things to be aware of that may be considered workplace bullying are:

  • Playing mind games and psychological harassment
  • Giving employees pointless tasks that have nothing to do with their job
  • Giving employees impossible tasks
  • Deliberately withholding information that an employee needs to do their job


It’s important to note that these types of bullying events can, and often, occur without any outward sign of aggression but are intended by the perpetrator to hurt, humiliate or intimidate.

In extreme cases, workplace bullying can also be a criminal offence and, the offender can be prosecuted if physical harm or damage to property occurs.

Workplace bullying can also include psychological harassment

Workplace bullying can also include psychological harassment


Where and who is protected by anti-bullying laws?

The national anti-bullying laws as well as protecting permanent employees supports students, contractors, subcontractors and volunteers.

Employers have a legal responsibly under the Occupational Health and Safety Act as well as anti-discrimination laws to provide a safe workplace. Failure to provide a safe workplace for all can mean employers too can be held responsible for the actions of their employees.



When is bullying not bullying?

In some instances, managers need to provide negative feedback to a staff member.  In and of itself, this would not be bullying and while these conversations are not easy to have, so long as these are handled with sensitivity and remain based on facts as to the employee’s performance then it wouldn’t constitute bullying.  Allowing the employee to have a representative at these meetings can help mitigate the situation from escalating.

One-off incidents – however inappropriate they are at the time – would also not be considered bullying, for example, someone loses their temper.



Having Policies in place is the best mitigant

It’s critical all business have policies in place that support a fair and equitable workplace. Policies and procedures have the effect of establishing how you expect your employees to behave but it also provides a mechanism to deal with any complaints should they arise.

Employers should encourage staff to report all instances of inappropriate behaviour (regardless of whether it is technically bullying or not) so that proactive measures can be taken to make it a safe workplace for all.

Without adequate procedures and policies in place – any claim against an organisation for bullying could end up costing more than you think.


* This blog is for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to any specific issues.