Bullying: what it is and isn’t, and what you can do about it

Source: 14 Jan 2016 from WorkCover Queensland

As the forces of change and technological progress bear down on organisations, workplace bullying has become a sensitive and unpredictable issue for managers and staff to navigate.

Safe Work Australia data, for example, shows that the median cost of workplace bullying claims in Australia is around $20,900. And that’s not factoring in negative impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

However, what actually constitutes workplace bullying is often misunderstood.

What is bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

Repeated behaviour refers to the persistent nature of the behaviour and can involve a range of behaviours over time.

Unreasonable behaviour means behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable. This includes behaviour that victimises, humiliates, intimidates or threatens others.

A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered to be workplace bullying. However, it may have the potential to escalate without intervention and should not be ignored.

What isn’t bullying?

Reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way

It is reasonable for managers and supervisors to allocate work and to give fair and reasonable 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, taking the particular circumstances into account.

Discrimination and sexual harassment

Behaviour that involves discrimination and sexual harassment in employment is unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws.

Workplace conflict

Differences of opinion and disagreements are generally not considered to be workplace bullying. People can have differences and disagreements in the workplace without engaging in repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety. However, in some cases, conflict that is not managed may escalate to the point where it meets the definition of workplace bullying.

What if I’m being bullied?

Safe Work Australia has published Dealing with workplace bullying – a worker’s guide, which outlines how to seek advice and from whom, what you need to consider, and how to take the appropriate next steps if the behaviour does constitute bullying.

What if I witness bullying?

The Australian Human Rights Commission encourages people to be a supportive bystander if they witness bullying in any context. They suggest coping mechanisms including making it clear to colleagues that you won’t be involved in their bullying behaviour, and reporting the behaviour to the appropriate authority (e.g. your manager, human resources manager).

Employer obligations in dealing with bullying

Businesses have the primary duty of care to ensure, so far is reasonably practicable, that their workers are not exposed to health and safety risks. Workers also have a duty to take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others.

There are many resources that employers can use to help inform their approach to managing the risk of bullying in their workplace.

Safe Work Australia suggests preventative and responsive actions employers can take to manage the risk of workplace bullying:

Prevention Response
• Consult with workers and health and safety representatives (if any).

• Set the standard of workplace behaviour, e.g. through a code of conduct or workplace bullying policy.

• Design safe systems of work by clearly defining jobs and providing workers with the resources, information and training they need to carry out their work safely.

• Develop productive and respectful workplace relationships through good management practices and effective communication.

• Provide information, training and supervision.

• Review the effectiveness of actions taken to prevent workplace bullying.

• Implement workplace bullying reporting and response procedures.

• Respond to bullying reports quickly.

• Treat all reports seriously.

• Maintain confidentiality.

• Allow the parties to explain their version of events.

• Remain neutral and impartial towards everyone involved.

• Communicate the process for responding to reports and the outcomes to all involved parties.

• Provide support, e.g. employee assistance programs.

• Attempt to resolve the matter.

• Conduct a follow-up review.