Bullying is harmful behaviour that is directed towards a person or group of people. It is repeated, unreasonable and unwelcome. Bullying can cause either physical or psychological harm.

Bullying within the workplace creates a risk to the health and safety of your workers. While no specific mention is made of bullying in health and safety legislation, the same legislation imposes a general duty on you to protect the health, safety and welfare of your workers.

Workplace bullying isn’t just confined to the physical workspace. Bullying can also occur online, particularly through email or social media, and at any time of the day or night.

There are two types of bullying that can occur in the workplace - direct and indirect bullying.

Direct bullying is behaviour that is overt and often involves direct steps or conduct to belittle or demean a person or a group of people. Examples include:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language;
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours;
  • behaviour or language that frightens, humiliates, belittles or degrades, including criticism delivered with yelling or screaming;
  • displaying offensive material, e.g. pornography;
  • making inappropriate comments about a person’s appearance, lifestyle or family;
  • teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes;
  • interfering with a person’s property or work equipment, e.g. hiding or defacing someone’s property; and
  • harmful or offensive initiation processes.

Indirect bullying is behaviour that often involves treatment that excludes or removes benefits from a person or group of people, including:

  • deliberately or maliciously overloading a person with work or not providing enough work;
  • unreasonably setting timelines that are difficult to achieve or constantly changing deadlines;
  • setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level;
  • deliberately excluding, isolating or marginalising a person from normal work activities, e.g. excluding a worker from meetings or functions that everyone else attends;
  • withholding information that is vital for effective work performance;
  • deliberately denying access to information, consultation or resources;
  • deliberately changing work arrangements such as rosters and leave to inconvenience a particular worker or workers; and
  • unfair treatment in relation to accessing workplace entitlements, e.g. leave or training.

A wide range of injuries and illnesses can result from bullying, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, stress, self-harm, eating disorders, and even suicide.

Other risks

There are other risks associated with bullying. Apart from creating a risk to health and safety, bullying can result in costs to your business through increased absenteeism and high staff turnover, both of which result in reduced productivity. Then there are the legal claims by employees for damages and costs.

You can face liability under the Fair Work Act in two ways - under the anti-bullying scheme and through an unfair dismissal claim.

A worker who believes they have been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for an order to stop the bullying.

Even though the anti-bullying scheme came into effect on 1 January 2014, the FWC has ruled that it can consider behaviour that occurred before that date when dealing with applications for orders to stop the conduct. This means that if bullying began in 2013, even though the laws weren’t in place then, the FWC can look at that past conduct in its decision.

Unfair dismissal

A bullying victim who resigns may be able to make an unfair dismissal claim on the basis that the resignation was actually a constructive dismissal. A constructive dismissal occurs when a worker is forced to resign. A resignation is not voluntary if it is due to the worker being bullied in the workplace.


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