Bully for you? No way! Reducing the risk of bullying

Bullying. It doesn’t just happen in the school playground. It’s rife in workplaces across Australia. So what can you do to reduce the risk of bullying in your workplace?

Employers are obliged to take reasonably practicable steps to manage health and safety risks in their workplace – and bullying is one of those risks.

The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) was amended in 2014 to introduce anti-bullying measures. In the years since then, the government has continued to refine these laws to allow workers who reasonably believe they have been bullied at work to make an application to the Fair Work Commission to intervene.

Today, employers may be liable for workplace bullying under a range of laws including workplace health and safety legislation, discrimination laws and workers’ compensation provisions.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. Unreasonable behaviour includes acts that victimise, bully, intimidate or threaten workers.

It’s important to note that bullying doesn’t include reasonable management action, including performance management conducted in a reasonable manner. Further, a single incident of unreasonable behaviour isn’t workplace bullying (though such incidents should not be ignored as they may escalate or be repeated).

Examples of behaviour (when repeated) that may be considered to be workplace bullying include:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
  • aggressive and intimidating conduct
  • belittling or humiliating comments
  • victimisation
  • practical jokes or initiation
  • unjustified criticism or complaints
  • deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities
  • withholding information that’s vital for effective workplace performance
  • setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  • assigning tasks that are unreasonably below or above skill level
  • detrimentally denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
  • changing work arrangements such as rosters and leave to cause deliberate inconvenience.

How can workplace bullying occur?

Workplace bullying can be carried out in a variety of ways, including verbal or physical abuse, email, text messages, online chat rooms, direct messaging and social media channels. In some cases, it can continue outside the workplace.

Workplace bullying can be directed at a single worker or a group of workers, and can be carried out by one or more workers. It can occur:

  • sideways between workers
  • downwards from supervisors and managers to workers
  • upwards from workers to supervisors and managers.

It can also be directed at or perpetrated by others at the workplace such as clients, contractors, customers and members of the public.

What are the employer’s obligations?

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that health and safety risks in the work environment are minimised or eliminated as much as possible.

Further, bullying laws give the Fair Work Commission the right to interfere with an employer’s ability to conduct business in a lawful and reasonable way, including the right to performance manage employees.

What happens if a worker makes a bullying claim?

Where a worker has a reasonable belief that they’ve been bullied, they may lodge an application with the Fair Work Commission to have the bullying cease. Once a claim has been made, the Commission must start to deal with the matter within 14 days.

As part of the process, the Commission will hold a compulsory conciliation conference between the worker who lodged the claim and the organisation and/or workers allegedly engaged in bullying. This conference is intended to resolve the dispute.

If the dispute is not resolved as a result of conciliation, the Commission will set the matter down for a formal hearing where they’ll ultimately make a binding decision.

Orders the Commission can make against individuals include:

  • not to contact each other
  • not to attend certain premises
  • not to deliberately or unreasonably delay the performance of work.

The Commission can also make orders against an organisation including:

  • that the organisation provide anti-bullying training to all workers
  • that the employer monitor all behaviour
  • that the employer develop or amend current policies and procedures
  • that there is compliance with the employer’s bullying policy
  • that the business review its relevant management systems.

The Fair Work Commission can make any order it considers appropriate to stop the bullying. While the Commission can’t make an order for the payment of money to the individual, they can recommend the courts impose penalties where orders are not complied with.

Risks to employers include the cost of defending a claim and the potential for reputational damage when the decision is published by the Commission.

What should you do?

Workplace bullying can be minimised by taking a proactive approach, including:

  • early identification of unreasonable behaviours and situations that, if repeated, are likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying
  • implementing, monitoring and reviewing control measures to manage the risk of workplace bullying.

One way to control the risk of bullying is to ensure you have a policy setting out the standards of behaviour expected in the workplace, as well as procedures for dealing with grievances arising from alleged breaches of the policy.

When responding to a bullying allegation, you should act quickly, impartially and in a fair manner in accordance with your workplace bullying policy. Complaints should be treated seriously and confidentially throughout the grievance process.

Bullying policy

If you want to develop a new bullying policy or would like to review an existing policy, login to the People Management System. Go to the ‘REEF Library’ tab and click on ‘Policy Templates’.

The Discrimination, Harrassment & Workplace Bullying Policy has been developed with your needs in mind and will contribute to your workplace values.


If you’re looking for help with a bullying claim, give REEF a call on 1300 616 170. Our Workplace Relations Advisors are on hand to answer your questions.